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National Park Status Boosts Tourism and Hopes

Madison Williams

About a year ago, Pinnacles National Monument became Pinnacles National Park. The new designation was expected to boost tourism at the park and economic development in nearby cities like Soledad.  So has it?

“Pinnacles is full of possibilities for the visitor: hiking, bird-watching, getting close to the geology by climbing,” said Karen Beppler-Dorn, Superintendent at Pinnacles National Park.

And since Pinnacles officially became a National Park in February 2013, Beppler-Dorn says more people have been enjoying those possibilities. 

“We have seen an increase in visitor use in the park, and some of the ways we’ve noticed it is in terms of our through the door numbers in our visitors centers. We’ve also seen a rise in the amount of fee money we’re collecting, and also our partner bookstore has had record sales,” said Beppler-Dorn.

Two-thirds of the park’s visitors come in through the east entrance, about 30 miles outside of the city of Hollister.  It’s the only side of the park that offers camping.

But it’s on the west side of Pinnacles where you’ll find a city trying to make the most of having a National Park in its backyard.  “You know there’s only 59 of them in this country, and it’s pretty cool to have something this close to us,” said Brent Slama, Director of Economic Development for the City of Soledad.

Soledad is an agricultural town south of Salinas is home to one of California’s state prisons.  It’s also just ten miles from Pinnacles’ west entrance.  

In August, Soledad will open up a new visitor center near the corner of Front and Main Streets.  It’s part of the city’s strategy to seize what Slama calls a rare opportunity.

“There’s not many opportunities to change a culture,” said Slama.  “I know that there’s been a culture of Soledad you know you think about it as being agricultural or related to the prison, and there’s been a desire to be more diversified than that.  And so you see the branding effort gateway to the pinnacles that was something we really pushed hard for,” said Slama.

While Pinnacles has always brought visitors through Soledad, in the year since it’s status switched from national monument to national park, Slama says the city’s sales tax receipts are up 11%. 

At Frankie’s Grill in downtown Soledad, owner Mary Ledesma says it’s easy to spot the customers who are here for the national park.

“You can tell that they’ve either been up there by the shoes they wear-they’re usually wearing boots or hiking boots. You can just tell when somebody’s not a local,” said Ledesma.

For years, Frankie’s grill has had a billboard on the road that visitors take out of the park.  “The majority of people that come here, it’s because they’ve seen that,” said Ledesma

But Brent Slama says not all local businesses have tried to tap into this new market.  “We have great authentic food here, it’s just making sure that they’re able to handle those types of visitors. A lot of them have been in business for quite some time and haven’t grasped on to concepts like Yelp,” said Slama.

The city has secured a grant so it can offer low interest business improvement loans.  And then there’s the new visitors center that will give tourists a place to stop and learn about other things Soledad has to offer like the nearby River Road Wine Trail.

“Our ultimate goal is right now,  to really focus on the day trip market, meaning pushing at the hotels on the Peninsula through their concierge, through their folder racks, to say, make a day trip to Soledad. And if it just means you just stop here for lunch, then there’s tax revenue in that for the city,” said Slama.

And eventually, the hope is day trips will become overnight trips.   And Soledad will attract new businesses and possibly even another hotel. 

Madison Williams is a summer news intern at KAZU.