Labor Day Tourism Bill May Settle Debate

June 5, 2002
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Legislation pending in Lansing would make the Friday before Labor Day a permanent day off for students across Michigan, replacing a temporary measure passed two years ago that was designed to boost the state’s $10.1 billion tourism industry.

While backers of the proposal had initially agreed to hold off debate on making the law permanent until they could obtain data on its effectiveness, they now see the issue as one that needs settling so schools can plan well into the future when they set school calendars as part of union negotiations, said state Rep. Scott Shackleton, R-Sault Saint Marie.

“The schools need to know now whether this is going to be built into their contracts or not. They need to know whether this is going to be in effect or not be in effect,” said Shackelton, the bill’s sponsor who has adopted a “why wait” view of the issue.

“I’d kind of like to just end the debate,” he said. “I just think it’s a common sense measure.”

Legislators in 1999, striking a compromise between tourism and education interests, enacted a three-year law that prohibits public and private schools from holding classes the Friday before Labor Day weekend. The goal was to create a four-day holiday weekend that provides a late-season boost to the state’s tourism industry.

With increasing state mandates, schools for years have been pushing up the start of classes into late August. The net result for tourism operators is a significant drop in business by mid-August, as families move into a back-to-school mode.

“There’s still tourism activity, but we do lose that segment of the family get-away,” said Laurel Nease, coordinator for the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Area Visitors Bureau.

Tourism-related businesses have also complained about losing the bulk of their summer workforce, as teen-agers quit jobs to go back to school.

Shackleton’s bill would remove the sunset provision in the 1999 law, which for now is due to expire after Labor Day in 2002.

Opponents of keeping schools closed the Friday before Labor Day argue that it wrestles away local control from school boards to set their annual school calendar, and it creates problems for parents who aren’t able to get the day off from work to spend with their children.

Tourism promoters are eager to see the measure become law, especially with first-year data showing that business was up for Labor Day weekend in 2000 from the previous year.

Travel Michigan, the state agency responsible for promoting the state’s travel industry, cites a non-scientific survey conducted just after the holiday last year that found local convention and visitors bureaus reporting a nearly 50 percent increase in business, with many crediting the new four-day weekend.

“You can do one last fling at the beach or one last family-time together,” said Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.

Another survey, conducted by the Travel Industry Coalition of Michigan, found 33 percent of the respondents saying the four-day holiday made their travel plans easier.

Shackleton’s bill cleared the House Commerce Committee June 12 on a nearly unanimous vote and is pending in the full House, which he expects will approve it and send the measure on to the Senate for consideration.

Among the sponsors of the bill are Reps. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, and Jerry Kooiman, R-Grand Rapids.

If the industry is to build on any success of last year and generate results from having school closed the Friday before Labor Day, businesses will need to do a better job marketing the holiday weekend and destinations to potential travelers, Nease said. Her goal in Grand Haven right now is to build greater awareness of the current four-day holiday.

“We have to try to get the word out,” Nease said.

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