There isn’t much the lead-contaminated water crisis hasn’t touched in the city of Flint, Michigan, from individual health to international headlines. And the spreading ripples have managed to touch the hospitality industry and with it, even sports tourism.
The good news for sports in the area, according to Bob Campbell, senior communications officer with the Flint & Genesee County Chamber of Commerce, is that despite the state of emergency, no events have been cancelled or moved to other cities because of fears about the water.
“We haven’t lost any business or events because of it – or at least not to our knowledge,” he tells SDM. “Of course, we don’t know if there are entities that might have taken us off our list for places they’re considering. But we’re still open for business and for tourism.”
Of course, he notes, one difference is that the organization has had to allay the concerns of visiting athletes and officials.
“We had the Central Collegiate Women’s Hockey Association playoffs coming to the Crystal Fieldhouse and because some of the teams were coming from outside Michigan, they had certainly been following the news and they had concerns. There was some concern as to whether they would come, but our convention and visitors bureau worked very closely with their league commissioner to satisfy them.” (The Flint & Genesee Convention and Visitors Bureau acts as liaison to planners who have events in the area as well as those considering bringing them in.)
As a result of being able to successfully reassure officials, the hockey tournament took place as planned. An indoor girls' softball tournament, the Duel in the Dome, held in the Genesee Fieldhouse over Valentine’s Day weekend, also went off without a hitch once officials’ and athletes’ questions were answered.
Water throughout the area (in homes, schools, businesses and more) is tested regularly and the results are monitored. In addition, swimming pools at the University of Michigan-Flint and at Kettering University have regular water tests; however, Campbell notes “nothing has been reported that those pools have had to be shut down.”
But even if sports tourism hasn’t suffered, hospitality has.
“Businesses have told us there’s been impact,” Campbell says.
According to an article in The Detroit News, some small business owners, including bars and restaurants, say they’re feeling the fallout, as residents fear eating out and visitors avoid coming in.
"It deters people from coming to this area or wanting to stay here is the main thing," Neil Helmkay, district manager for Angelo’s Coney Island, a Flint landmark since 1949, told Michigan Radio.
Scott Ellis is the executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars, restaurants and taverns. He told Michigan Radio he has heard concerns from many restaurant owners about the impact of the ongoing emergency.
Many restaurants have taken steps to ensure that they are providing clean water, including purchasing bottled water and filters, according to Ellis. However, these precautions have increased the cost of doing business while business continues to decline.
“We’ve seen restaurants post their water testing results on their doors,” says Campbell, “and put signage out to people showing it’s safe to come in and eat there.”
And just as the Chamber and the CVB have found that allaying the fears of visitors is now a part of their work, hotels in the area are doing the same, even in cases when there is not actually cause for worry on the part of guests.
"Most of the large hotels are outside of Flint and on different municipal water systems," says Campbell. "There is a Holiday Inn Express in downtown Flint that’s on the Flint system. Anecdotally, we know that a number of the hotels have said that they’re receiving inquiries about their water. We don’t have any information on cancellations or occupancy. But the facilities are fielding questions from guests."
The issue has been a long time in the making, according to the Detroit Free Press. Flint's water became contaminated with lead in 2014 after the city began drawing its water from the Flint River as a cost-cutting move, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The Flint River water was corrosive to the city’s pipes, leading to the lead contamination. Although the city has now been reconnected to its previous source, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, multiple problems remain as a result of the damaged pipes. (A timeline of how the crisis unfolded can be found here.)
The areas of water contamination, Campbell adds, are scattered, rather than concentrated. The water coming from the city’s treatment plant is safe; however, that same water passes through pipes throughout the city and some of those pipes are corroded while others are not.
“The concern is citywide,” he says, “but it’s not uniform. You can have one house where the quality of water is different from that of the house next door. It’s not a municipal problem; it’s an infrastructure problem.”
The chamber of commerce, notes Campbell, is focusing on constructive ways to help business establishments, including those in the hospitality industry. The chamber has been providing free bottled water to businesses several times a week. Donations of water and other resources also have been pouring in from outside the area, earmarked for residents and schools.
Campbell, like others in the area, hopes for a resolution; however, he adds, Flint’s water problems are a complex issue and fixing those problems will take time and extensive work.
“There are multiple entities involved in trying to work through the challenge, both from a short term and long term perspective,” he notes. “As a community, we appreciate all the concern and support we’ve received from multiple people and corporations, even from celebrities, as we work through this emergency. And while we’re working, we’re open for business, open for tourism and we’re continuing to move our community forward.”