Local tourism advocates agree that the ghostly winter state of rural towns in northern Arizona could be prevented through one action: extending the season of Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim.
A new study says extending the tourist season at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim by a month would boost the regional economy by $14.2 million and support 183 jobs in northern Arizona and southern Utah, reducing the need for businesses to close their doors and residents to leave the area in search of work.
The study found that the extended season would bring in an extra 38,000 visitors, who would create daily direct expenditures totaling more than $230,000. To accommodate the extra visitors, National Park Service (NPS) payroll would increase by $569,000.
Though these results are conservative, the study does not include the operational costs of running the national park for an extra month.
Unlike the more popular South Rim, which is open 365 days a year, the North Rim is only open from May 15 to Oct. 15. It closes each winter because of weather and the lack of infrastructure needed to withstand it, such as cleared roads and deeply buried pipelines. Due to the short season, employees must be hired, trained and laid off all in the course of a few months every year.
Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler represents District 5 – which includes the North Rim – and said this annual cycle has a visible effect on the surrounding communities.
“The closure of the North Rim on October 15th every year has a major impact," she said. "Businesses’ doors are closed, employees are laid off and people leave town for the winter.”
She described the closure as a “loss in financial opportunity” for the region.
The Board of Supervisors commissioned this study, as part of the county’s economic development strategy, from the Alliance Bank Economic Policy Institute at Northern Arizona University.
It took eight months to compile the necessary data, including NPS employment, visitor spending and average weather conditions in early May and late October, necessary components in determining that travel to the North Rim during these dates would not only be safe for visitors, but also beneficial to residents.
Dr. Wade Rousse, interim director of the Alliance Bank Economic Policy Institute, said he hopes the analysis will be the start of even more thorough investigations into the impact of an extended – or year-round – season at the North Rim.
“I would hope, if there is demand and interest, that we would continue to the next stage of the study by starting to estimate costs and look at the economic impact over a longer period and then do a cost benefit analysis,” Rousse said.
Although attempting to keep the North Rim open year-round is not yet a possibility, Rousse said that extension of the North Rim’s season by just a few weeks would be substantial to such a rural area and the livelihood of its residents.
Fowler displayed similar sentiments.
“As citizens and residents of Coconino County, we all want our county to be strong and we all want to have good, paying, secure jobs to able to provide for our family. This study shows the closure of one agency, Grand Canyon National Park, has such a ripple effect through the region, right into people’s lives,” she said.
Discussions on economic development in the Cameron, Marble Canyon, Page, Fredonia and Jacob Lake areas began at least six years ago, Fowler said. She explained that discussions on extending the season at the North Rim followed the early 2017 announcement of plans to close the Navajo Generating Station, which will leave its nearly 500 full-time employees without work when operation of the coal-fired plant stops Dec. 22, 2019.
“With the anticipation of the NGS closure, at the County we started working to see how we could diversify our economy in that region in preparation of this major employer closing its doors,” Fowler said.
Other initiatives to increase economic activity in the region include careful communication with the public about the closure – affecting entrance to the park, but not the surrounding areas – as well as the Navajo Bridge Star Parties in late October or early November, which help bring in additional visitors between the North Rim closure and onslaught of winter weather.
The North Rim and its economic benefits are not limited to Arizona, though. The winter closure brings similar effects to Kane and Washington counties in southern Utah.
Dr. Thomas Combrink, senior research specialist with the Alliance Bank Economic Policy Institute, told the Supervisors last week, “I was actually really excited about the opportunity to do this study, because normally we work within the county or we work with a region within a state, but here we are actually crossing state lines.”
Fowler said she has been working closely with representatives from these two counties with the goal of overlooking borders to see the issues impacting the entire region.
She said results of the study will serve as a needed advocacy tool for interactions with the federal government to better demonstrate the benefits of such an extension and the need for improvements to infrastructure if the North Rim is to be open as often as the South Rim.
“We believe, in our county, we can work with the National Park Service to have it open, eventually, year-round,” Fowler said.