Pinching pennies

Local businesses are feeling the crunch as the coronavirus pandemic brings fewer tourist dollars to the area
Nacoma Jefferson
Thursday, July 16, 2020
Pinching pennies
Photo by Nacoma Jefferson / BHCN Staff
A few local customers wait to order breakfast at Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café in Crow Agency. The gift shop and café are feeling the crunch as tourism in the area declined during the first quarters of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pinching pennies
Photo by Nacoma Jefferson / BHCN Staff
Executive Director Randy Schoppe walks along the boardwalk Tuesday to find there isn’t a single horse in the one-horse town that is the Big Horn County Historical Museum. Though the buildings and the museum are closed due to the pandemic, the grounds are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, giving patrons the opportunity to view the historic buildings. There are no restrooms available.

Local businesses across the Big Horn County and The Crow Indian Reservation are feeling the financial burden of the coronavirus pandemic thanks to fewer tourism dollars coming to the area and fewer local dollars being spent due to high unemployment rates.

James “Putt” Thompson the owner of Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café said he is pulling in less than half of his normal revenue for the tourist season, which is actually good for him, because at first he was making a quarter of his normal profits.

The closure of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument affected his tourism revenue stream greatly, he said.

“But since they have reopened business has picked up slightly,” Thompson said.

The business is requiring customers and staff to wear masks and has hand sanitizer for everyone to use.

When the Crow Reservation shut down in March the restaurant shifted to take out orders only, but now the tables outside are available for customer seating, as long as customers can be seated at a safe distance from others, he said.

“This has been a very trying year thus far,” Thompson said.

Local business owner Jim Watt said revenue at his Teepee Service Conoco gas station and convenience store is down 30% from last year.

“Business has been slightly down due to the cancellations of the summer events that usually go on around this time in town,” Watt said. “When COVID-19 first hit I had two employees quit”

Fortunately, for Watt, one of the returned a few weeks ago, but due to the 10 p.m. curfew on the reservation business hours were reduced leading to a reduction in staff hours.

This translates into a reduction in overall pay for many employees throughout the reservation.

Although tourism is down, Watt thinks more people are coming into the area.

“I thinks people are moving out of the bigger cities to Montana and Wyoming,” he said, adding that he’s seen a lot of non-local customers coming through the store.

The COVID-19 outbreak has kept the Big Horn County historical Museum has closed since the last week of March, said Executive Director Randy Schoppe.

He said he had to lay off his staff for the month of April, when the museum is normally hiring summer help.

“We were able to hire our office staff back on the first week of May to start the process of getting ready to open back up,” Schoppe said.

Three staff members and Schoppe have been maintaining the grounds and keeping up with office work. Reopening would require the cleaning of the buildings and the grounds, as well as the gift shop and the inventory sold there.

“We kind of in a funny position, because we are a state visitor center and much of the museum is hands-on so we would have to hire new staff to clean and sanitize the items in 30 different buildings every day, which could put our existing staff at risk of exposure,” Schoppe said.

In the summertime the museum counts on admissions and gift shop sales, which is nonexistent this year, so the museum board of directors advised Schoppe and his staff to hold off on reopening.

He added the staff hasn’t been able to develop a manageable plan that can maintain county and state mandates so staying closed is the only responsible option.

“We were fortunate to receive some COVID-19 relief funding and it has had a major impact, but we will survive (the pandemic),” said Schoppe.