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Gasp prices

Lindsey Heilman wants to drive home to Bismarck during the Memorial Day weekend, but gas prices are just too high. "I'm sick of 'em," said the 21-year-old Minnesota State University Moorhead student. "I would like to go home more often, but I jus...

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Lindsey Heilman wants to drive home to Bismarck during the Memorial Day weekend, but gas prices are just too high.

"I'm sick of 'em," said the 21-year-old Minnesota State University Moorhead student. "I would like to go home more often, but I just can't."

Gas prices nationwide have reached record highs, even after adjusting for inflation.

Statistics show North Dakota's gas prices normally hover at or below the national average. But as of Wednesday morning, North Dakota's average price of $3.36 per gallon was the 12th-highest of all states.

That level was also 4 cents above the national average, according to GasBuddy.com, a Web site that keeps track of daily gas prices across the United States.

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AAA North Dakota spokesman Gene LaDoucer said mechanical and maintenance problems at refineries are causing regional gas prices to increase more than normal.

"The refineries that supply us with gasoline have been struggling," LaDoucer said. "By and large, that's affecting the entire energy market, but it's hitting the Midwest and the Great Lakes areas the hardest."

Fargo's average price of $3.29 per gallon is higher than in metropolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia and the Twin Cities.

Experts and residents said the rising price of gas won't greatly influence Memorial Day weekend travel plans, but it might change the type of vehicles people buy.

Hurting the holiday?

AAA expects an increase of 1.7 percent in the number of Memorial Day travelers compared to last year.

It estimates that more than 38.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this weekend.

That's up from 38.3 million travelers during Memorial Day weekend in 2006.

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"Being a three-day weekend, the gas prices don't have as significant an impact as they would on the longer vacations people normally take in the summer," LaDoucer said.

While refilling the tank on his Chevrolet TrailBlazer on Wednesday afternoon, Gerald Hagene said he'll stay at his Fargo home during the weekend holiday. And he plans to adjust daily travel because of the higher prices.

"I just drive less," Hagene said, as the pump reached upward of $40 to fill his vehicle.

North Dakota and Minnesota tourism officials see positive outlooks for summer tourism and don't expect gas prices to deter travelers.

"We might see consumers modify their travel by staying close to home or staying one less night," said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Heilman, the MSUM student, said she'll be one of those who take fewer weekend trips this summer in order to save money, including not going home for Memorial Day.

"Going to the lakes every weekend - I might not do that anymore, either, because I don't want to spend $40 for gas every time I go," she said.

The price of gas is a topic every summer for officials, Edman said, and the result is the same.

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"People still like to take their vacations," he said. "It's a conversation we've been having for several years ... and gas prices aren't having as big an impact as we thought they might."

Evolving mindsets

Fuel efficiency was a top priority for Heilman when she recently searched for a new car.

She went from a sport utility vehicle to a Toyota Corolla sedan, which she said offered more miles for her money - even though the price of gas still gets her when it's time to fuel up.

"The gas mileage is a lot better, but I'm still paying $40 every time," she said.

Some area car dealerships said they've noticed more consumers like Heilman, who are more concerned with fuel efficiency than they have been in the past.

"We are seeing a significant increase in people who are looking for the more energy-efficient, high-volume vehicles," said Casey Lindgren, a sales manager for new cars at Corwin Chrysler Dodge in Fargo.

Lindgren said the shift prompted Corwin to change its marketing strategy toward consumers, focusing more on high-performance minivans than the SUVs.

"It's been a dramatic change in what people are looking for," he said.

But some dealers, such as Gateway Chevrolet Cadillac in Fargo, said they aren't noticing a difference in consumers' mindset.

"Truck buyers are still buying trucks, and car buyers are still buying cars," sales manager John Cole said. "It's not much of a change."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 235-7311

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