By Andy Greder
PINE CITY, Minn (Reuters) - With campers being turned away from Minnesota's state parks, private campgrounds and resorts are showing slight benefits in the wake of the state's government shutdown.
"It isn't hurting. It's been helping us a little bit," said Carol Nelson, a co-owner of the 125-site Vagabond Village Campground near Itasca State Park, home of the Mississippi River's headwaters.
"Hopefully it will help other private campgrounds pay their bills."
As Minnesota's budget impasse reaches a week, state parks and other services deemed non-essential have been shuttered while politicians try to bridge a $1.4 billion budget gap.
At Itasca State Park, that means 237 campsites and 53 cabins have been vacant since July 1. Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state-run organization that monitors the industry, cannot comment because it too has been closed.
The state parks lose an estimated $1 million a week in revenue from summer visitors with the shutdown, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The campers slated to stay at Itasca and the other state parks with campsites have had to scrap plans, wait or find scarce alternatives at some already popular private campsites.
More campers have called Vagabond about vacancies, but most have taken a wait-and-see approach to their upcoming trips to northern Minnesota and haven't booked in droves, Nelson said.
"They are taking a chance," Nelson said of the possibility of a compromise at the Capitol.
Privately owned Camp Itasca, less than a mile from the state park, receives overflow referrals when the state park is operating. Since the shutdown, Camp Itasca has maintained the status quo.
"They will make reservations with us and cancel with them," Camp Itasca co-owner Craig Burslie said.
On the holiday weekend, Camp Itasca filled 40 of its 50 campsites, which is at its 5-year average, Burslie said.
While the shutdown might bring some customers to private campsites, it might also be keeping others away.
Burslie said an Illinois man called Wednesday to talk about a possible road trip to Minnesota, but the shutdown gave him second thoughts.
"If the visitor center and the gift shop aren't open (at Itasca State Park), he said he probably doesn't want to drive all the way from Illinois," Burslie said.
Itasca State Park might be officially closed, but a private cabin on park grounds has kept the north entrance gate open, Burslie said. He said people have been going in to walk across the headwaters, bike and hike.
"There was security in there, but as long as you didn't drive on the barricaded roads, there wasn't a problem with people being in there," Burslie said. "I talked to people in there, and ... they kind have had it to themselves."
But recent vandalism reported at other state parks this week could alter that impromptu accessibility, and make it less appealing to stay at nearby campsites.
Extensive damage was reported to three buildings at Afton State Park over the Fourth of July weekend and a dozen people were taken into custody. Other state parks have reported broken gates, graffiti and people camping illegally.
County-owned Long Lake Park and Campground, five miles from Itasca, has fielded about 100 calls in the last 10 days, but they are already booked most weekends, manager Ann Person said. The only impact would be if the campers came during the less-busy weeknights.
"Another impact is dealing with the frustration of the customers," Person said. "They were chagrined that they were shut out."
One disgruntled customer asked Person to not charge him sales tax on his bill.
"I said, 'Gee, I'm sorry. That's state law,'" Person said. "He said, 'Well if the government is shut down, I don't see how they can collect it.' We had a good chuckle, and he paid his sales tax."
(Editing by David Bailey and Jerry Norton)