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Business in West Yellowstone not yet back to normal as park reopens

Local

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Montana — With Yellowstone National Park’s west entrance reopening this week, businesses in West Yellowstone, Montana, can breathe a sigh of relief.

The park reopened three of its five entrances Wednesday, with an alternating license plate system determining who is able to enter on a given day.

RELATED | Yellowstone National Park’s south loop will reopen to the public on June 22

The license plate system created some confusion on its first day, causing park employees to turn away some vehicles. But Christopher Balmer, the owner of Yellowstone Camera Store, said the system employed by the National Park Service is better than other options.

“I’m all for it,” he told EastIdahoNews.com. “It’s better than timed entry, so it’s a great thing.”

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Christopher Balmer, owner of The Yellowstone Camera Store. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Like many business owners in and around the park, Balmer would have taken almost any option that brought visitors back. He is thankful the park shutdown following massive floods lasted just nine days.

“I really want to give credit to the park service,” he said. “They’ve really done a great job to get it reopened this quickly.”

Balmer’s store sells and rents camera equipment for visitors who get to the park’s west entrance and realize their gear needs an upgrade. He also sells images he has taken in the park and across the globe.

As he explained, the park shutdown created an “interesting dynamic” in his store.

Rentals and sales of equipment disappeared almost entirely, creating a massive hit to his business into thousands of dollars daily.

“But what was weird was, my image sales increased,” he said.

Balmer expects business to return to normal within two weeks or so. And he is far from alone in taking a loss.

Julie Shults, co-owner of Firehole Bar-B-Que Co., said her lunch rush went from a line of park visitors who often exited the building and wrapped along the sidewalk to sparse handfuls of locals and passersby. And while her dinner rushes are typically slower, with many tourists already gone, the entire town was almost eerily quiet by 7 p.m.

“Tuesday night, at 7:15, there were two people in here eating dinner,” she said.

Julie Shults, The Firehole BBQ
Photo caption | Credit

Ben Moldenhauer, an employee at Rustic Candy Shop, said he saw a massive rush on their old-fashioned candy following the closure. But, like others, the shutdown caused a slowdown.

“We were absolutely slammed (on Monday, June 13),” he said. “From then on, it died down a little bit until Friday.”

He said that with the park reopening Wednesday, business picked up with everyone in town wanting to get into the park.

And it wasn’t just businesses with their address in West Yellowstone that had to recalculate.

Angelo and Jacquelene McHorse, co-owners of Bison Star Naturals, a body care company based in New Mexico, recently got their first major distribution deal. That deal was with the Old Faithful Inn gift shop, located in the south loop of the park.

A family trip planned around introducing their products had to be rescheduled. Luckily, the couple was on a trading circuit, taking them to Pow Wows and conventions along the way, so they just added a few days to their trips and took their daughter camping to enjoy what doubled as a family vacation.

“We came here on our family vacation to come check out our first national park location, which is huge for our small family business,” Jacquelene said.

The delay did little to stunt the family’s excitement, Angelo explained. Not only because their product is, at long last, available in the park, but also because it was every member of the family’s first trip to Yellowstone.

Angelo and Jacquelene McHorse, Bison Star Naturals
Angelo (left) and Jacquelene McHorse, co-owners of Bison Star Naturals. | Kaitlyn Hart, EastIdahoNews.com

While shops and eateries in West Yellowstone can get back to business, it is not lost on the owners that similar communities near the north and northeast entrances have not had that luck.

That is why Shults and others are attempting to rally support for those business owners.

“I’m taking a breath, and I’m taking the time to be thankful,” she said about her week of slowed business. “Yeah, we’re going to lose some time, we’re going to lose some money. But we’re going to open back up. There are other (areas around the park) that are not going to be able to get back open.”

Informed that some of those businesses have given thought to taking their operation mobile and attempting to set up shop in towns like West Yellowstone, Shults has devised a plan to welcome them with open arms.

“I’m going to offer all the businesses and their customers discounts on food,” she said, adding that she fully understands it will hit her business. “But we’re not going to be taking hits like these other places are. I really do feel for them.”

Shults is hopeful that other restaurants and perhaps lodges will join the initiative.

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