For Estes, a holiday that almost wasn’t

ESTES PARK – Lights twinkle in store windows. Soft snow crunches under the boots of passersby. Aromas of taffy and caramel corn float through the air. A herd of shaggy elk can be seen grazing on a nearby hill. All that’s missing from downtown Estes Park are throngs of holiday visitors.

Twelve weeks ago Estes became a ghost town when historic floods wiped out the two main highways that bring visitors from around the world to the scenic mountain community that lies at the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Local retailers are still reeling from the absence of shoppers. So far, six businesses have closed their doors either early or indefinitely because of hardships, made worse by the flood.

Some business owners such as Diane Muno are just now getting their stores open again. Muno owns the historic Spruce House, home of The Christmas Shoppe store, along Fall River. The 99-year-old building sustained severe flood damage from river overflow. After restoration and repairs, it reopened Nov. 20, just in time for the holiday season.

“Initially it was overwhelming to look at the devastation,” Muno said. “The easy part was being able to replace inventory items. That’s a finite thing. The amount of support and encouragement from this community has overwhelmed me, too, because that kind of encouragement has been what’s allowed us to sustain hope.”

Muno owns three other stores in Estes Park, all of which incurred little or no damage and reopened within days after the flood. However, the lack of foot traffic from visitors and tourists has caused a significant decline in revenue, which has been just as devastating.

Absent tourists

“We lost our visitors and our guests, and that hurt economically,” she said. “That part you can’t get back. We really do need to see people come in and support the community.”

Every year, more than 2 million people from around the world come to stay in this remote resort hamlet. Whether it’s the day-tripper or the week-long vacationer, local businesses depend on the $187 million in annual spending from tourists to stay afloat. Revenue from tourism makes up 60 percent to 70 percent of Estes Park’s economy, money that has been absent since September’s devastating rains and flooding.

Estes Park now has survived three major floods in less than 40 years, the most recent of which occurred only 12 weeks ago. Rains came down and the waters rose, washing away houses, destroying businesses and demolishing the two major highways that lead into town. As if that weren’t enough, the federal government’s October shutdown closed Rocky Mountain National Park.

“Fall is the time of year when the leaves start to change and the elk come out,” Mayor Bill Pinkham said. “Those are both big tourist attractions that usually draw a lot of people. There was nobody this year. You could have been bowling down Main Street.”

In the weeks since, the hard work of restoration has begun, with volunteers and federal agencies taking up residence at the iconic Stanley Hotel. The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Disaster Recovery Center staffers have helped hundreds of individuals with disaster-assistance loans. Businesses will use these loans to rebuild, repair and replace anything that was damaged – or simply to remain open.

More than $4 million in SBA loans has been disbursed to businesses in Larimer County with more being approved every day. The deadline to apply has been extended to Dec. 2.

“Business owners are still coming in to see SBA,´ said Michael Flores, public information officer for the SBA disaster-assistance office. “The business leaders in Estes Park are striving to do everything in their power to recover.”

In fact, some business owners have banded together to create a virtual online shopping mall. Merchants from 17 stores have their products featured on in an effort to generate sales.

While small business owners may be struggling, larger corporations and companies have fared far better after the flood. The iconic Stanley Hotel, for instance, is projected to have a stronger holiday season than last year.

John Cullen, owner and president of Grand Heritage Hotel Group, which owns the Stanley, said the hotel has experienced no loss of room bookings because of the flood. “We’re only $1,400 behind the pace of last October when we did have roads,” he said.

A week before Thanksgiving, the hotel had 44 of 140 rooms left to fill to reach capacity.

The influx of people may lift the town’s spirits and economy.

“Seven days after the flood, the town resembled a remote island,” Cullen said. But now, “it has come back alive.”

Lifelines severed

Major routes – U.S. Highways 34 and 36 and Colorado Highway 7 – that allowed metropolitan dwellers access to the town’s high-altitude, low-stress inns and hiking trails were wiped out in the flooding. The Big Thompson River along U.S. 34, for instance, washed away 17 miles of road in one section.

For eight weeks, from mid-September to early November, Estes was a town stranded often with no way in or out. Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Department of Transportation vowed to get all road repairs completed by Dec. 1 – and they did.

On Nov. 4, U.S. 36 reopened, and on Nov. 21 U.S. 34 opened as well.

“How they got the roads back up and running in 52 days is amazing,” Cullen said. “The ability to get that done is nothing short of miraculous. They are our lifeline from big cities into the town.”

Holiday events once destined for cancellation are back on the calendar. The Nov. 29 Catch the Glow parade usually draws upwards of 30,000 people.

Tax revenue tanks

Although the highways are open and businesses are back up and running, Estes Park hasn’t yet breathed a sigh of relief.

It’s estimated the town will lose $1.5 million in tax revenue, which will have an impact for months to come, said Brooke Burnham, director of communications and public relations for the convention and visitors’ bureau.

In an effort to combat that loss, the town’s marketing and tourism organization Visit Estes Park has applied for a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to fund a post-flood tourism marketing campaign to remind people worldwide that the town is open for business again.

“If we can’t combat the national perception that Estes is damaged and inaccessible, it will just perpetuate this scenario,” Burnham said. “Our town comeback will go from months to as long as two years.”

“Mountain Strong”

“The community has really come together through all of this,” Pinkham said. “There is a tremendous community spirit.”

The townspeople of Estes Park have done their job to resuscitate the town’s economy and morale.

Two days after the rains came down, two community members created the Estes Park Community Flood Recovery organization. Via social media, they kept individuals abreast of updates, recovery locations and ways to assist those in dire need. Additionally, they created ‘Mountain Strong’ apparel, which was sold to raise money for flood recovery.

Businesses also stepped up. They created a Support Estes Park fund where businesses donated products to create gift baskets sold online. All proceeds from the gift baskets went directly to United Way of Larimer County. In addition to the gift baskets, gift certificates could be purchased, or an individual could simply make a donation. All proceeds raised will stay in the Estes Park area.

“People wanting to help support us in our recovery are going to be key for us.” Burnham said. “The infrastructure is starting to come together with the highways and businesses open. Structurally we’re doing really well. Now we really need that economic recovery to kick in to gear.”

Nov. 30 is Small Business Saturday, a campaign to encourage shoppers to visit local businesses and show their support.

With both highways open and the holidays fast approaching, Estes Park is hoping the holiday season ushers in a strong 2014.

“We’re trying to figure out how to tell the world, ‘Hey, we’re still in business,’ ” Cullen said.

Early indicators are that the town hasn’t been forgotten. In the October edition of Travel & Leisure magazine, Estes Park was ranked second as America’s Favorite Town.

There are very few reminders of the crisis the town went through just a few months ago and town officials say this bodes well for the future.

“We’re hopeful for this holiday season,” Pinkham said. “We want to let people know that we are back, stronger than ever.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described SBA workers at the Stanley Hotel as being “volunteers.” In fact, they are employees of the SBA.

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