BY GLENN PUIT
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The biggest tourism attractions at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will remain open well into October, since the park dodged an early shutdown because of threatened sequestration cuts.
Park Superintendent Dusty Shultz said sequestration cuts appeared likely to force post-Labor Day weekend closures of attractions like the Dune Climb, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Platte Point. But Schultz said the Midwest Regional Office of the National Park Service just allocated $20,000 to the park’s budget.
The money — combined with other cost savings realized in the park’s budget through the current fiscal year — means the attractions will stay open until after the leaves change color at one of the nation’s most appealing tourism attractions.
“We’ve worked really hard all year long to save money,” Schultz said. “This should cover the fall season.”
The continuation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes 2013 calendar is welcome news for local economic leaders and business owners who rely on tourism dollars for survival, said Mary Carroll, executive director of the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce. The park’s local economic impact is estimated to be $132 million annually and the park helps sustain about 2,300 jobs in the region.
“It’s wonderful,” Carroll said. “We have a lot of people who are still coming here in the fall, and we can let those people know the dunes and the other big attractions will be open.”
Sequestration cuts already caused some pain at the park. The federal government’s automatic spending cuts prompted park officials in March to reduce their annual budget by 5 percent, or $234,000, from a budget of $4.68 million.
The cuts prompted closures of major attractions prior to Memorial Day. Other cost-cutting measures included the elimination of five seasonal employee positions, shortening the season for 22 other employees, cuts to travel, training, overtime, and supply purchases.
Shultz said the park’s attendance numbers for 2013 are down roughly 14 percent from last year, when the park set an all-time record for attendance. Through July, park attendance numbers were at 730,000, down from 860,000 the prior year.
Shultz said she suspects the lower numbers are weather-related. She also said in 2012 the park received numerous national media accolades, including Good Morning America’s designation as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.”
“I think it’s still probably the second or third highest year (for attendance,) and 2012 was a banner year for us,” Shultz said. “It’s hard to compare to last year.”