Saturday September 3, 2011

PUTNEY -- Tropical Storm Irene splashed Vermont onto the front pages and lead stories of the national media.

Over the past week scenes of washed out roads, flooded stores and grief-stricken home owners led the evening news, and left the rest of the country with the impression that Vermont is one big muddy mess.

Now, as towns rebuild those areas that were affected, the rest of the state wants to remind everyone that there are plenty of roads that are passable and a majority of businesses that are open.

"Everyone has seen the photos, but that is not the whole story," said Kate Dodge, co-owner of Putney Mountain Winery, a locally owned business that distills wine out of New England fruit. "We are totally sympathetic for the people who aren't able to open, but it doesn't help anyone to keep customers away."

Tropical Storm Irene lashed Vermont just before the busiest time of the year.

Some communities will simply not be ready for this weekend's three-day Labor Day holiday, and the first foliage report is expected out in less than two weeks.

Like every small business owner, Dodge said any loss hits the bottom line, and if people stay away for Labor Day, or foliage season, then there is no way to make up for the lost sales.

"We are worried about losing that business," Dodge said.

Dodge just learned that the Vermont Life Wine and Harvest Festival, which was scheduled to be held at Mount Snow later this month, has been canceled.


Advertisement

And while Bennington's Garlic Festival is on for this weekend, Dodge is unable to make it because Route 9 is closed.

She said about 30 percent of her business is done between Labor Day and Columbus Day and so even though the winery will have to lose those potential sales, Dodge wants to encourage tourists, and local customers, to get out and support the businesses that are open.

"Vermont is still a beautiful, amazing place," she said. "It isn't just about how awful things are. We are still here. We need people to come."

"We are a long, skinny state and our Interstate is fully operational," said Gov. Peter Shumlin. "The storm hit southern and central Vermont, but the north was virtually untouched. If you get to a place you love, and it is not open, keep driving north, but don't leave Vermont."

The Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing is walking a fine line between directing people away from flood ravaged areas and encouraging people not to change their plans for Labor Day and foliage.

"We are thinking about the businesses in distress, but at the same time we realize we need to keep the rest of our tourism industry healthy," said Tourism and Marketing Commissioner Megan Smith. "We are open for business and the whole state needs that business now, more than ever."

The department is running public service announcements, which amount to free advertising, in major markets around the East Coast, telling potential visitors that the state is ready to put them up and feed them.

Smith said the tourism and transportation departments are also putting up-to-the-minute information on their websites, and using Facebook, Twitter and e-mail to keep tourists connected as roads become passable and businesses reopen.

"We are inviting people up," she said. "A large portion of the state has not been affected, and if the town you love is rebuilding, then now is a great time to explore a new part of Vermont."

According to Ginger Anderson, chief of Forest Resource Management, not only did Irene spare the state's forests from heavy winds, but conditions overall are pointing toward a long and vibrant foliage season.

"We did not get the high winds that could shred leaves or uproot swaths of trees," said Anderson. "The forests have been free of extensive defoliating pests, and that has not changed. Vermont's foliage is pretty much intact and we are expecting to see a little more color creeping in the second week of September."

Greg Gerdel, research and operations chief at the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, said in 2009, Vermont had about 3.6 million person trips in September, October and November.

The state brings in about $332 million during foliage season, and so while some towns and cities will likely lose out on a portion of their tourist dollars, Gerdel said everyone involved with the tourist trade understands the importance of keeping the doors open.

He said some important leaf peeping drives will have to be rerouted, but with the proper planning there will be plenty of opportunities to witness the state's annual display of fall color.

"You can get there from here," Gerdel said. "You are just going to have to hop around a little."

Unfortunately, some communities will have to put their Labor Day sale expectations on hold.

Wilmington Town Manager Fred Ventresco said his town will remain pretty much closed down this weekend.

Most of the downtown business owners are still cleaning up, and while roads are opening, traffic will be crawling along and there are likely to be delays and detours.

Ventresco said it was very had to cancel the wine festival, but officials are moving forward and he hopes some of the foliage season is saved.

On Friday water and sewer service was returned to most of downtown and by the time the maple leaves are turning in Wilmington, Ventresco hopes the town will be ready to serve its visitors.

"Everyone is working hard to get over this, and we are getting closer every day," he said. "Things are happening quickly. I hope people don't forget us when they are making their plans. Wilmington will rise again."

For information on the roads and businesses go to www.vermontvacation.com, or www.511vt.com.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 279.