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Monday, June 9, 2008

Are high gas prices a good thing for Walworth County's economy?

By Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

With gas prices at just under $4 a gallon, everyone is feeling the pain. People are changing how they manage their daily routine to minimize the movement of their gas tank's needle.

That goes for vacation planning too.

With Walworth County's tourism industry accounting for $436 million 2007, are these record high gas prices going to be good or bad for Walworth County economically?

Terry Mayer/The Week
Traffic into downtown Lake Geneva is expected to be heavy this summer. Despite the record high gas prices, area businesses are optimistic that tourist economic impact will be comparable to the $436 million spent in 2007.
It's going to be great, according to Kathleen Seeberg, executive director of the Walworth County Tourism Council.

"It's already been proven that because of these gas prices, people are staying closer to home this year," Seeberg said. "And because we're in the center of four metropolitan areas of Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Rockford ... we're in a good place."

Bigger tourist attractions like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park are expecting a tough season because most of their tourists comes from far distances.

"At first we were a little worried, but as it's worked out we think we'll have a very good season," said Maggie Burke, director of marketing at the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa in Lake Geneva.

Walworth County business owners think people will choose to pull off of the highway here rather than using more gasoline going on to the Dells, Door County or northern Wisconsin for summer fun, recreation and relaxation.

"I think it'll be good for us," said Linda Sommer, manager at Marina Bay Boat Rentals on Geneva Lake. "We're betting more people will opt to rent our boats than pulling their own boats all the way here with their big SUVs."

Rental prices may increase slightly because of the higher gas prices, Sommer admits, but she doesn't think it will drive customers away.

"I think most people will be totally understanding and I don't think it's going to hurt us financially more that just a little."

High gas prices will affect different businesses in different ways, however.

"These gas prices are just crazy and they're going to effect us, all right," said Jeff Widner, owner of JNT's Marina in Whitewater. "They already have."

"Repairs will sure to be down just because people aren't going to be using their boats as much," he added.

But Widner is optimistic overall because most of his business comes from people who own lake homes on Whitewater Lake, and he predicts that they will be spending more time here this summer than taking bigger vacations farther from home.

"We're hearing about some price jabbing on some lakes, but we're pricing just to break event," he says. "But one change this year is that we usually include the first tank of gas with a boat rental and we're not going to be able to do that this year.

"I hope they don't blame us.

"But you still have to get out and enjoy life and hopefully we can find a cure to our situation soon," Widner added.

"We think (the summer) is going to be fantastic," said Bill Shimer, manager at Clear Water Outdoor in Lake Geneva, the only kayak rental store on Geneva Lake.

"We've seen it already--the Memorial Day weekend was incredible."

"We're anticipating a decent increase in traffic, so the trick will be getting people into our stores," said Sarah Schuster, owner of Clear Water Outdoor. "They may be spending less in shops because they're paying more for gas.

"The bigger picture for our county is it's the perfect time to raise awareness of our outdoor recreation opportunities for the future. People are looking for that."

Schuster thinks there may be some other business owner opting to rent kayaks or canoes along with their boats because they're man-powered as opposed to gas.

"I would hope and assume boat dealers are coming up with some package deals themselves.

"As far as we're concerned, the more the merrier. We'd much rather see human-powered (watercraft) and we're more than happy to share.

"On one hand, we're one of first here, but on other, bring it on."

"We're definitely anticipating a busier season," said Paul Sandgren, forest superintendent of the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit.

Reservations are already up from other years, he said. And he's confident that will continue all summer long.

"I think that folks coming to camp will stay in one place longer and we might see a little more use during the week because of the longer stays."

Burke from the Grand Geneva agrees. They'll be offering gas cards and gift certificates with their packages as incentives, she said. And shuttles to and from train stations and nearby attractions have also been added this year to offset the cost of driving here.

Michael Bettinger is the owner of the LaGrange General Store where people rent and buy bicycles to ride the Kettle Moraine trails or area roads and take their broken bikes for repairs.

He's planning a big increase in business this summer because of the high gas prices and is planning to add two more employees and a dozen more bikes to take care of the extra customers.

"I think we're going to see more business with tourists and locals trying to enjoy the area affordably," Bettinger said.

"Memorial Day was our best ever. I've seen overall increase in traffic in the park system. There are 8 million people in the Chicagoland area and more in the Milwaukee areas and we're a lot closer for outdoor recreation if that's what they're after.

"We have some of the best bicycling in this part of state. The next closest trails of this caliber are 300 miles away."

Resorts are planning increases in reservations and longer stays, but word has it that people are easing back on their pocket spending to make up for money spent getting here.

"We've heard from the resorts that people are ordering water instead of drinks and cutting back on spending in other ways like that," Sommer said.

For those whose businesses don't depend on the tourists and wouldn't mind if they did keep driving right through Walworth County, Bettinger reminds that the dollars they spend ease our taxes.

"We have a 0.5 percent sales tax--these people spend a lot of money and it's not just chump change. It definitely benefits not just my business but everybody in retail and all taxpayers."

And locals may also appreciate staying home this summer and appreciating what our very own area and businesses have to offer by way of affordable summer fun.

"It's the perfect time to enjoy what's in our own backyard," Schuster says. "Outdoor fun and recreation are what summer is all about. And we've got a great mix of it--hiking, boating, biking, swimming, fishing--right here."

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