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One Road, Two Cities, Enduring Challenges After Colorado Floods

Grace Hood
Neil Sullivan stands at the counter of his deli, The St. Vrain Market in Lyons, Colo.

It’s been six months since heavy rain flooded 24 Colorado counties, damaging businesses, homes, roads and ending 10 lives. An estimated 28,000 residents were impacted and nearly 1,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

When it comes to business, the small towns of Lyons and Estes Park have faced a particularly steep road to recovery.

While town operations have been restored for months, many tourism dependent businesses are finding that the scars — and financial struggles — remain.

“Even today we get questions from people — particularly out of state — wanting to know, can you get to Estes Park, does it still exist?” said Estes Park Town Administrator Frank Lancaster. “So there’s a lot that we’re concerned about from a marketing standpoint letting people know that Northern Colorado is back.”

A recent tour of Estes shows that most businesses along Elkhorn Avenue are back. Today many shops and restaurants have made repairs and reopened. But March is still considered the slow season.

“It’s been a challenging winter, even more so than normal,” said Julie Pieper, owner of Mama Rose’s and Poppy’s restaurants along with her husband, Rob.

The Piepers saw severe damage in both restaurants from flooding. They’re back up and running again, but like many shop owners, they’re not opening their doors at the most auspicious time.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Near downtown Estes Park, a chalkboard collects reflections on how the September flood impacted town.

“Right now it’s from one holiday weekend to the next,” said Julie Pieper. “Get through Christmas, get to Valentine’s, get through spring break, and hopefully summer will hit early and then we’ll be back to normal.”

A few blocks away at Kind Coffee, owner Amy Hamrick recently spent about $75,000 repairing her shop,  located right on Black Canyon Creek. The waterway started expanding beyond its banks the evening of September 11.

“We ended up gutting the whole building. Everything came out: the floors, the walls, the bathrooms, the coffee bar,” she said.

Having reopened in December, Hamrick says sales were strong. Overall she says she’s been happy with how her business has done since it’s reopened.

“Given the road situation, and a lot of people locally have tightened their belts to get through the winter,” she said. “That affects your ability to come spend $3 on your latte.”

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Amy Hamrick, owner of Kind Coffee, stands in her newly rebuilt store after it was flooded in September 2013.

Brooke Burnham with Visit Estes Park says the town is expecting a strong crowd for spring break. Looking ahead to the summer, early bookings are slightly down.

“We’re doing everything we can to get the word out and let people know that they’ll have a good experience when they get here,” she said.

Estes Park is ramping up advertising to get out that message. They’re hoping to replace the last images that most out-of-state people saw: flooded buildings, empty store shelves and miles of impassible mountain highways torn apart by water.

Today all of the damaged roads have been temporarily repaired and reconnected. Now the state is launching a series of ambitious projects to make roads more sustainable for future flooding. The first project has already begun on U.S. Highway 36 between Estes Park and Lyons. 

“The reality is full reconstruction and full recovery from an incident like this with the floods really will take years," said Amy Ford with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Ford says the goal is to move the road away from the river, something they hope to complete before the summer tourism season kicks off. 

Down at the other end of the U.S. 36. canyon, the 2,000-person town of Lyons is in the midst of $60 million in repairs to its infrastructure.

“You see life back in Lyons,” said Mayor Julie Van Domelen.

Businesses here have different challenges compared to Estes Park. That’s because key attractions like river kayaking and camping may be limited due to the severe flood damage.

“So we’re fearful for the summer, trying to come up with different events,” said Mayor Van Domelen.  "Trying to market Lyons in a different way.”

All this adds up to a complicated financial puzzle for Lyons store owners Neil and Connie Sullivan. The couple shelled out tens of thousands to repair and restock their deli, The St. Vrain Market. They also deferred loans for several months.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
A sign right outside the St. Vrain Market in Lyons.

“So many businesses like us that were able to defer debt are now facing — I hate to use this word — but a second flood, a flood of debt that’s now coming due,” said Neil.

Similar to the efforts in Estes, the town of Lyons is stepping up efforts to attract in-state visitors in the spring. During the summer, leaders are planning to host at least one event per weekend to attract tourists.

It's an effort that neither town will have to shoulder alone. The annual summer ad campaign is set to launch soon from Colorado Tourism Office.

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