On a September evening in 2013, Tim Resch, owner of Estes Park Outfitters, was with a handful of clients on an elk hunting trip on Twin Sisters Mountain in the Roosevelt National Forest. His business caters to out of state hunters who are attracted by the area’s reputation for big bull elk.
That night, it started raining. And it didn’t stop.
“When that flood really broke loose, I couldn’t get to my horses, couldn’t get to my trucks and trailers," he said. "I was in awe, I’ve never seen anything like that."
Rains caused a swollen Big Thompson River to rip away whole sections of U.S. Highway 34, the main artery to Estes Park from the Front Range.
Crews got major roads back open quickly, but even for people who didn’t have any flood damage, like Resch, the economic loss was swift and immediate. All activities in the forest were stopped, including hunting.
“I’ve never heard of the national forest being closed before," he said. "So that really got to me when it came to my revenue.”
The floods caused him to rethink his business model, but he also received some help. Funded by both state and federal dollars, the Recover Colorado Business Grant program offered businesses up to $50,000 if they could prove economic losses as a result of the flooding. Residents knew that U.S. 34 would need permanent repairs, but they weren’t banking on the seven-and-a-half-months closure that is now in place.
To help, the grant program has been expanded to include economic losses incurred due to the highway construction.
“There's fear that they could see decreased bookings, particularly for businesses in the Big Thompson canyon,” said Jon Nicholas, president and CEO of the Estes Park Economic Development Corporation.
“So a business that received say $25,000 after the 2013 floods, could apply for a second grant for losses that are associated with the highway closing,” he said.
Nicolas said one of the reasons why there is still so much money available is because many business owners who didn’t sustain physical damage in 2013 wouldn’t apply; they thought the money should go toward people who had suffered more. People can still apply retroactively for grants, even back to the High Park Fire in 2012.
Colorado Department of Transportation’s Jared Fiel outlined the project requiring the closure. He said they won’t actually be constructing anything this winter.
“We will be blasting in the Idlewilde area, which is where we will be moving the road back onto bedrock and so that’s what we’ll be doing through that whole time that it’s going to be closed," he said.
People who live in the canyon can apply for permits to get in and out during specific hours in the morning and evening by following a pace car.
For businesses like Resch’s, that rely on Front Range day trippers during the lean winter months, the closure puts them on edge. He diversified, and now offers snowcat and snowshoeing tours in the winter and horseback rides in the summer. Almost all of his winter and spring clients are from the Front Range. He’s hoping that people will be willing to drive a little further south and use the recommended alternative route of U.S. 36 until the Big Thompson Canyon reopens Memorial Day weekend 2017.
He and other business owners have had several months to plan for the closure. So far he isn’t planning on applying for another grant.
“I don’t think I will, I think I’ll be alright, I’ve got a pretty good internet advertising set up, so we’ll see, I’m pretty comfortable that I won’t try to go for another grant," he said.
He has time to change his mind. The grants will be open until 2019, as the U.S. 34 construction continues.