Published May 1st, 2020 at 11:37 AM
Jack and Vicky Glendenning had high hopes for their popular Ozarks resort going into the 2020 recreation season.
“Reservations were rolling in,” said Jack, who owns Sand Spring Resort near the entrance to Bennett Spring State Park. “We were fixing to have the best year we’ve ever had, and we’ve owned this place since 2003.”
But in a matter of weeks, that optimism turned sour. Much the same as other small-business owners, the Glendennings watched as the unfathomable happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought outdoors tourism to a screeching halt.
“When we bought this resort, the past owners told us that this place was recession-proof,” Jack said. “But we’re finding that it isn’t coronavirus-proof.
“This has hit us hard at about the worst possible time.”
Ordinarily, spring is the busy season for fishing-related businesses in the Ozarks. The fish are biting, resorts are full, fishermen stand shoulder-to-shoulder at trout parks such as Bennett Spring, and bait and tackle shops have lines.
Not this year. As the highly contagious pandemic sweeps across the country, few small businesses have been spared. And that includes those centered on fishing, previously considered a bastion for social distancing.
In the midst of stay-at-home orders, fears over contracting the virus, and government guidelines to discourage crowding, the mom-and-pop businesses throughout Missouri are losing their busy season.
Resorts and fishing guides are getting numerous cancellations. Bait and tackle shops are either temporarily closing or limiting business. And lakeside restaurants have closed dining rooms and are reduced to curbside food pickup.
No one can venture a guess at a dollar amount on the lost revenue. But in the lake towns where fishing fuels the economy, it’s been a nightmare.
“It’s not just us,” Jack Glendenning said. “Everyone down here is suffering.”
For the Glendennings, the dominoes started to fall in late March.
Excitement was still running high in early March when the trout season opened at Bennett Spring. But as the virus spread, the effects on Smalltown, USA reached the Bennett Spring area.
First, the Missouri Department of Conservation cut off daily stocking of trout at the park to discourage anglers from crowding onto the stream banks. Then, stay-at-home orders cut down on the number of anglers wanting to travel to the popular trout stream.
Bennett remained open and the Niangua River, on which Sand Spring Resort sits, still offered floating opportunities, so the Glendennings kept their resort open. But the dropoff in business was obvious.
On a recent beautiful spring weekend, Jack Glendenning could see the drastic difference.
“Ordinarily, we would be full on a weekend like this,” he said. “But right now, we just have a handful of rooms rented.
“Our motel business has been cut down to nothing. And that’s lost revenue we’re not going to make up.”
It’s not like the fish have the coronavirus. They’re still biting. And because they are, reservoirs such as Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock and Clinton have been busy on weekends.
But that’s where the ordinary ends. Those fishermen aren’t staying in resorts and they aren’t dining in restaurants, which have largely been restricted to drive-through service.
Most of them are taking day trips or staying in their lake homes, not spending the money in small fishing towns the way they usually do.
Large bass tournaments that normally attract hundreds of participants have been cancelled or postponed, and some popular boat ramps such as Drake Harbor on Lake of the Ozarks that attract crowds of fishermen have been temporarily closed.
That translates to lots of lost revenue for lake-area businesses.
Mike Elia, who with his wife Sheryl, owns Alhonna Resort on Lake of the Ozarks, has felt the pain.
The resort is a hub for tournament fishermen in a normal spring. But with most large tournaments cancelled, business has fallen off dramatically.
“The fishing isn’t the issue,” Elia said. “The weigh-ins are the problem. Anyplace that attracts a crowd is going to be restricted.”
Alhonna remains open, though cancellations roll in by the day. And the Elias are taking extra precautions to sanitize rooms and even the boats they rent out.
Fishing guides also lament the loss of business.
Pete Wenners, who has been a guide for 30 years on Table Rock Lake, can’t remember a worse season. He estimates he will end up losing at least $10,000 from cancellations.
“This is usually our busiest time of the year,” he said. “We’ve lost most of the month of April and we’ll lose most of May, too.
“The fish have been hitting, but a lot of people aren’t sure if they want to risk going out. And us guides aren’t sure if it’s safe to go with some of them that we don’t know.
“I’ve been taking out some of my long-time customers, but that’s about it.”
It isn’t just the small businesses that have been hurt by the pandemic.
Bass Pro Shops, fishing’s giant industry leader, also has been crippled by restrictions to limit social gatherings.
Bass Pro’s flagship store in Springfield, Missouri, closed its doors in late March and later announced hundreds of layoffs and furloughs in its stores across the nation as a result of lost revenue.
It reopened April 22 to curbside pickup of orders and in-store purchases limited to firearms and shooting accessories.
The situation is similar at the Bass Pro Shop in Independence, which is only open to in-store firearms purchases and curbside pickup of online orders.
However, the Bass Pro Shop in Olathe and the Cabela’s store in Kansas City, Kansas, remain open, after being deemed essential businesses by local government.
But even at those stores, it’s not business as normal. COVID-19 has definitely left its imprint on the spring of 2020.
“We can definitely sympathize with our customer’s angst and anxiety,” said Ryan Eberly, general manager of Independence Bass Pro. “The weather has been beautiful, and people want to get out fishing.
“But these aren’t normal times. We want to return to normal as much as our customers do, but we have to abide by government orders.”
Flatland contributor Brent Frazee is a Kansas City-based outdoors writer.