A road on the east side of Estes Park following the floods of September 2013.

(Photo: Courtesy of Jim Pickering)

Estes Park took a pummelling in the floods of 2013. The tourist town of 6,000 draws people from all over the world-- with Rocky Mountain National Park next door.
 
But the vast majority of its revenues come from tourist businesses like lodging, restaurants, boutiques and candy shops. The town’s cash registers ring most often for three months of the year -- July, August and September. When flood waters rose last September and made the few roads in and out of Estes Park impassable, it happened at precisely the wrong time of year for the town’s coffers.
 

Estes Park lost $462,774 in sales tax as a result of the town’s isolation and the temporary closure of Rocky Mountain National Park, according to the Denver Post.

Business owners like Erica Santana were unsure about their futures as the town struggled to clean up and rebuild its infrastructure following the flood. Santana, owner of the Mountaineer restaurant and a Mexican grocery store, told CPR last September that three quarters of her 20 employees had packed up and left town in search of work.

She was struggling to decide whether -- and for how long -- to close her doors. “This is the big decision for me right now,” she said. “[Should] I continue to open try to have business and pay the employees. Or, just keep closed till spring?”

Even businesses that don’t just serve tourists were hurt. Linda Wagner, who owns Linda’s Pet Care Services, told Bloomberg, “For many, many people we make the majority of our income in three months -- July, August and September. This is the kicker and it hurts, it really hurts.”

More than just tourism

Now, the town is on a mission to diversify its economy and make sure that a future disaster doesn’t take such a financial toll. In late August the U.S. Commerce Department awarded it a federal grant of $300,000 -- one that it says is by far the largest awarded to a Colorado town of its size -- to help it do so.

In broad terms, Estes Park will use the grant to brainstorm ways to build new industries and attract new year-round employers to the village; strengthen its broadband capabilities to improve communication for residents of the village and Estes Valley; and help businesses both expand and diversify. The town is considering starting a business incubator.

Apart from the grant, voters also approved in April selling more than six acres of town-owned land adjacent to the Stanley Hotel to the Stanley. It will serve as the site for a new $15 million Anschutz Wellness Training Center, to be developed by the Stanley, the Estes Park Medical Center, and the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora.

Proponents of the new center say it could bring in year-round visitors who will pay hefty fees to be treated for chronic conditions such as diabetes, and that it will also provide services to residents while boosting the local economy.

Critics say that limited road access to Estes makes it a challenge to attract year-round visitors -- and employers -- to the village.