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Government shutdown turning Medora into ghost town

Little Missouri Saloon and Dining Room manager Melinda Kuntz makes a Bloody Mary for a customer Friday afternoon. Kuntz said Medora has been a "ghost town" ever since the partial government shutdown dictated the closing of Theodore Roosevelt National Park this beginning Oct. 1.

MEDORA -- Following a surge in recent days, it doesn't appear the partial government shutdown will have any type of lasting effect on Wall Street.

Main Street, however, has been feeling some financial pain from the shutdown, which began Oct. 1, especially in pockets of the Western U.S. that depend on tourism dollars from destinations like national parks.

In North Dakota, the closing of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the state's only such destination, has been a main contributing factor toward the slowing of business in Medora to a near stand-still, said Little Missouri Saloon and Dining Room manager Melinda Kuntz.

"It's affecting business a lot because people are coming into town to see the park," Kuntz said. "People want to walk through the park, hike through it or ride their horse through it and, as soon as they find out the park is closed, they leave and don't spend any time in Medora at all."

Though it isn't the busy summer tourist season any longer, Kuntz said the month of October still usually attracts a fair number of visitors to town. At about 1:30 p.m. on Friday, however, the saloon and restaurant received its first two customers.

"It's very much a ghost town now," said Kuntz while making a Bloody Mary for a patron. "In the afternoons, we're lucky to have three tables in the bar and restaurant. This time of year is when a lot of the older people will come through here as they travel out West or head back home. Usually, we wouldn't close until 1 a.m., but we're closing at 11 p.m. because there's nobody in town."

This week, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to allow states to pay out of their own coffers to operate some national parks closed by the shutdown. As of Friday afternoon, governors in a handful of states expressed interest in doing so, but Gov. Jack Dalrymple's spokesman, Jeff Zent, said no plans were in the works for North Dakota to follow suit, though Zent said he wouldn't completely rule it out.

"The governor has not made any request," said Zent on Friday. "That's not to say it couldn't happen, but there are a lot of unanswered questions that would have to be answered. That isn't something the legislature budgeted for, which doesn't mean it would be impossible, but nothing has been requested at this time."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, on Thursday signed an agreement with the DOI to use state funds to reopen and operate eight national parks in his state for 10 days, according to multiple national reports Friday.

Locally, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Chief Operating Officer Mike Beaudoin said there are still plenty of reasons to come to Medora, even with the national park being closed, but that the Western-themed tourist town has felt the squeeze from less people visiting.

"There have certainly been some cancellations and the sheer number of people visiting Medora has been down since the shutdown," Beaudoin said. "But there is still activity in and around Medora. We call the seasons before and after summer our 'shoulder seasons' and we've had less people this month, but we still have a lot of local who frequent Medora and a good following in Dickinson."

Though Friday's rainy, windy conditions were anything but good for golf, Beaudoin pointed to a nine-year high this season for rounds played at Bully Pulpit Golf Course (17,000, he said) and added a number of shops around Medora remain open.

Ironically just back from a trip to Washington, D.C., which is ground zero for the government shutdown battle and debate, Medora Mayor Doug Ellison stated in an email Friday that it is difficult to measure exactly how much of an effect the park closing has had on town businesses.

"It's hard to say in solid numbers, but I'm sure it is reducing visitation substantially for this time of year," Ellison said. "It is important to note, however, that people can still enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the Badlands along the Little Missouri River roads and through a number of Medora businesses, which remain open year-round."

Kuntz said the ownership of the Little Missouri -- which also owns the AmericInn in Medora -- has had a noticeable loss of business since the shutdown. Beaudoin said he was told by one hotel operator in Medora that close to 30 rooms had been cancelled this month.

"A lot of places in town are going to shut down earlier than usual because of this," Kuntz said. "We've had a lot of people from places like New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania that have come here not knowing the park was closed. They're disappointed and a little upset. If you sit and talk with people, you'll find they are frustrated with the situation because they've taken time off work and they've been planning trips. I don't think the (politicians) realize what an impact this is having on small towns."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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