Black Forest, Royal Gorge fires may hit Colorado tourism

June 12, 2013 Updated: June 12, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Small business owners across the Pikes Peak region are holding their breath waiting for the smoke to clear.

They don't know how the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires will affect their tourism season - the time from Memorial Day to Labor Day when some businesses take in 50 percent of the year's revenue. They want to be optimistic.

But they've been here before.

"The timing is as horrible as it was last year," said Tim Haas, who owns five small businesses, including Garden of the Gods Trading Post and Manitou Outpost.

Last summer, about 8,000 small businesses were affected by the Waldo Canyon fire. Some businesses closed for good. Some business owners dug deep into their savings and hung on, waiting until they could get to the 2013 tourism season, said Aikta Marcoulier, Small Business Development Center director.

Some businesses might not survive a second hit, she said.

"Our staff woke up this morning to the fires on the national news and we are now extending our disaster relief program to Black Forest," she said. "We are already pulling the registered businesses and calling them."

It's not physical damage to small businesses that brought last season to its knees. It was the ripple effect of the fire images that hurt tourism, Marcoulier said. Once the fire was shown on national news - as it was Tuesday - out-of-towners canceled reservations at area hotels and inns through the summer and into the fall. Lodging was down 20 percent from the previous summer. Attendance at area attractions were down by18 to 50 percent.

Even now, small businesses still are dealing with the financial blow from the Waldo Canyon fire. In some cases, it took businesses months to realize that they were not going to make ends meet through the rest of the year and they needed help to make payroll, Marcoulier said. Dozens of small businesses have taken out low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration or from the Colorado Enterprise Fund, a local program in which banks have teamed with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance to offer $10,000 loans to small businesses affected by the Waldo Canyon fire.

No matter how many small businesses are directly affected by the Black Forest fire, Marcoulier is anticipating that the entire region's tourism will be hurt.

"We do anticipate there will be a need for financial assistance due to the impact of lack of tourism," she said.

In Canon City, business owners are unsure about the long-term effect of the fire burning near them.

"We haven't been up (in sales) for the last three years because we have had fires," said Miranda Sander, an assistant manager at Canon Western Wear in the Historic District of Canon City. "The river guides do bring in tours and not everybody rafts, so the rest of the group comes to shop in town."

But it's unclear whether rafting companies will take a hit. Last summer, Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Canon City said business was significantly down, even though it was far from the Waldo Canyon fire. This summer, the business was anticipating 25,000 visitors. General Manager Andy Neinas could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which attracts about 100,000 visitors a year, declined to comment. Employees from the Royal Gorge Bridge and Railroad were waiting Tuesday for details about the bridge.

"As soon as we hear something definitive, we will meet and take care of business," said spokeswoman Peggy Gair. "I'm here like everyone else who wants to find out."

Tourism is a billion-dollar industry in the Pikes Peak Region and provides about $35 million in annual tax receipts. After the Waldo Canyon fire, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau launched its "Welcome Back" campaign - spending about $400,000 last year and this year on advertising. The campaign was working, said Doug Price, CVB president and CEO. Requests for the CVB's official travel guide were up 90 percent over last year and traffic on its website was up 167 percent.

"We did see a short-term impact (last summer,)" Price said. "But people, residents and visitors helped us come out of it. The lodging tax rallied in the fall. At this point it's too soon to tell. Its only day one."

Just last week, small business owners and tourism officials were feeling good about the coming season. Haas said revenue for his five Manitou businesses was up more than 10 percent in the first 10 days of June, compared with the same period last June.

Now Haas is worried about businesses surviving a second season of low sales.

"Losing eight days last year was devastating - there was no way to make it up," he said.

For now, tourism officials are fielding calls from tourists already in the area and they are not making a hard push on promotions, said Ryan Cole, director of Pikes Peak Country Attractions, which promotes 25 area attractions. including museums, the zoo and the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park.

"Right now, we wait," Cole said. "The second the fires are out we are hitting it hard, harder than we ever have. We don't want this to affect anybody's summer."

Ingrid Wood, Small Business Development Center disaster recovery program coordinator, already is calling business owners in the Black Forest area to offer help, including information about insurance claims and financial relief. The SBDC is part of the Pikes Peak Region Business Recovery Team. which identifies federal, state, local, and private resources to help to small businesses.

"We don't know how far the fire will go and how many businesses will be impacted," Marcoulier said. "For those that have taken precautionary measures, have worked with us and other resources to work on marketing since last year, they definitely have a better chance of surviving a second round."


Reporters Suzanne Evans and Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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