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Vermont Leaf-Peeping Season May Fall Victim to Images of Floods

The Newfane Country Store in Vermont
Newfane Country Store proprietor Marilyn Distelberg worries that news coverage of Hurricane Irene may cause visitors to cancel trips to see the state's colorful autumn foliage. Photographer: Bob Distelberg via Bloomberg

Vermont country store proprietor Marilyn Distelberg is worried. Not about getting local cheddar cheese or maple syrup: She has plenty. It’s the news coverage of Hurricane Irene that may be telling leaf peepers to stay home.

“Some people will see all the images of the damage and figure there’s no sense making the trip,” said Distelberg, who runs the Newfane Country Store with her husband, Bob.

Owners of country stores, inns, bus companies, cider mills and syrup farms that depend on the state’s colorful autumn foliage are growing anxious as the season is set to begin in three weeks. Innkeepers are already fielding cancellation calls while state officials strategize on ways to minimize damage to Vermont’s $1.4 billion-a-year tourist industry.

“We will suffer,” said Megan Smith, state commissioner of tourism and marketing and a former innkeeper for 14 years. “But I also think we can recover a lot, especially if we have good weather.”

Irene blew through the Green Mountain State on Aug. 28 with eight inches of rain, shutting down 260 roads and scores of bridges, leaving three dead and thousands temporarily stranded in what Governor Peter Shumlin called the worst flooding in 75 years. The sunny weather since has helped speed recovery. Towns cut off by the storm have been opened, rivers have crested and some are receding, said Susan Allen, a spokeswoman for Shumlin.

Mixed Feelings

Still, serious infrastructure disruptions remain, according to the governor. Passage through popular foliage roads such as the east-west Route 4 may hamper rebuilding, said Chris Nyberg, president of Killington/Pico Ski Resort Partners LLC.

Predicting how quickly things will get back to normal is nerve-wracking, said resort owner Jimmy LeSage.

“One minute, I want to close up and head for Florida,” said LeSage, 60, the owner of the New Life Hiking Spa in Killington. “The next I want to keep a great thing going.”

The storm, which stranded thousands in the Killington region for three days until a road was opened, resulted in mass cancellations for LeSage. His average of 40 to 50 daily guests had dropped yesterday to one Texas woman “who came in anyway because she was sick of the heat down there,” he said.

Bruce Pfander, who runs the Four Columns Inn in Newfane, said he’s most concerned about would-be visitors themselves hit hard by Irene in core markets like Massachusetts and New York. One man who called to cancel reservations had been living without electricity for the past week.

“He was grouchy, in no mood to go anywhere,” Pfander said.

Coping With Cancellations

Distelberg, the country store owner, said Newfane saw little or no damage, save some backyard flooding. In neighboring South Newfane, the surging Rock River destroyed at least a dozen homes. She said the problem for her business is negative publicity by association.

The Waybury Inn in East Middlebury, which served as the exterior of the fictitious Stratford Inn in Bob Newhart’s TV sitcom, was also unscathed. The Middlebury River behind the inn overflowed and caused some basement flooding without serious damage, according to owner Joe Sutton, who’s already had six cancellations.

The weekend before Columbus Day on Oct. 10, traditionally the height of the fall foliage season, was fully booked, and Sutton hopes it will stay that way.

“The concern is how long those images of Vermont are going to live in people’s minds,” he said.

Crucial Period

While August and February are Vermont’s busiest months, the three weeks of prime foliage season beginning in the last week of September are the most crucial for smaller businesses like inns and country stores. That’s when fully half of Vermont’s autumn tourists show up, according to J. Gregory Gerdel, research and operations chief for the Department of Tourism & Marketing.

From September through November 2009, 3.6 million visitors spent $332 million, or 23 percent of the $1.4 billion annual total, according to the latest state data. That generated $200 million in tax and fee revenue and employed 33,530, representing 11.5 percent of all jobs in the state, the data show.

For Labor Day weekend, which begins tomorrow, Vermont’s tourist effort will remain low-key, Smith said, in recognition of “the folks who are still suffering.” Her counterparts in New Orleans and Memphis, cities that have also endured recent natural catastrophes, have told her “you can’t be heard above the noise of cable TV” -- the disaster coverage showing ruined homes, washed-out roads and broken spirits.

On Sept. 6, the state will begin an ad campaign, said Smith, who wouldn’t disclose the cost. Pubs, motels and others have been offering free meals and cut-rate lodging to vacationers and others stranded by Irene.

“Those are the stories that will help us the most,” Smith said. “Our story is going to be, ‘Hey, we’re open for business and we need you to come and enjoy.’”

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