Blue Ridge lodge reopens, defies shutdown again

WAYNESVILLE — The privately run Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway reopened today despite deciding late Thursday to close in accordance with the federal government shutdown.

"Conscience, conviction. That's about it," owner Bruce O'Connell said of the decision to open at noon.

The dining room is open, as are the gifts shop and country store. He said he would take guest for the weekend as long as the doors are open.

The inn was among lodging concessionaires on National ParkService property that were told to close by 6 p.m. on Thursday.

O'Connell runs the business but the government owns the building. He leases it.

The parkway road is still open and guests are still traveling. O'Connell, whose family has run the business on the parkway for 35 years, said he wanted to serve his guests.

"Its conscience and conviction that have taken over me and I just can't roll over any more," he said.

He said the park service has dispatched rangers to the business. He's not sure what they might do.

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — John Patterson, John Newman and Karl Lail have visited Pisgah Inn for drinks on Fridays for weeks now.

The federal government shutdown forced the trio to change those plans. The men instead met Thursday after the inn decided to back down from plans to defy the National Parks Service's mandate to close.

Pisgah Inn management posted on its Facebook page Wednesday that the business, which operates in the government's building and on its land, would stay open despite the shutdown. General manager Rob Miller changed course Thursday.

"Due to the fact that a resolution to the shutdown becomes more of a distant promise every day, the Pisgah Inn in cooperation with the National Park Service has decided to cease operations." Miller said in a written statement.

"We regret the inconvenience and disappointment of our guests but we hope for their understanding."

Patterson and his friends understood and sympathized with the workers.

"I made a point to call my friends and have a little gathering up here and patronize this great business," Patterson said.
They weren't the only ones.

Melanie Burress and Sandy Powell also wanted to grab something from the restaurant because they weren't sure when they might have the chance again. They came specifically for the restaurant's signature dessert: French silk pie.

"We heard they were closing, so we thought, 'Let's go up here and get us a last bite," Burress said. "Anything they have is good here."

"I feel sorry for the management and people working here," she added. "We'll be all right. We can go eat somewhere else. Where are they going to work for the next month?"

As the 6 p.m. Thursday deadline neared, people approaching the Pisgah Inn for dinner, drinks or a place to stay were turned away.

Signs were posted on the doors of some rooms telling guests to come by the front desk as soon as possible.

Annette Feinberg, of Arizona, and Judy Cuchna, of Minnesota, are staying with a friend in Etowah and wanted to tour the Blue Ridge Parkway as part of their trip . They wanted to eat dinner at Pisgah Inn but settled for drinks instead.

"I certainly didn't think about a restaurant and lodging being shut down," Feinberg said. "It's crazy."

Many people use Pisgah Inn, located along the Blue Ridge Parkway, as a place to stop as they're passing through the mountains, visiting or looking to buy a gift.

Patterson and Lail work for Hav-A-Cup Coffee Service, a vendor for Pisgah Inn.

"This is affecting more than just this place," Newman said. "It affects people who supply to this place. Mostly, though, it affects the workers up here that make the most of their money through the season, during this time right here.

"It's going to have a huge impact on them. We feel sorry for them. We hate it."

Newman had one message for the politicians responsible for the government shutdown. "Get it worked out as fast as you can," he said. "Get this place back open. Get these people back to work."

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Rob Miller, general manager of the Pisgah Inn, watched the news this week as World War II veterans pushed past barricades to get to their memorial in Washington after the federal government shut down.

He got to thinking about his own situation at the lodge along the 469.1-mile Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. The government owns the building and the land. The National Park Service had given him until 6 p.m. Thursday to shut down and kick out his 78 guests.

He called owner Bruce O'Connell of Pisgah Inn Inc., who was in Mexico. O'Connell had seen the same report about the veterans. They came up with a plan.

"We thought if those guys can do it, we can make a stand," O'Connell said. "We just decided that it is in the visitors' best interest that we remain open."

Early to mid-October is peak season for fall foliage at the 5,000-foot elevation Pisgah Inn about 25 miles southwest of Asheville, and the inn is normally open April 1 to Oct. 31.

Miller told his guests Wednesday that the inn would not be closing — even though another Blue Ridge Parkway lodge on Park Service land in Virginia, the 68-room Peaks of Otter Lodge, says on its website that it is bowing to the government's wishes and closing completely at 6 p.m. Thursday.

What will happen after the deadline passes Thursday is unclear.

Parkway Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett said Wednesday that Washington was aware of the problem. He could not immediately say what steps the government might take to close the 51-room inn.

"We are in discussions at this time," Stinnett said.

The O'Connell family has operated the inn since 1977. It's one of the few remaining mom-and-pop concessionaires in the National Park Service.

Park concessionaires have been told to close, and lodges have been given the 6 p.m. Thursday deadline to allow them time to get guests out.

Miller called around on Wednesday trying to find other concessionaires who would stand with him but had no luck.

He posted the plan on the inn's Facebook page, which garnered nearly 190 likes by late afternoon.

People applauded the decision.

"Glad to see that you will stay open," Mike Stinneford commented. "I can't imagine an October without the Inn."

Wrote Jane Windle: "Some services are considered 'essential,' you fall within that category." Jane Windle wrote.

Ostendorff also reports for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times.


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