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Duluth to visitors: Come on in, the water's gone

Images of Grandma's Restaurant near Miller Hill Mall deep in water in the middle of a flooded parking lot did more than show flooding in Duluth last week.

Images of Grandma's Restaurant near Miller Hill Mall deep in water in the middle of a flooded parking lot did more than show flooding in Duluth last week.

It helped spur a deluge of cancellations at Canal Park and downtown area hotels, even though those areas received little damage from the torrential rains that fell.

For Canal Park and downtown, it was soon back to business as usual. Still, the cancellations came.

"They thought everything was underwater," said Bill DeSanto, chief operating officer of ZMC Hotels. "When they saw Grandma's underwater at the mall, everybody connected that with (Grandma's in) Canal Park. We got phone call after phone call."

The Inn on Lake Superior and the Edgewater, both owned by ZMC Hotels, had 200 cancellations last weekend, reducing their bookings from 100 percent occupancy to 50 percent, DeSanto said. Its two Twin Ports Best Western motels had 25 percent cancellations.


The Hampton Inn in Canal Park saw 25 to 30 percent cancellations, according to Lorri Drake, the hotel's general manager.

"We got a lot of phone calls from people asking if we were still open," Drake said. "They asked about Grandma's, they saw it under water. They knew we were a couple of blocks away and thought we were underwater."

Such misconceptions are understandable, said Duluth Mayor Don Ness.

"The images were so profound and so dramatic," he said of the storm's aftermath. "And for many days, all you saw about Duluth were these dramatic images of streets collapsing, raging water and the impression people had was that it's not safe in Duluth right now."

But those impressions are lingering, even though 99 percent of the community is in decent condition and unsafe areas are barricaded, Ness said.

"We're still hearing reports of people being concerned, confused, wondering if they can make it to Duluth, wondering about the extensive damage in the area where they would stay," he said.

Hotels like the Hampton Inn are now seeing a drop in new reservations.

"We haven't had a lot of inquiries since last week, so it's flat," Drake said. "It's noticeably quieter."


That's a concern since Duluth tourism is in the midst of its critical peak summer season, running from Grandma's Marathon through August.

"This weekend is going to be soft again," DeSanto said. "And this weekend is always a big weekend. It's been soft, with plenty of cancellations. It will be a struggle to fill our restaurants and our shops."

Karen Pionk, general manager of the Sheraton Duluth Hotel, fears long-term effects if the image that all of Duluth is in shambles isn't changed soon.

"People are making decisions right now about weekend vacations, especially those who can get here within a day's drive, those who are coming from the Twin Cities, Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota," Pionk said. "They're making their decisions right now. They may not opt to come to Duluth because they're afraid that we might not be recovered."

The economic losses to the local hospitality industry over the past week are estimated at $3 million, said Gene Shaw of Visit Duluth, the city's convention and visitors bureau. The impact reaches beyond the hotels to the entire industry, which is important to the local economy.

"It's critical we do everything we possibly can to alleviate misperceptions," Shaw said.

An effort is under way to get the word out to the region that Duluth is safe and open for business.

A resolution was quickly crafted last week to use a chunk of this year's excess tourism tax collections for a short-term emergency public relations campaign to correct the misconceptions.


The resolution, authorizing the flood-related marketing and advertising effort through Visit Duluth, will go to the Duluth City Council for a vote on Monday. The $30,000 originally sought was upped to $75,000 in an amendment proposed by Councilor Dan Hartman and passed at Thursday's council agenda meeting.

Ness said the city is looking into using social media to very quickly and effectively get the message out.

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