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TOURISM FLOWS AGAIN AFTER FLOOD

SHARE TOURISM FLOWS AGAIN AFTER FLOOD

To borrow a line from Hannibal's favorite son, reports of this town's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Visitors are again walking along the cobblestones on Hill Street to tour the two-story frame house where Mark Twain grew up and see the tall board fence made famous by "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."They're scurrying to the riverfront for rides on the Mark Twain Riverboat, which sat idle most of last summer during the Great Flood of '93. Ten new downtown shops have opened this year, and six attractions are expanding.

"I'm very proud of the tourism community. They're coming back bigger and better than ever," said Faye Bleigh, director of Hannibal's visitors bureau.

Tourism is this northeastern Missouri town's No. 2 industry, employing 1,500 people and generating about $13 million annually. Then the Mississippi River overflowed its banks last summer in the worst flood in the city's history.

"We had what you would call a rotten season," said riverboat owner Robert Lumpp.

Hannibal wasn't alone in its misery. From east-central Missouri's wine country to the French colonial village of Ste. Genevieve to the quaint shops in St. Charles, the flood nearly wiped out tourism in 1993.

"We were basically out of business for nine weeks," said Jim Ashby of the Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, 70 miles west of St. Louis on the Missouri River.

Business was down about 90 percent during most of the summer at Lucretia's Restaurant in Ste. Genevieve, about 60 miles south of St. Louis on the Mississippi.

"Our business consisted strictly of flood workers, the National Guard and city workers," owner Ann Hadel said. "The entire summer was completely devastated."

Many tourist spots stayed high and dry during the flood. In Hannibal, one residential neighborhood was flooded; downtown was saved by a levee finished just months before the flood.

But some would-be visitors apparently thought all of Hannibal was under water. And flooded highways and closed bridges prevented many from reaching Missouri tourist spots anyway.

"When every bridge from St. Louis to Davenport, Iowa, was closed, Hannibal became very out-of-the-way," said Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Museum.

Business was off 75 percent at the Becky Thatcher Book Store. Museum attendance was down 90 percent in July and August. Crowds were down 70 percent for the year at the Mark Twain Cave, where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher ran from Injun Joe.

"The first night after CNN announced Hannibal was under water, we had 45 cancellations," said T.C. Shethi, owner of the Hotel Clemens. "The next night we had 68."

The lack of tourists gave business owners a chance to spruce up for this year.

Construction crews and painters covered much of downtown Hannibal, and the state repaired the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge while it was closed.

Lumpp will open a new restaurant with a river view this month. At the cave, workers were finishing a sluice where visitors will be able to pan a creek for gold and gemstones.

The outlook is bright in other towns, too.

St. Charles, Missouri's first state capital, is celebrating its 225th year with a new attraction - a riverboat casino, which opened Friday.