Mount Vernon looks to tulip tourists for rescue from pandemic slump
Like in most places, the businesses in downtown Mount Vernon, Washington have struggled through the pandemic. But as things start to open up, all eyes in that town are on the tulip fields blooming nearby.
The big question is whether visitors to those farms can help businesses in Mount Vernon recover.
Historic downtown Mount Vernon sits on a narrow strip of land squeezed between I-5 and the Skagit river.
Just across the river are tulip farms. Every April, those farms erupt in color when the tulips bloom.
Tourists flock there. On their way, many of them pass through Mount Vernon. “They come to see the tulips — they stop for lunch or dinner,” said Nereida Caro, owner of Catrina Tacos and Tequila. “It’s very important for us, the tulips.”
Caro said during normal years, the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival peaks in Mount Vernon with a three-day street fair on 1st Street. Eight blocks are closed to traffic and packed with 10,000 visitors a day, according to the event’s organizers.
Before the pandemic, Caro’s restaurant would sell street tacos just as fast as they could make them. The three days of the street fair are typically the three highest-earning days of the year. “So in these three days, a lot of money we made.”
This year, organizers canceled the street fair due to Covid. “It’s so sad. We need it. We need back a normal year, normal life,” Caro said.
ut in the tulip fields, though, you’d hardly know it was a pandemic year. While the acreage planted in the Skagit Valley is down this year, according to Don McMoran, director of Washington State University's Skagit County Extension, at a relatively small farm called TulipTown, the owners are seeing their biggest crowds ever.
On the Friday I visited, the farm expected 7,000 visitors, each of whom paid at least ten dollars apiece to wander the tulip fields and take selfies (Ticket prices are $15 at the nearby Roozengaarde tulip farm, which is larger).
Some things are a little different at TulipTown this year: Most people have masks. And on a farm, you can spread out a little bit more. The farmers built the paths a little wider than normal this year. With a cap on tickets available due to Covid this year, some weekends have sold out.
Sally Stonedahl and her friend came from California. “We’re spending the whole day looking at tulips, on the 'Tulip Trail,' or whatever you call it,” she said.
I asked visitors what they planned to do after they leave the farm. Audie Maxwell said she’s still deciding.
“Typically, we would come for the tulips and go right home because it’s so crowded," she said. "Because of Covid — and it’s a little bit quieter — I think we might try to go into the town and get some lunch or ice cream or something.”
The tulip festival organizers said that before Covid, these visitors brought 65 million dollars a year to the region.
Angela Speer and Andrew Miller are two of the farm’s five owners. They’re well aware of how much local businesses could use that money this year.
“When people ask where to eat, I always send them to downtown Mt. Vernon,” Speer said. “We also have great food in LaConner and Bo Edison and Anacortes, but my friend owns Pacioni’s, in downtown Mount Vernon. Their meatballs are awesome, so I always send them there.”
Andrew Miller said they recommend lots of other places too. “We really really lean into that,” he said. “We know that we’re the attraction — you know, tulips are the attraction. But the quality of a person’s stay and the experience they come away with — it’s really in Mount Vernon.”
ithout the street fair, the Mount Vernon Downtown Association is trying some other strategies to get people to park their cars and walk around. Using money from the federal Cares Act, they put together a glossy shopping guide, and organized a window display competition.
Summer Houlihan runs Tri-Dee Arts, a local art supply store on 1st Street. “We are so lucky to be able to ride the coat tails of the Tulip festival, and to have that be something that brings people, because Mount Vernon I don’t think is a real touristy town,” she said. “I mean people come through, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a destination — except for April.”
As she spoke, a family of four walked in. Ram Almeida said his family lives in Bellevue. They had come into Mount Vernon for lunch, after visiting the tulip fields.
“And so we punched ‘Indian food’ into Google, and Google brought us this way, into downtown Mount Vernon,” he said.
Almeida’s daughter Sophia had been inspired by what she saw at the farm. And so, when they walked by this art store, they had to go in.
“Over the summer, I’m planning to take up art, and calligraphy, and so we bought watercolor, calligraphy pens, and notebooks to draw on,” she said.
This year has been far from normal, and it follows a year that was even worse. But many businesses in Mount Vernon have hung on, hoping that customers would return this spring.
Maybe being surrounded by tulips makes you optimistic that way.
This story is part of KUOW’s series, The Main Street Project, where we document economic recovery in the greater Puget Sound region one street at a time. To hear more stories and recommend a street you think we should visit, go to kuow.org/mainstreet and fill out the form linked there.
Correction: Nereida Caro's restaurant is Catrina Tacos and Tequila, not Catrina Tacos and Beer. The author was feeling thirsty when he committed the error.