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Wisconsin Dells Scrambles to Save Summer Tourist Season;
Drained Lake Delton an Unwelcome Tourism Draw
By Steve Johnson, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 19, 2008 - LAKE DELTON, Wis. -- In the second week after the emptying of Lake Delton, the Wisconsin Dells region finds itself with yet another new tourist attraction, this one unexpected, unusual and unwelcome.

At one of the public boat landings, tourists and area residents alike walk down onto the near-dry lakebed to marvel. "It's an odd scene, almost out of a science-fiction movie, where you wake up one morning and your lake is gone," said Mike Kovacs, 49, a corrections worker from St. Paul.

The Original Wisconsin Ducks boat tours, which used to put into Lake Delton, now augment the cornball jokes and engine noise with views of the massive breach where the 270-acre lake crossed about 800 feet of land and poured downhill in a 300-foot-wide spillway into the Wisconsin River the morning of June 9.

Warning to gawkers The Ravina Bay restaurant has had to post a sign warning would-be gawkers that the giant decks overlooking the lake are for customers only. "Business has been up, but that is basically because everybody likes to see a tragedy," said general manager Jenny Mattison.

And across the sandy lakebed from the restaurant, at the Tommy Bartlett Show, Aqua the Clown stands on an Astroturf-covered "island," right by the jumps that used to launch water-skiers. He holds up a giant drain plug as if he's just pulled it.

The crowd's laughter seems to have an edge to it, like the signs around the lake that suddenly seem ironic: "30-Minute Docking," "Protect Our Water Resources," "Vacancy."

The vast expanse of sand, mud, and exposed docks where Lake Delton used to be is a fluke and a freak show, to be sure. But there are consequences well beyond the five houses that were ruined when a sandy bank of Lake Delton, overburdened by weeks of rains, gave way, opening a new path to the river and surprising the people shoring up a dam just to the south.

"I saw the ski show go right down the Wisconsin River," said Tom Diehl, the robust 63-year-old owner of the Bartlett attraction, member of the Lake Delton village board, regional visitors' bureau official and early-morning sandbagger.

Now, in the Bartlett offices and elsewhere in the area, the hard business of the aftermath goes on in earnest.

The owners of the 700 hotel rooms on the lake--out of 8,000 in the region--scramble to persuade customers not to cancel their reservations. The battles are beginning with the insurance companies over what loss-of-business insurance covers. The town is working with a Madison engineering firm and state agencies to figure out how to rebuild the lake banks securely, but also quickly enough to secure next summer's business.

And then there's the public relations war to get word out that the Dells region--the towns of Lake Delton and Wisconsin Dells, and all the fudge shops, water parks and Wisconsin River boat rides in between--isn't even close to closed down.

Interstate 90-94 north of Madison, the main gateway for tourists from the south, is open again.

Closed-road damage But smaller roads around and more than 20 miles of Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and Madison remained closed Wednesday due to flooding. The state Department of Transportation expected that by the weekend at least one lane of I-94 in each direction would reopen, a spokesman said, good news to business owners who said that the closed highways have done more to dampen tourism than the empty lake.

Even last weekend, media coverage pointed out that more than 90 percent of Dells businesses were unaffected by the Lake Delton voiding. But the rest were expecting a long, hard summer.

At the Bartlett operation, the shows go on with extra stage acts replacing the water-skiing, and with a lot of crossed fingers in the front offices. "There's very little cushion," said Diehl. "If we can't get the customers to come to this show, we're going to have a difficult time to get a ski show for next season."

But businesses are pitching in to help each other, just as volunteer townspeople, each day, have been venturing onto the lakebed to clean it up. The lake smells a little dank, like a damp basement, when you're right down in it or downwind, but nothing like the stench you might expect.

One lakefront hotel guest who did keep her reservation this week was Joan Banse, 52, a teacher from Vinton, Iowa, to whom the absence of water didn't seem so bad.

Reading a beach novel in a quiet spot at Baker's Sunset Bay Resort, she explained that as she and her sister thought about it, they reasoned that coming to the Dells "was better than being in Iowa, with no electricity because of the flood."

sajohnson@tribune.com

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