The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State budget: a closer look

July 1, 2011

Frustration reigns at Flandrau as state park closes

NEW ULM — Minneopa State Park ranger Wayne Boerner used an automobile analogy to explain how his day was going Thursday with one of the busiest camping holidays and a possible government shutdown just hours away.

“We’ve got one foot on the gas trying to prepare for the weekend and one foot on the brake in case they shut us down,” he said around lunch time Thursday.

There was more brake than gas as the day wore on and Boerner continued to take calls from frustrated campers. They had to be told there was a good chance their Fourth of July camping plans, many of which had been made months ago, would have to change.

Almost everyone in Minneopa’s 61-unit campground packed up and left after Boerner made morning rounds. He told them there was no sign of a last-minute budget deal between Democrats and Republicans that would keep the state government from shutting down non-essential services today, so the campground gates would be locked at 4 p.m. Thursday. Plans were also in place to close the Minneopa Falls picnic area Thursday evening.

“I’ve been taking phone calls from a lot of people venting,” he said. “I’m hearing irritation and frustration. The phone has been constantly ringing from people coming from all over the state.”

About 30 miles away at Flandrau State Park in New Ulm, campers and swimmers weren’t bothering with analogies to explain how they felt about what was going on. That park’s campground and popular outdoor pool, which is surrounded by a sandy beach, also were being closed Thursday due to the looming shutdown.

Some who complained about being sent away started with some well-placed blame focused on bickering politicians and wasted tax dollars. Then they slipped into profanity-laced objections. It was a hot day and New Ulm’s popular option for cool, outdoor relief was being taken away.

Mitch Stockmann was camping with his 12-year-old daughter, so his remarks were tempered. They had been enjoying a father-daughter getaway that was supposed to include another day of swimming. Instead, they were packing up their camp and heading home to Stewart.

“I mean really,” he said. “It’s just stupid that they can’t figure this out. This is so stupid, especially on the Fourth of July. Are you kidding me?

“I don’t understand what they’re trying to do. Can anyone answer that? They’re just playing games with our money and it’s stupid. We send them there to take care of things and they do this? Is this a joke?”

His daughter, Taylor, wasn’t thinking about the politics behind what was happening. She was just bummed out.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do now because we don’t have any beaches or pools by our house,” she said. “I guess we’ll just have to sit inside in the air conditioning.”

They are planning another camping trip at state parks along the North Shore at the end of the month. They’re hoping things get figured out in St. Paul before those plans are ruined.

Adam Gerber of New Ulm was less guarded as he described his frustrations about the park being closed.

“I just want to take my little girl swimming,” he said as he drove out of the park. “Now we have to drive 45 minutes to Mankato to swim. We go ahead and pay our taxes, they should be able to keep the damn state parks open. This is bull---- if you ask me.”

Sean Sullivan was leading a group of 36 international tourists on a cross-country motor coach trip. The business, called Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, regularly stops at Flandrau during its Northern Crossing and Northern Dream tours.

Travelers from China, Britain, Germany and several other countries had spent the previous day in Chicago and were heading for the South Dakota Badlands Thursday night. The tour stops for a picnic and swimming before sightseeing in New Ulm.

Sullivan knew nothing about the shutdown. His problems started when he realized all the wayside rests were closed after he crossed the Minnesota state line. He still wasn’t sure about the cause when park staff told him the pool was closing. He had to rush his customers through lunch so they could get some swimming in before they left. He also had to listen to them complain when they had nowhere to stop before they arrived in New Ulm.

“I got caught totally off guard,” Sullivan said. “It is very frustrating and it did cause stress in my life today. We need to stop somewhere because it’s too far to drive from Chicago to the Badlands in one day.”

They stop in New Ulm because it gives international tourists a taste of rural America.

“If they close the state park, we’re definitely not going to come to New Ulm anymore,” he said.

If the shutdown continues, there’s a good chance the tour will skip Minnesota all together by heading west through Iowa instead, Sullivan said. If they find good places to stop there, the tour change could become permanent.

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