Estes Park hoping RMNP milestone boosts flood-battered economy

ESTES PARK – Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Rocky Mountain National Park, but the tourist-dependent town of Estes Park at the preserve’s eastern gateway has planned centennial-themed events throughout 2015 to aid its businesses’ economic recovery from the catastrophic flood of September 2013.

“Some of the events will be directly related to the centennial,” said Brooke Burnham, communications director for Visit Estes Park, “but we also are incorporating centennial-related elements into our existing annual events.” The town hosts a voluminous schedule of annual events, including one of the largest “Highland Games” events in North America, the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Festival, in early September.

A commemoration at the park’s headquarters at noon Monday, complete with a birthday cake, was just the opening salvo in a series of events scheduled by the park, the town, local museums and area businesses – all designed to lure visitors and help heal the impact of the economic double whammy the town experienced nearly a year and a half ago. First, the flood made most highways into Estes Park impassable at the peak of the fall aspen-viewing influx. Then, just as the Colorado Department of Transportation reopened most of the roads in at least a temporary fashion, a federal government shutdown in early October closed the park.

A look at the national park’s attendance numbers tells the story. September and October 2014, the height of the leaf-peeping season, saw 843,345 visitors, capping off a year that saw a record 3.4 million visits. The same two months in 2013, however, drew only 319,742 visitors.

Based on past monthly numbers, the town of Estes Park lost an estimated $462,774 in sales-tax revenue in September and October 2013, leading to an annual collection of $7.69 million, which was 4 percent below the total for 2012. That’s a major impact for a town with a $12 million annual operating budget.

The figures rebounded in 2014, and Visit Estes Park officials hope 2015 will be even better, fueled both by publicity about the centennial and by the reopening of Fall River Road, the winding, one-way alternate route to the Alpine Visitor Center. That road, as well as several park trails, had been closed last year because of flood damage.

The park is working with the gateway towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, as well as sites along the Front Range, to promote centennial-related events. The park’s website includes an events calendar with a voluminous number of centennial-related activities, from museum exhibits to seminars, multimedia presentations, concerts and living-history depictions. Meanwhile, several lodging and dining businesses are offering centennial-themed discount specials on the Visit Estes Park website.