POLITICS
04/07/2011 04:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2011

Government Shutdown: On The National Mall, Worries Over Lost Business, Wages

WASHINGTON -- As many speculate the economic implications of a government shutdown, here in the capital, jitters are felt by one economy in particular--the one that trades in hot dogs, snow cones, and CIA t-shirts down on the National Mall. Washington’s vendors, it turns out, are feeling pretty “non-essential” amidst all the politicking.

“If they shut down, there’s no business,” said Abdul Bangura, who shuttles a van loaded with ice cream up and down the Mall each day. “Nobody’s gonna come down here.”

A federal shutdown would include much of the National Park Service, which runs the Mall and its monuments, as well as the Smithsonian’s museum network, which draws 3.8 million tourists to the area in April alone, according to the Washington Post.

If the White House and Congressional leaders can’t hammer out an agreement, the vendors and other small businesses that cluster around the Mall stand to be hit with a double whammy. No tourists and no federal workers, the two demographics they rely on most.

“Ninety-nine percent of my customers work here,” said Tony, pointing to the Environmental Protection Agency offices across the street from his hot dog stand. Tony’s been manning a cart in this spot for a decade and knows many of the EPA employees personally. He explained moving his cart to another part of town isn’t an option; it would violate D.C. vending rules.

Tony doesn’t normally follow politics on the Hill, but the standoff has certainly caught his attention. “It will affect my life,” he said.

In the event of a shutdown, he said he would simply stay home rather than waste money on gas.

Downtown tour companies stand to take a hit, too. Over at the Bike and Roll kiosk, a bicycle rental company, manager Jeff Holliday said higher-ups had convened to discuss what they might do differently in the event of a shutdown. He said he’d gotten a call from a tourist who said she’d already changed her vacation plans because of the shutdown possibility. Rather than head to D.C., she was visiting--gasp--Colonial Williamsburg.

Holliday estimated that 75 percent of Bike and Roll’s rentals go to tourists, many of whom may not be there next week. “But we’ll figure it out,” he added optimistically.

Dave Cohen, general manager at Historic Tours of America, said his company’s Washington vessels, the Old Town Trolley and the D.C. Duck boats, would continue their amphibious tours of downtown Washington. But he’s wondering if the tourists will still come if they can’t hop on and off and see the monuments and museums along the Mall like normal.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in around the country yet,” Cohen said, explaining they hadn’t received any cancellations. “Naturally, we’re concerned. I’m just hoping it doesn’t happen.”

Suong Xuan Le, 71, has been hawking hot dogs and egg rolls around town ten hours a day for 34 years, spending last seven of them across from the National Museum of American History. A prolonged shutdown, he said, could devastate his business. “My customers, they’re tourist people,” he said. “If the White House and Congress don’t have an agreement, that’s terrible.”

Rob Milford, here on business, said his local high school in Fairhope, Ala., had raised roughly $80,000 to send its marching band to the Cherry Blossom Festival, a costly expedition that’s now uncertain.

“For those of us from outside of Washington, it’s a tremendous disappointment that Congress can’t make a decision. They had every opportunity,” said Milford, poking around the Mall vendor trucks in search of an “Obama: One and Done” t-shirt.

Down near the monuments, it isn’t just vendors worried about a drop in wages. A group of five contractors working a construction job at the Department of Commerce said they don’t know if they’ll have any work next week. A landscaper whose company has a contract with the EPA said he thinks he’ll still have a job in the event of a shutdown, but only because he’s salaried; his colleagues classified as “laborers” will probably be out of a gig.

And Chris Armstrong, a busker who’s been playing his trumpet at 14th and Constitution for seven years, said he expects an empty bucket at his feet next week if the museums are shuttered.

“And it’s just politics,” he said.

The overriding feeling on the Mall is one of uncertainty – and that extends to the very workers who keep it running. One National Park Service maintenance employee, clad in the agency’s trademark forest green and a pair of protective knee pads, said all the workers in his shop are “worried,” not knowing what their status is and whether they can expect a paycheck come next week.

“These are America’s treasures,” he said, gesturing to the Washington Monument while on a hot dog break. “We’re here to keep these treasures going.”

As for the possibility of a shutdown, “I just don’t get it,” he said.

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