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Winter business going down the drain

by Greg Risling

In Meyers, every flush counts. The biggest demand in Meyers during the winter isn’t for gas or a snack. It’s the bathrooms.

It’s a common occurrence on any given Sunday when chain controls are required or a mass of tourists head to their comfy homes, all at the same time. You might think the pileup of cars along U.S. Highway 50 would bring plenty of business to this small town on the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe.

Meyers businesses are overwhelmed by the number of motorists who want to use the lavatories as a pit stop. According to some business owners, the lines of impatient customers have jammed their parking lots and possibly cause public health problems. To top it off, the stores also get the shaft when the visitor doesn’t buy anything.

The demand is most prevalent during peak seasons and especially in the winter when the lone public bathrooms, the U.S. Forest Service’s Visitor Center, is closed. Once visitors leave the county’s two major hubs in either direction – Placerville and South Lake Tahoe – it’s a grueling hour-plus drive to the next city. There is a public bathroom in that 58-mile stretch and Meyers normally bears that brunt.

When Nature calls

When nature calls people will resort to drastic measures. If the wait is too long, some motorists have gone behind the businesses and, well, done their business. One Meyers proprietor said she has seen parents have their children make yellow snow in plain view of other customers.

A cashier at the Chevron station said there was a 15-minute wait for the bathrooms during last Sunday’s storm.

Another owner said she doesn’t have a bathroom because of the hassle it causes.

Each of these cases probably doesn’t seem dire, but the frequency and repetition has infuriated the business owners. Most will flash a friendly smile and let customers use the bathrooms but there is a limit.

“The Meyers community shouldn’t be expected to carry the entire bathroom load from our tourist population,” said Duane Wallace, executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce. Wallace said he spoke with one Meyers business owner and estimated 600 people this season alone have used his bathroom.

Nearly half of all customers at the Shell station use the bathrooms, according to the owners. Sue Yang, who runs the Sierra Deli, said she doesn’t close her bathrooms to the public and guesses that nine out of every 10 customers do buy store items.

“I certainly try to be subtle,” Yang said. “This wouldn’t be a problem if the visitors center was open.”

Not an option

The Forest Service center, located near the junction of Highway 88 and State Route 89 has been closed since the fall. Without staffing and the financial resources to pay for utilities, the agency can’t open the center and its two bathrooms. According to Jackie Faike, an interpretive program manager for the Forest Service, it would cost approximately $20,000 to run the center during the winter.

“It’s a nice option to provide but we can’t right now,” Faike said. “We can’t open it and walk away. We need a level of commitment from people who are willing to make it happen.”

The site was designed as an interim facility in 1992 to eventually make way for a year-round location nearby. Although Faike said the new center isn’t in the immediate future, the Forest Service is still banking that it will be an attraction and a relief in the Meyers community.

“They don’t want to pay for snow removal and maintenance but they want to spend millions of dollars on a new visitors center?” Yang questioned. “Paying for those costs is a lot less than what they are asking for that facility.”

The short-term solution may mobile bathrooms, which would provide visitors with an outlet and take away some of the forced duties of businesses.

“This might be an opportunity to move forward and look for another source of funding,” Faike said. “This may be the time for the businesses to partner with public agencies to resolve this problem.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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