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January 1, 2014

Rim fire, federal shutdown, dry winter choke Tuolumne tourism

It’s been a tough year for tourism-dependent Tuolumne County. First there was the Rim fire; then the federal government shutdown, which closed Yosemite; and now the possibility of a dry winter, which will hurt winter sports and hotel and cabin rentals. But business owners are trying to make the best of a bad year.

It’s been a tough year for tourism-dependent Tuolumne County.

First there was the Rim fire, which started Aug. 17 near Groveland and consumed more than 257,314 acres of forestland before it was contained in October, making it California’s fifth-biggest wildfire in history.

Then came the 16-day federal government shutdown in October, which resulted in the closure of Yosemite National Park and was another blow for Groveland, which sits along Highway 120 on the way to the park.

The shutdown also shuttered Pinecrest Lake Resort, which is about 30 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108. Pinecrest already had been reeling from the Rim fire, which sent ashes and choking smoke to the resort, causing visitors to cancel their campground and cabin reservations or day trips.

“This has been quite the challenging year,” said Peggy Mosely, who with her family has owned the 17-room Groveland Hotel for 23 years.

Hotel operators were hard pressed to explain to international guests why they could not visit Yosemite during the government shutdown.

“They understand fire and nature,” said Christopher Link, general manager of the 101-room Best Western Sonora Oaks and Conference Center. “But they were so upset about the shutdown.”

‘You have to be optimistic’

Now the county is dealing with the prospect of a dry winter, which could mean fewer winter sports and bookings of hotel rooms and cabins. The Dodge Ridge Ski Area – which is near Pinecrest – has yet to open. It does not have snow-making machines.

But Dodge Ridge spokesman Jeff Hauff said the weather can change on a dime and there still are a few months left in the skiing season. He added that there are signs the weather patterns are changing and a high-pressure system that has blocked storms from hitting the state is beginning to break down.

“You have to be optimistic,” said Lance Vetesy, who owns Leland High Sierra Snow Play, where visitors can go downhill sledding and tubing. “You have to be to be in this business. A pessimist would go insane in this business.”

Vetesy was able to open Dec. 14 this year after a storm dumped about 2 feet of snow at his snow park, which sits at about 6,200 feet elevation about 40 miles east of Sonora. But the snow was dry and compacted to about 8 inches when people stepped on it.

So Vetesy used two snowcats to gather up the snow in the nearby woods and had it loaded into a dump truck for spreading along the snow park’s two tow lines and other areas. That allowed Vetesy to have two good weeks of business. But crowds have started to dwindle in the past couple of days as the snow has receded. Still, Tuesday’s visitors had a good time.

“They were very excited,” said Tracy resident Satish Navaneethan, about his parents’ first visit to snow. “They are from southern India, and they came to visit us.”

Still, Navaneethan wishes Dodge Ridge were open. He goes with a group of skiers most Saturdays during the ski season. He said they each spend $100 at a minimum for lift tickets, gas, meals and other purchases.

“I love Dodge,” he said. “Dodge is a day trip I can do.”

Visitors spend $200M annually

Tourism is big business for the county.

Visitors spend more than $200 million annually, according to the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau. It’s the No. 1 private industry in this county of roughly 54,000 residents, with 2,170 employees as of about a year ago.

Tuolumne County expects to receive $500,000 less in sales and hotel taxes for the balance of its fiscal year, which ends June 30, because of the Rim fire and government shutdown. The county has wide latitude in how it spends money from those taxes.

“A half-million dollars in discretionary funding is significant for a small county,” Deputy County Administrator Tracie Riggs said.

But businesses have been resourceful as they adapt to the triple whammy of fire, a government shutdown and a dry winter.

Mosely said Groveland-area businesses and chambers of commerce are promoting what they expect will be a spectacular profusion of wildflowers this spring in the wake of the Rim fire.

“That’s what we are looking for in the springtime,” she said, adding that the promotion is being called “wildfires to wildflowers.” “We are getting the word out. We are getting that out to the world.”

Mosely said businesses also are getting the message out that the Rim fire is providing visitors with unique vistas and the opportunity to see nature restore itself.

Vetesy said he and his wife – who have owned the snow park for 23 years – are considering selling their home to help pay for a snow-making machine for next season.

Bret Rimmer operates the tow lines at Leland High Sierra Snow Play, and owns and operates the bicycle rental concession at Pinecrest. He had a bad summer at Pinecrest, renting fewer bicycles, wagons for campers to haul their gear and baby strollers because of the fire and shutdown.

But he has some ideas for next season: three pedicabs for visitors, which would help ease congestion at the crowded lake, and transporting mountain bikers to trailheads.

“We are not going to give up,” he said. “We are going to keep trying. ... That’s the Tuolumne County way.”

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