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Parkway protest turns into victory rally

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Tea Party celebrates reopening of Pisgah Inn after shutdown

By Roger McCredie-What was originally scheduled as a gathering to protest the government-forced closure of the popular Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway turned into a celebration of “victory for the people” Saturday.

Several dozen participants from as far away as Rowan County and northern Georgia were on hand for the event, which was organized and sponsored by the Asheville Tea Party. They sang, cheered and waved flags – mostly the Stars and Stripes, a few North Carolina banners, and many of the flags the Tea Party has adopted as its own, the ensign designed in 1775 by South Carolina’s Christopher Gadsden: on a bright yellow field, a coiled rattlesnake with 13 rattles above the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Planning for the event began in late September, when it became apparent that Congress was not going to be able to agree on a plan for funding and the federal government would be shutting down “nonessential” services and facilities on October 1. “Nonessential” included the closure of national parks and the furloughing of park employees.

But the Blue Ridge Parkway fell into its own gray area in that respect. It is a national park, administered by NPS, but it is a long, winding, skinny one: to wit, a road. As such it is a thoroughfare and the roadway itself remained open to traffic. But numerous shops, hotels and restaurants located along the Parkway, such as Pisgah Inn, are actually private businesses which lease their facilities from the federal government and are staffed by non-governmental employees. A Parkway shutdown therefore immediately created a conflict between the right of the federal government to close its own facilities and the rights of private businesses on government property to continue to operate. The government’s position, which it immediately enforced, was that such businesses, being located on government land, were banned from opening.

This was the perfect storm that ended up making Bruce O’Connell, Pisgah Inn’s 59-year-old owner and general manager, a folk hero.

To O’Connell, the government/private enterprise clash was a no-brainer: as an independent business owner, he had every right to continue to operate his establishment, particularly when October, which brings the annual tide of leaf-peepers, is the Inn’s peak income month. If anything, O’Connell reasoned, his landlord, the government, was in breach of its own lease contract. Accordingly, on October 4 – three days after the shutdown formally took place but while tourists were still travelling the parkway – O’Connell opened for lunch. Almost immediately armed park rangers appeared, blocking the driveway and turning away customers.

“They stayed there through the night, non-stop, barricading the people out,” O’Connell told Britain’s The Guardian. (The standoff attracted international attention.) “Customers were fuming. My employees were in tears.” O’Connell immediately filed for relief in federal court. But the ink had barely dried on his complaint when the government struck its colors. Pisgah Inn could reopen for business, it said, in exchange for dropping its suit.

Within hours of the federal retreat from Pisgah Inn, word came that the Folk Art Center on the Parkway east of Asheville announced that it would reopen as well. Tom Bailey, managing director of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, which operates the Center, said he contacted NPS officials and told them his intentions. “They said they wouldn’t stand in our way,” Bailey said. Within days, Virginia, Parkway attractions Mabry Mill and the Peaks of Otter Lodge, both private businesses, also reopened. Similar scenarios began to play out across the country, without government consequences.

At the Pisgah Inn rally, Asheville Tea Party chairperson Jane Bilello, speaking from a flatbed truck, told the crowd that while NPS appeared to have “caved” on its attempt to bar private businesses on government property from operating, federal authorities had resorted to “pure spite” in order to inconvenience would-be users of facilities as far as possible. She cited in particular news reports that NPS workers had removed the handles from water spigots along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C., and the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania and Maryland, both popular biking and hiking venues.

“This is bigger than the Pisgah Inn shut-down. Shutting down veteran memorials and cemeteries is an outrage … targeting free enterprise is a violation of every person’s right to life, liberty and property,” Bilello said. “Let’s make Pisgah Inn the inspiration for all Americans across our nation to push back against this tyranny. We can and we are doing this.”

Most of the crowd cheered, but not everyone. A middle-aged couple on the fringe of the gathering stood with folded arms, viewing the proceedings with apparent distaste. “This is just disgusting,” the husband said aloud. On being asked what was disgusting – the rally, or the government’s attempt to stifle private enterprise – the couple walked away.

And back in the parking lot, the public address system was playing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”

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