They tried to retreat, but after only a summer hiatus, the appeal of Presque Isle’s beaches was too strong.
Ken Phillips, 75, and Diane Phillips, 60, have operated at least one concession stand in Presque Isle State Park since 1996 – almost seven days a week all summer. They started after Ken was laid off from what was then called GE Transport Systems in 1995.
“We laugh because I said I would get him a job,” said Diane Phillips. And that’s exactly what she did.
First they took over the booth at Beach 8, then Beach 11 in 1997, Beach 10 in 1998, and finally (she couldn’t remember exactly when) Beach 6, meaning all four state booths in Presque Isle State Park.
Meanwhile, Diane didn’t retire from kindergarten classes at the Iroquois Elementary School until 2018. For more than 20 years she did both.
“That was pretty tough,” she said. “The month of May has always been pretty busy.”
But she had the challenge well in hand and opened on time, clean and stocked every year.
“We are dealing with a system,” said Diane Phillips. “Every beach has a system of who is where and what is done. And there is a map of what is in the cooler.”
Outbid, but then back in
However, by that summer of 2018, their contract had expired and they thought they were done. At least Diane.
“I didn’t bid at first,” she said. “But the state called and said they couldn’t find anyone, so we bid because we thought we would help.”
But then someone else outbid the Phillips and then they were actually done. Type of.
Ken Phillips said he was okay with that. He said he was ready to finish. He and Diane stored the equipment they owned and expected the new owner to want them, or at least looked at them.
More about PISP:Presque Isle Bus and Water Taxi: You will be returning for the summer, you will not
That didn’t work out so well, said the Phillipses. Diane Phillips’ cards were ignored, she said, and the new boss, who lived in Pittsburgh, was doing poorly. The state called and asked the Phillipses if they would be back.
They are now in their third year of a five-year contract signed in 2019.
Preparation for the opening and the challenges
Preparing every booth for the season was a big job this year, and one that was fraught with uncertainty. They were open during the pandemic in 2020 and said they were busier than ever. They thought going to the beach was just something people could do outside. With so many other summer activities closed or restricted, the beach beckoned.
The challenge this year is to hire enough workers to fill the stands. Diane Phillips said some 2020 employees said they would be back, but they haven’t heard from them, and they might not even have enough newbies to open the stands unless they do double duty themselves.
“You’re coming in,” said Diane Philips. “I have a meeting with five new ones this week. We usually employ 15 to 20 years.”
Then there is the weather. Always the weather. They shut themselves off and basically followed the lifeguards’ instructions. However, the weather on beach 6 may be different than on beach 11.
“It’s a game you play every day,” said Ken Phillips. “We have to think about the number of cars, the sales and the weather,” he waved in frustration.
Diane laughs at her husband’s demeanor. She said she and her friends call him “the Mayor of Presque Isle”.
“He knows every inch of this park,” said Diane. “He gives the (park) maintenance staff advice on how to solve problems. He speaks to everyone on the beach.
“Someday I hope they’ll name a tree after him or something,” she said.
That would explain, as Ken Phillips knows, that Erieites would be surprised at how many visitors PISP is getting from Ohio and Pittsburgh.
“They say, ‘We didn’t even know you were here,'” said Ken Phillips.
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And even locals don’t know they have more than hot dogs and ice cream (new hand-dipped hard ice cream will be available this summer, by the way. It comes from the Brandy Camp Creamery in St. Marys in honor of the park’s 100th anniversary.)
More anniversary reporting:Presque Isle Partnership announces visitor challenge to celebrate 100 years of the park
They also have lounge chairs, umbrellas, and boogie boards for rent, sunscreen, Tylenol, T-shirts, towels, and beach toys for purchase.
“The only things we don’t have are charcoal and lighter fluid,” said Diane Phillips. “I don’t know if people know what we’re wearing. You don’t have to leave the beach to get anything.”
And ice cream. Diane Phillips said Ken spent most of 2020 delivering ice from a single ice machine they owned across the peninsula.
“No more ice cream,” said Ken.
“We’re going to have ice cream,” said Diane.
For 2020 they got an ice cream seller. Problem solved.
“We just think it’s fun (to work in the stands),” said Diane. “I love to be super busy. We have a good time. There are good and bad days.”
Don’t ask the Phillipses about the new Beach 8 facility. Ken Phillips said the sewer was driven back into the sewer four times last year, it has no ventilation, the floors are already cracking, and he doesn’t like the direction it is pointing. But he said none of this was stopping customers.
“Beach 8 was crazy busy,” he said in 2020. “But Beach 6 is always the busiest.” Beaches 10 and 11 aren’t slow, he said, but they’re more unpredictable.
More beach 8:The electric vehicle charging stations at Presque Isle State Park are slated to go live in May
The Phillipses anticipate a big year in 2021, when mask mandates will be lifted and people will feel more secure with COVID vaccinations and a falling number of new cases. They are ready to open Saturday.
“Now I think more people will come out because it’s like a weight has been lifted,” she said. “I mean, we still have to be careful. We still have to take security measures, but I just feel it. Everywhere you go. People are ready.”
And after 25 years, so are the Phillipses.
Contact Jennie Geisler at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ETNgeisler.