When the river hits the road: Tourism hurt by floods, even where it was dry | St. Louis Public Radio

When the river hits the road: Tourism hurt by floods, even where it was dry

Jul 25, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 29, 2008- The Loading Dock Bar and Grill in Grafton, Ill., is all concrete and steel. Utilities hover above, the walls are really garage doors, and the view brings customers from far and near to sit and sip where the Mississippi and Illinois rivers meet.

It's also a symbol of lessons learned.

The Great Rivers National Scenic Byway is open for business.
Credit Courtesy, Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau

June's flood waters pushed two feet of water into the Loading Dock. But owner Betsy Puent knew the water was coming at least a week in advance, accepted it, rolled everything out and prepared for the cleanup.

And like many businesses and towns that experienced 1993's flood, Puent was ready this time -- with concrete floors that make power washing easy, utilities up high, equipment on wheels and an acceptance that life in a river town sometimes means flooding.

"We sort of have it down," Puent says.

Still, tourism in many areas suffered a three-week standstill during peak season because of the flood waters.

And this summer, not just flooding, but proximity to June's flood and misinformation damaged some areas worse than the water ever did.

WATERLOGGED IN GRAFTON

The Loading Dock opened in 1992. The next year, eight feet of water filled the new business in an old machine shop, and the season was lost. In 1999, a fire destroyed the building, so when it came time to rebuild, Puent was thinking about future flooding.

Actually, the whole city was after 1993, says Puent, also an alderman.

But the three weeks of lost business from mid June into July hurt. The Loading Dock had a 25 percent drop in business from the same period last year, Puent says. The Grafton Ferry was closed for a month while the landings sat under water. They also had a 25 percent loss, according to co-owner Pete Tully.

Grafton is estimated to have a 30 percent loss in business for establishments that were closed completely, according to Suzanne Halbrook, public relations director with the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Grafton Ferry Trips resumed July 2Credit Provided | Beacon archivesEdit | Remove

But last weekend, people were back and business was where it should be, at least at the Loading Dock. A few new businesses -- Keller's Too, a restaurant and bar, and Dos Rios, a Mexican restaurant, are expected to stay closed, according to Halbrook.

Puent thinks they didn't really know what to expect.

Elsewhere in Grafton, even where water didn't take over, businesses were also affected.

"Even the ones that were not flooded, they were isolated because it was very difficult to get to Grafton," Puent says. "The road was closed, the ferry was closed. You couldn't get to the businesses."

Tara Point Inn and Cottages in Grafton was one of those businesses. Though the inn had no flooding, it closed for 10 days because the roads were shut down. In June and July, it had 100 more empty rooms compared with the same time last year, says manager Laura Lester.  

The Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center had to post flood directions on their Web site. And business at the restaurant and winery suffered a little, even though the lodge stayed dry. But otherwise business fared well, says Julie Lochmann, director of sales.

For businesses that didn't do so well, money lost from the season will be impossible to recover, Tully says.

Fall in Grafton brings in the most tourists, Lester says, but the Tara Point Inn won't be able to recover either because they're usually booked any way that time of year. The Loading Dock is also usually busy but might push its season into November to try and make back a little of what was lost. 

The Grafton Ferry will do the same, Tully says, keeping the ferry running until the end of November instead of the beginning. 

"We just have to get the most of what we have left."

DRY BUT QUIET IN ALTON AND HANNIBAL

Water crept into businesses on 3rd Street in Alton. It poured over the intersection of State Street and Route 100.

The Mark Twain home never closed.
Credit Courtesy, Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

But the flooding was nothing like in Grafton.

"There wasn't any business that closed in Alton during that flood," says Halbrook.

In Hannibal, Mo., the levee held and most of the historic downtown stayed dry.

But both areas have seen a drop in tourism because people think they were flooded.

After 1993's flood, businesses took between three and four years to recover and to let the public know they were open, Halbrook says.

"And those were businesses that the water never even touched."

In Hannibal, the Mark Twain Riverboat was one of the only tourist attractions to shut down. It reopened July 3 and estimates business is down by at least 15 percent compared with the same time last year, according to Steve Terry, captain and owner.

Business at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is also down about 15 percent compared with last year, says Megan Rapp, manager of marketing and community relations.

In Clarksville, Mo., it's looking even worse.  Sandbags are still around, and because of road closings, many businesses suffered. The Bent Tree Gallery was closed for three weeks due to closed roads, and Stacy Whitt, manager, figures they're down between 30 and 40 percent compared with last year.

Village of the Blue Rose, a bed and breakfast and restaurant in Clarksville, is down by 37 percent, says Susan Stroot, office manager.But many businesses seem to be rebounding.

The Jumping Frog Cafe in Hannibal saw a dip in business for a few days, especially after a report on CNN mentioned Hannibal, but in general, owner Tracey Lake says things are pretty good.

The same is true at the Beall Mansion, a bed and breakfast in Alton.

"Our bookings are running a little bit down from last year, but not terribly," says Jim Belote who owns the business with his wife.

MUCH ADO ABOUT FLOODING

Along with putting money into cleanup, many businesses are putting money into advertising and promotions to get people back.

Tully, with the Grafton Ferry, offered regulars free rides for a few days to build up goodwill and tolerance for when things aren't going well. They've also advertised.

The Alton CVB is doing the same, letting people know businesses are open and that flooding is nothing new here.

Hannibal's Convention and Visitors Bureau put a web cam on its home page so people could see for themselves that no flooding hit downtown. And the visitors bureau's executive director has done lots of interviews with national media, repeating that Hannibal is dry.

The Garth Woodside Mansion in Hannibal is trying to make the most of high gas prices, stressing on its website that Missouri prices are cheaper than elsewhere around the country. It might be working.

"Actually, we've been quite busy at the mansion," says owner Julie Rolsen. Business has increased by 17 percent from this time last year, with people coming from Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana.

Where ever they come from, tourists will find that business were prepared for the flood, Puent says, and life is getting back to normal along the rivers.

"You have to take the good with the bad," she says. "My business wouldn't be as successful if the river wasn't right there."

Kristen Hare is a free-lance writer in Lake St. Louis.