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Tinsel, Taffy and Trump: Estes Park Business Owners Look To 2017

David Anderson
The Taffy Shop, on Elkhorn Ave. in Estes Park.

The fall of 2013 did not seem like a great time to buy a small candy store in Estes Park. The town’s economy was in iffy shape. Flooding had decimated roads into and out of the mountain community. Internet and cellphone service, not to mention grocery delivery, were out for days.

Right after the flood, Mark and Kelly Igel took the plunge and bought the Taffy Shop - and the secret recipe from the retiring original owner. They were betting that people would still come to the tourism-dependent town on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park for a piece of old-fashioned candy and charm.

“We’ve lived here for years,” Mark Igel said. “We knew the town would bounce back.”

Fast forward to 2016, the store is doing well. The taffy, served in clear bins, is sometimes familiar, like cinnamon and chocolate. Other flavors are more unique, like Texas pecan and salted caramel. The floor looks like a checkerboard, and the walls are as yellow as the lemon taffy. The old cash register is gone, replaced by an iPad hidden behind the counter. Taped to it is a list of period appropriate music employees can choose from, like Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters.

“You can spot the people who come here just for our taffy,” he said. “You see a little old lady get out of her gold Cadillac. They park in the loading zone, right in front, come in and buy $100 worth of taffy, and say, ‘See you next year.’”

That customer loyalty has helped the now 81-year-old Taffy Shop survive economic ups and downs, including the Great Depression. Keeping a family-run small business open in the internet age is no easy feat, but Igel feels confident about 2017, partly because Donald Trump was elected president.

“I’m optimistic… For a decade I’ve been thinking that we need a businessman to turn around our country because politics are not working in our favor,” said Igel. “So as rough as this election was, I think things are going well for Estes Park, for the Taffy Shop, for our family… I hope for our country.”

Economists call business owners’ feelings about the future “business confidence.” It influences how they spend, whether they hire more workers and if they take out loans. And Igel’s optimism comes despite a possible hit to tourism during the holidays. Blasting and reconstruction of U.S. Highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon may deter some Front Range visitors from visiting during the offseason winter months.

According to Igel, so far they haven’t seen an impact.

“Sales are on par with this time last year,” he said “Our mail order service is up a bit, mostly to Front Range folks.”

Credit David Anderson
KUNC's Jackie Fortier (left) speaking with The Christmas Shoppe owner Diane Muno about the future of her businesses.

Christmas season in Estes Park

Diane Muno hasn’t seen a dip in her bottom line either. She owns four businesses in town, including the White Orchid bridal shop, Liz and Jo’s, a women’s apparel store, and two of the three Christmas stores in town —The Spruce House and The Christmas Shoppe.

Each tree in the Christmas Shoppe is themed, and jazzy carols play in the background. The Tuscan tree featuring glowing grape clusters and low purple lights, is her favorite.

“Thanksgiving weekend is going to be huge for us… This last summer was probably our number one year on the books,” said Muno. “[There was] a lot of concern over whether 34 would take away the growth we were seeing this year, but I really feel like the [warmer than average] weather has really helped bring people here, up the 36 detour.”

Muno is also confident about the 2017 economy, and that the distinctive products that fill her shops like hand-painted Santas and ornaments, will be enough to combat the mass-produced Christmas wares in local department and hardware stores. She travels to Atlanta for the trade shows every winter to find out what shade of green or red is the hottest color for the season.

“I, like the majority of Americans had a very definite opinion what we would like to see happen,” said Muno, “and whether you are disappointed or not, I always believe that you get on board with the team and we are one nation, so I’m ready to just look for all of the advantages and we’ll discover what isn’t so great.”

Colorado voters approved a minimum wage increase in the 2016 election. Beginning in January 2017, the state minimum wage will increase 90 cents each year until 2020, when it reaches the new minimum of $12 per hour. Muno hopes it will help keep and attract am more talented workforce to the town.

Credit David Anderson
Grapes glow on the themed Tuscan tree at The Christmas Shoppe. Muno thinks her specialty items will keep people coming to Estes Park for decorations rather than chain stores.

“Change is the name of the game when you are in business, and I really do trust that if we can help secure good talent and help people afford to live here that that’s appropriate.”

Her new insurance premiums are another story. Mountain counties have a history of high health care costs. A bill passed in the 2016 legislative session will study the possibility of classifying the entire state as one geographic region for calculating health insurance rates.

That doesn’t help Muno right now.

“I’m dealing with that, I just got notice of my premium increase last week, so I don’t have the next step planned out.”

What’s next for Estes Park

Colorado Department of Transportation officials report blasting and construction is on track, and highway 34 will reopen to all traffic by Memorial Day 2017.

The road will be temporarily open for the Thanksgiving holiday from 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 23, to Sunday, Nov. 27, at 7 p.m. in an effort to “reduce the inconvenience to canyon residents and nearby communities as much as possible.”

Credit David Anderson

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