Road rumor hurting Seward-area businesses

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Reports that a wildfire burning at Kenai Lake might force the closure of the Seward Highway have caused an untold number of visitors to cancel trips to Seward, even though the road has remained open.

While the highway had not closed as of Thursday night, some Seward merchants were seeing a downturn in business on the eve of one of the year's biggest tourism weekends.

Visitors canceled campground reservations. Others left town early. And a technician scheduled Thursday to fix a ticketing computer at the Alaska SeaLife Center refused to drive down from Anchorage.

''We were like, 'No, the road is open ... you can make it down here,''' said Jillian Simpson, marketing coordinator at the SeaLife Center.

The technician decided to wait until at least Friday, she said. The research aquarium saw a drop in business Thursday, but Simpson said she wasn't sure whether it was because of the wildfire and potential highway closure.

The estimated 2,700-acre fire is burning about 23 miles north of Seward on the north shore of Kenai Lake. It is threatening scattered dwellings.

Officials warned midweek that the Seward Highway, the only road connecting Seward to Anchorage, might shut down temporarily because of smoke or the advancing fire.

But it all depends on the wind. And even if it did close, the highway could reopen shortly afterward, officials said.

Still, some people who heard about the pending closure worried they wouldn't make it to Seward. Others staying in town have feared they'll get stuck in the community.

''There has been a lot of misinformation scaring people off,'' said Sue Lang, who takes reservations for Miller's Landing, a campground just outside town.

At least 10 parties canceled their reservations at Miller's Landing because they heard the highway was going to close, she said.

She blames the cancellations on the media hyping the possible road closure.

''People were telling me they were more inconvenienced by the road construction than by the fire when they were driving down here,'' she said.

Cruise lines are watching the fire with a wary eye.

''Hopefully they'll get this thing under control,'' said Tony Hancuff, regional manager for Grayline, which moves tourists onshore for Holland America and Carnival Cruises and Tours.

So far, none of the companies have diverted ships from docking in Seward. But if the Seward Highway closes, Holland America, Carnival and Princess Cruises and Tours and may go to nearby ports such as Whittier or Valdez.

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