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Mabry Mill restaurant is open again
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Karen Radcliff, whose company operates the Mabry Mill Restaurant & Gift Shop on the Blue Ridge Parkway reopened for business on Friday. (Bulletin photo by Debbie Hall)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Mabry Mill Restaurant & Gift Shop reopened Friday after the federal government’s partial shutdown forced it to close for 10 days, but the effects of the closure are anything but over, said a restaurant official.

Karen Radcliff, whose company contracts with the government to operate Mabry Mill Restaurant & Gift Shop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, estimated she lost about $75,000 in revenues during the forced hiatus. She based the estimate on the previous two years’ revenues and an 8 percent increase in revenue earlier this season.

“We were up (in revenue). We were having a good year,” said Radcliff, who called the estimate conservative. The ultimate tally could be as high as $85,000, she said.

Radcliff said she knew before Congress failed to pass a spending bill by the Oct. 1 deadline that there was a possibility she would have to close. She had even been told that she would have only four hours’ notice.

Even that was not the case.

On Oct. 1, “I got a phone call (from the National Park Service) saying ‘lock the doors,’” she said. “It wasn’t even in writing.”

The call came after the partial shutdown, which was prompted by disagreements in Congress over the president’s new health care law, went into effect Oct. 1. Although negotiations in Washington are continuing, no agreement had been reached as of Saturday to reopen the government.

Radcliff was quick to add that she does not fault the park service for the shuttering. “They have worked very hard and only did what they were instructed to do, what they were told to do,” she said. “The park service doesn’t need to get the bad rap for this.”

Although Mabry Mill is operated by a private concessionaire, it and other parkway attractions were forced to close when the park service lost funding. They were able to reopen after a North Carolina concessionaire prevailed in a dispute with the Interior Department over the closure of his business, according to published reports.

The closing could not have come at a worse time for Mabry Mill, Radcliff said.

“The first 10 days of October are the busiest,” she said. “We’re busy all the time, but in October, we get slammed” with customers, largely due to the changing fall colors.

As she watched her revenues dip, Radcliff worked to get the business reopened by teaming with business owners in Meadows of Dan who also were affected.

“We all banded together because our customers are their customers. It isn’t just Mabry Mill, it’s Meadows of Dan, also” that parkway visitors often flock to, especially in the fall, she said.

Radcliff worked with 9th District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, who contacted her daily while negotiations on reopening were underway, she said.

Working closely with a contact in the park service, Radcliff said she eventually was allowed to go into the business and clean out spoiled food, salvage what could be saved and deliver it to a church food ministry.

One of the days she stopped by and found a toilet running.

“Who pays for that water? I do. I’ll get the bill for that,” she said. But Radcliff is hopeful that because the meter was read on Sept. 30, she can negotiate October water costs with the government.

When she got the go-ahead to reopen late last week, Radcliff said she did so as soon as possible.

“I got it opened as fast as I could. Now the hardest part is trying to gear back up” to finish out the season, which was slated to end Oct. 31, she said. If possible, she said, she might try to stay open for another weekend.

Regardless, Radcliff does not plan to renew her contract to operate Mabry Mill or another federal facility in the area, Rocky Knob Cabins. Although she made that decision — based on changes to her contract — before the shutdown, it reinforced her belief that the choice was the right one, she said.

Information about how the operation will be handled after Radcliff’s contract ends was not available.

With the rest of the month still ahead of her, Radcliff worked at a frantic pace Friday, taking calls and talking to her staff of 42 full- and part-time employees.

She does not know if the employees will qualify for unemployment benefits, but Radcliff said she believes that “if the government is going to pay their employees (retroactively), the concessionary employees should be paid” as well.

Radcliff also fielded questions from a caller who asked whether the mill was open and operational. It is, she answered, but its complete roster of activities is not. She doesn’t know when it will be — that depends on the federal government.


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