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Officials: Tourism figures strong, still below past totals

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Claire Hunt, left enjoys a Blue Moon ice cream cone while she visited downtown Alpena with Debbie Boldrey, Thursday. Since the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted, the downtown area has seen more foot traffic than expected, but less than previous years. Tourism is also down so far this year, but could increase during the late summer and fall seasons.

Tourism officials in Alpena were bracing for a steep decline in the number of people selecting Alpena for vacations and visits this summer, due to the coronavirus and the associated shutdown.

The prime tourism season in Alpena is from Memorial Day Weekend until the end of October.

The good news is that tourism figures appear to be stronger than feared. The bad news is they are still below totals from years past, when there were year-over-year gains.

Alpena Convention and Visitors Bureau President Mary Beth Stutzman said when the government mandate came down that forced businesses to close and to have people stay at home, the perception was that it may be a wasted summer in terms of tourism. She said the expectation was people would shy away from traveling and as a result there would be far fewer out-of-state and in-state guests.

Stutzman said that hasn’t necessarily been the case and the low expectations have been surpassed, with still more than a month left of summer, and a popular fall tourism season on the horizon. She said solid visitation during those times, could bolster tourism numbers even more.

“Our numbers were not good for Memorial Day or early June,” Stutzman said. “Things have started to pick up and some businesses are seeing incredible volume, which is a nice surprise, but others have struggled. We had no idea what to expect when this all began. Overall, we don’t have our normal volume of people and still down in general, but not as bad as we hypothesized early in the season.”

Alpena Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Anne Gentry said the downtown parking attendant has noticed a lot of out-of-state license plates while patrolling downtown parking lots. She said local business owners’ reports on their summer traffic are mixed, with some seeing higher than normal volume and others not seeing the amount of foot traffic they are accustomed to in the summer.

“We are hearing different things from different businesses. Some are saying they are on track to (have) a normal summer, while others say foot traffic is way down,” she said. “We’re hearing different opinions, but we are still seeing all sorts of different people coming into our community.”

COVID-19 has forced the cancelation of many popular events in Alpena, or scaled them back significantly. Gentry said a smaller Brown Trout Festival, fewer Fourth of July events and no Alpena County Fair this summer does take a toll.

Despite that, Alpena continues to be a popular destination, and more people who may not have chosen Alpena for a visit, are.

“When you think about losing the events and how many people they bring to the downtown, that is huge in not having as much foot traffic,” Gentry said. “But people are taking more road trips and I’ve heard from businesses they are seeing more people who have never been here because they don’t want to go to a bigger city or fly somewhere. They think it is safer to get in your car and drive to a part of your state you have never been to.”

Stutzman said it is unfortunate that so many businesses needed to close and events had to be canceled, but there is a silver lining.

“If a community like Alpena is going to suffer a shutdown, spring time is going to be the least impactful for us.” she said.

Stutzman said autumn has become a popular time for people to vacation and in the last few years, Alpena has benefited from that. She said temperatures are cooler, the leaves are changing color and there is still a lot of outdoor recreation for people to partake in. If fall numbers are strong like past years, Stutzman said that will also limit the damage local businesses endured during the lockdown.

“Will that happen this year? We’ll see. Last year we didn’t really slow down until November,” she said. “I’m interested to see how everything ends up and see how this impacted our region from an analytical perspective.”

Even though most businesses in the area have reopened, there are still many events that take place in late summer or fall. Among them are the annual chowder and chilli cookoff, the Sunrise Tap Takeover beer and wine festival and the Apple Pumpkin Fun Day. Gentry said most of these events are still up in the air, but their fates should be announced soon.

“There is still so much up in the air that it is hard to plan,” she said.

So far the antique tractor and steam engine show is still a go and will be held at the showgrounds on French Road from Aug, 7-9.

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