Entrepreneurs / Small Business  May 3, 2024

Estes Park’s taffy tycoon now has more pull

ESTES PARK — Nine years ago, Mark Igel was an outspoken rebel. Now he’s part of the establishment and still coming to grips with what that means.

“Now, when I say, ‘Dammit, someone should do something,’ that’s what other people were thinking when they voted for me on their ballot and said ‘That’s the guy!’ Now it’s up to me to try to help soften the impact of the decisions we’ve made,” said Igel, who was elected in April to a seat on the town’s Board of Trustees.

Mark Igel
Estes Park Town Trustee Mark Igel. Courtesy town of Estes Park

“It’s a strange position for me to be in,” he said, “because I feel like I have responsibility for all these people who say ‘OK, you’re there now. Get something done.’”

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A decade ago, Igel, whose Taffy Shop has operated for 89 years near Estes Park’s hot corner of Elkhorn and Moraine avenues, had been a fierce and vocal opponent of the Downtown Estes Loop, a plan that will turn sections of Elkhorn, Moraine and West and East Riverside Drives into one-way streets in an effort to speed summer traffic to and from Rocky Mountain National Park.

He was a leader of the opposition responsible for the “No Action on the Loop” signs that dotted his own and many other downtown store windows, blasted the plan as “the most bungled project I’ve ever seen run,” and told BizWest in 2015 that people had asked him, “When do I lay down in front of the bulldozer?”

Have Igel’s feelings about the project changed in 2024?

“Nope,” he said. “I was not in favor of it. I still don’t like it. The Loop isn’t any better an idea today than the first day I heard of it. I’m resigned to it sadly. I’m not an automatic ally who’s on board with it by being elected to the town board. I think that’s why I was elected, because I’ve spoken honestly.”

Tapping into the dry wit that has always been his trademark, Igel added, “I was thinking I own a taffy shop; I wish I had a lot more pull down here.”

Town trustees approved the plan in late 2016 over strident opposition from many downtown businesses and residents, and construction has been underway since early last year.

The plan concerns the routing of U.S. Highway 36 through the center of the tourism-dependent town. Westbound traffic toward the national park now will travel west on Elkhorn past the heart of downtown’s gift retailers, restaurants and outdoor stores as well as The Taffy Shop, then turn left on Moraine and travel south and then west along the Big Thompson River. Eastbound traffic out of the park, however, will now go through a roundabout at Moraine Avenue’s curve, then be diverted onto West Riverside Drive and East Riverside Drive before reaching Elkhorn on the east end of downtown.

Opponents claimed that drivers leaving the park would miss most of downtown and not want to circle back.

“Nine years ago, we were having this conversation about visitors’ ‘exit strategy,’ and we still are,” Igel said, adding that hungry tourists leaving the park in late afternoon and reaching the corner of Elkhorn and Riverside are likely to say, “Should we go left and fight this traffic, or bite the bullet for 30 minutes and we’ll be in Lyons or Boulder?”

The construction work itself has created some heated exchanges at recent public meetings, especially since it’s coupled with other disruptive projects including a roundabout on U.S. 36 at Community Drive, just west of the highway’s crossing of Lake Estes on the east edge of town.

“I understand the pains that go with construction,” Igel said. “We have a collection of projects that have, in addition to the Loop, increased the anxiety and frustration.

“This creates challenges for everybody and it ain’t even summer yet,” he said. “With everything together, it creates a synergistic, tangible impact on visitors today and future visitors.”

One of those projects is a multi-million-dollar flood-control initiative to help narrow the designated floodplain and keep the town’s core safe from events such as the September 2013 deluge. Igel recalled a May 1 meeting about that issue, in which the moderator opened discussion by stating that any comments about the Loop are not part of this project. 

“They knew it was going to come up,” Igel said. “This is still such a hot topic.”

The project, Igel said, “will have a great positive impact but, like the Loop, it’s also going to create a big headache.”

He said a local businessman whose family owns several hotels totaling around 200 rooms told city officials at that meeting, “You all are talking about all of these things, but you’re not talking about the emotional level. People are already at their wit’s end.”

The town has tried its best to ease that angst about the Loop with periodic, detailed email newsletters listing what to expect, when and where. It maintains a hotline at 970-880-2373 and a project website at downtownestesloop.com, and pleads with residents to “please remember to frequent those businesses that are heavily impacted during this phase of construction.”

The flood-control plan “needs that kind of public engagement to succeed,” he said. “With the Loop, a huge amount of negative public input was just overlooked.”

“I know that some people are frustrated right now, and it’s hard for them,” said Visit Estes Park CEO Kara Franker. “We want to try to promote those businesses as much as we can.”

She likened businesses’ complaints about the Loop to the initial reaction when Rocky Mountain National Park instituted a timed-entry program to ease overcrowding. Now, several years into the program, she said, “people are getting used to timed entry and planning ahead. They’re starting to learn it’s just part of the system and adapting.

“We can’t go backward, only forward,” Franker said. “My hope is that when the Loop is done, it’s going to help the traffic flow and make a better experience for visitors and residents. But of course it’s painful getting there.”

Painful is right, Igel said. He used to be able to drive from his store a block south on Moraine to the post office, then back the same way. “Now it’s going through three signaled intersections to get back to where I started,” he said. “I think that the impact on people who use the route regularly is going to be more significant than was portrayed.”

But since the election, he’s not just a business owner any more.

“It’s quite the change in perspective,” Igel said. “There’s a tremendous amount of information, even in a town this size, that has to be considered on a daily basis. I love the information, the opportunity, the challenge and the trust people have put in me. It has motivated me to be more on top of things than I was six months ago.

“I feel some responsibility today for not marching right down to Town Hall, picking up a red phone and saying we need to do something now!”

His job now is to help make the new configuration work, he said, but at the same time, “I hope that I can remain true to my passion and my candid approach to difficult subjects.” And he’s been telling constituents, “If I get off track, ask me why, because there should either be a good reason or I need a good kick in the pants.”

He still believes the Loop will have an impact on the character of Estes Park. “I’m willing to admit if it’s better,” Igel said, “but if it’s not, at least I’m in a position to have a vote to make it better.”

Meanwhile, he said, “Visit the Taffy Shop — if you can find us.”

Mark Igel was an outspoken rebel. Now he’s part of the establishment and still coming to grips with what that means.

Dallas Heltzell
With BizWest since 2012 and in Colorado since 1979, Dallas worked at the Longmont Times-Call, Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Post and Public News Service. A Missouri native and Mizzou School of Journalism grad, Dallas started as a sports writer and outdoor columnist at the St. Charles (Mo.) Banner-News, then went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before fleeing the heat and humidity for the Rockies. He especially loves covering our mountain communities.
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