River affects economy
High water tough on local economy, but
as river goes down, business should pick up
By Ted Pennekamp
Each year for a Mississippi River town is different. Some years the weather and the river cooperate and it’s a boon to the local economy. Other years, the river runs high for an extensive period and the local economy suffers.
So far in 2014, it’s been rough, but the good news is that the river has been going down and, hopefully, business will pick up for the rest of the year. On Monday, July 14, the river stage at McGregor was 14.1 feet. The National Weather Service predicts that it will be down to 12 feet by July 21.
“It has cost our motel quite a bit of money,” said Windy Mezera, the owner of the Delta Motel in Prairie du Chien, one of numerous businesses affected by the high water since spring. “We are a favorite of fishermen because we are set up for what they need,” Mezera continued. “But we’ve had three fishing groups cancel so far because of canceled or postponed fishing tournaments.” Mezera noted that the Delta Motel had 15 rooms (two anglers per room) booked for two to three nights because of a tournament that was to have been held this past weekend. The tournament was postponed and all of the room reservations were canceled. “We lost $2,500 in one weekend,” said Mezera, who estimated that the motel has lost approximately $10,000 because of three canceled tournaments. By the time the room reservations were canceled, it was too late to fill the rooms with other guests. Numerous potential guests had previously been turned away because the motel had been booked solid leading up to those tournaments.
Other motels and numerous businesses in Prairie du Chien have also been affected by canceled or postponed tournaments, as well as a lack of visiting recreational anglers and boaters this season.
“People come to town for the river,” said Mezera. “It’s been unbelievably hard.”
“Prairie du Chien is a destination which depends upon outdoor activities, the weather and the river,” said Prairie du Chien Tourism Coodinator Patti Wacker. “It (the high water) can be devastating.”
Virtually all visitors spend money on lodging, food, gas, beverages and entertainment (including, but not limited to, river boat tours, house boat rentals, marina use and the like). In looking on the bright side, Wacker noted that when the river is good, everyone prospers. “We need to make hay when the sun shines,” she said.
“When the water is high, all businesses hurt,” said Dawn Albright, the manager of the Winneshiek Bar and Marina on County K north of Prairie du Chien. “If there’s no boaters, there’s a lot less business for the town.”
Albright said that the Winneshiek has been busy this season but not because of boating customers. She noted that there have been plenty of customers arriving by cars and motorcycles. Boat slips are available, however, and “over-nighter” boats have been way down this season. Albright said that the Winneshiek was busy this past Fourth of July weekend, but not nearly as much as it usually is on the biggest boating weekend of the year. “We have standing room only on a normal Fourth of July,” she said. The sale of gas for boats has also been down quite a bit so far this season, said Albright, who noted that, hopefully, as the river continues to go down, the local economy will go up.
Another resident who shares Albright’s sentiment about the river going down and the local economy going up is Prairie du Chien City Administrator Aaron Kramer, who noted that the high water has affected revenues for the city.
“Obviously it has been very frustrating for the boaters all along the Mississippi River. Our mid-year (boat launch fee) revenue is down about 14 percent from this point last year and about 30 percent from mid-2012, which was the best year in terms of boat launch revenue in recent memory,” said Kramer. “While this has no impact on the general fund, since the boat launch fees are kept in a separate account, it does put the time frame for doing additional improvements, such as the Villa Louis boat landing, into a more uncertain condition. We had hoped we could do some major improvements in 2015 or 2016, but that may have to be pushed out to a later year. As of June 30, the Boat Launch Fund had $82,189, and we would likely need more funds than that to do some significant improvements. Additionally, we made some significant improvements to the Washington Park and Campion Boat Landing areas, and the high water is preventing people from enjoying them.”
As of June 30, 2014, boat launch fees have totalled $17,574. By June 30 in 2013, the fees were $20,408 and the fund was at $39,473 by the end of the year. In 2012, the fees were $25,175 by June 30 and $43,324 at the end.
“Another view of the impact of the weather would be to take a look at the room tax revenue,” said Kramer. “As of June 30, we were running about 3 percent ahead of the pace of 2013. Unfortunately, room tax revenue is hard to gauge. In 2012, we saw considerable room tax revenue, mainly due, I think, to the wonderful spring weather that year. In fact, at the midway point of 2012, we were running about 50 percent ahead of the mid-year total for 2011, but, by the end of the year, 2011 saw more revenue collected than 2012.”
Room tax revenue as of June 30, 2014 was $76,924. By June 30 of 2013, it was $74,815. By the end of 2013, it was $262,497. By June 30 of 2012, it was $96,228. At the end of 2012, it was $276,828. By June 30, 2011, the room tax revenue was $64,433. At the end of 2011, it had grown to $280,211.
“Room tax is dependent on weather, but with the number of late summer and fall events that are scheduled this year, such as Country on The River, the Carriage Classic and the Blues Fest, it is simply too soon to quantify what impact the weather in the first half of 2014 will have on the overall room tax revenue,” said Kramer. “The Tourism Council has made a very proactive effort this year to expand the advertising, such as placing television ads in new markets such as the Milwaukee Brewer broadcasts and, later this fall, ads on the Green Bay Packer Radio Network, and I am already hearing from business owners that there has been some direct positive results of that advertising. The bottom line is we need to continue to get that message out that Prairie du Chien and the surrounding area has quite a bit of things to offer a visitor who wants to make a weekend of it here.”