We huddled around TVs and smartphones as the Waldo Canyon Fire grew from 5,000 acres to 18,000 in less than three days. Along the way, reality set in that people were going to lose their homes, and, tragically, their lives.
Now, with the fire nearly contained and a few days of hard rains, we're tempted to breathe a little easier.
But for some, the struggles are just beginning.
Besides homeowners who now must struggle to overcome great losses, many of our local small businesspeople will have to claw to survive. Talk to a shop owner or a restaurateur on the region's west side, and they will tell you of the thousands of dollars of revenue that the evacuations cost, and the nearly nonexistent recovery.
The media focus has largely been on Manitou Springs, whose tourist-town DNA is visible from Denver and beyond. But our admittedly random sampling of businesses over the past week — compiled by Chet Hardin, Debbie Kelley, Achille Ngoma and J. Adrian Stanley, and presented below — makes it clear that other enclaves of the region are at least as endangered, if not more so.
Nearest the ruin
What does a neighborhood business do when much of the neighborhood is gone?
"The Mountain Shadows area," says Randy Bolen, owner of Peak Grill, "makes 70 percent of our business."
As a homey, breakfast-heavy place with a bustling weekend scene, Bolen's 11-year-old restaurant caters to a slightly different clientele than many that serve the area's office-park workers. But still, places like Trinity Brewing Company, Ai Sushi & Grill and Bhan Thai are bound to feel the at-least-temporary absence of the nearly 350 families whose homes were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire.
"It's heartbreaking to see our customers and friends, and the community, displaced," says Greg Soukup, co-owner and manager of Blue Sage Creative Catering Solutions on Centennial Boulevard. "We are still suffering for those who lost their houses, and we hope they will rebuild."
Soukup says he was blown away when he saw "very humane people" helping their neighbors clean up after the evacuation was lifted. Since then, he's seen regulars bring some of that warmth into the softly lit, large-windowed restaurant he started with his cousin five years ago: "They are coming back and showing their support."
Blue Sage, which employs three full-time and 11 on-call, was closed for more than a week. It lost as much as $10,000 in revenue from five scheduled events and $2,000 in perishables. In trying to bounce back, it's focusing on advertising — and taking advantage of discounts and freebies from local media — to draw people out.
"I think that Manitou has done a good job of suggesting that people come to the west side," Soukup says. "I don't know if both the Better Business Bureau and the [Greater Colorado Springs] Chamber of Commerce have been trying to put out information saying that the west side overall here is open and ready for business."
A few blocks south on Centennial Boulevard, Peak Grill welcomes guests with the message "We love our firefighters and police" scrawled on the front window. Bolen, who counts 18 people on his payroll, is trying to recover from the restaurant having been closed for two days, and quiet for a number of days immediately after that.
"After the fire bridged the ridge we were closed — not because we had to be, but because customers were evacuated. It would've been ridiculous to be open," he says.
He holds back tears as he continues.
"We, probably, haven't lost a lot in comparison to what some of our customers have lost," says Bolen. "A lot of our customers did lose their houses. They don't know if they're gonna rebuild."
As for his place? He looks around a dining room spotted with new faces on this Monday morning, and he sounds hopeful again.
"We'll be open," he says, "and we'll be here." — AN
B and B and belief
If owning a small business is a lot like managing a marriage, then the "worse" in "for better or worse" arrived for Kim and Lon Rust when they had to evacuate guests in 10 cottages during the Waldo Canyon Fire.
"The cancellations started pouring in once we got evacuated and people heard about the fire," Kim says.
At their Lakeside Cottages in Green Mountain Falls and their Paradise Spirit liquor store in Woodland Park, the Rusts rely on early- and mid-summer tourism to stay afloat. The week-long closure of U.S. Highway 24 dealt that tourism a blow, but so did the postponement of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the huge Green Box Arts Festival and other traditional activities. Then there were snowbirds who simply got spooked.
"People just don't want to be around here," she notes, "even though you can't see any damage from the cottages."
All together, the cottages have lost tens of thousands of dollars in reservations, which won't be offset by the Rusts' insurance company paying for four days of lost income. Meanwhile, the liquor store also has taken a 30-percent hit in sales.
The Rusts are researching short-term financial assistance through government sources, but this is new territory for them. Kim previously owned an accounting business and an excavating company; Lon was a construction worker. This is their seventh season as keepers of the property that overlooks Green Mountain Falls' landmark gazebo and lake, and they've owned the liquor store for two years.
They know quite well that it could have been worse; flames came within 12 feet of their home, they say. So they're focusing on the positive: They still have some reservations for August and September, and they're venturing into more creative marketing. A combination package including lodging at their cottages and a five-course dinner at the nearby Black Bear Restaurant is in the works.
The couple also is encouraged by the state's initiative to promote tourism in communities impacted by the fire. And they're warmed by the bouquet of flowers and a card some guests dropped off last week.
So the Rusts are vowing to keep the commitment they made when they signed on the dotted line.
"We're going to try to ride it out," says Lon. "There's not a whole lot else we can do." — DK
Kind of lucky
They didn't have much time to react. By noon on the first day of the Waldo Canyon Fire, Lani and Lono Ho'ala got notice that they would have to evacuate their business.
"The fire started right above our place, on the hill," says Lani.
From their rustic log cabin on the south side of U.S. Highway 24 in Cascade, the Eagle's Nest Wellness co-owners packed up their edibles and medicines, watered their plants, locked the doors to their two-year-old medical marijuana business, and left.
And they watched.
From their home in Westcreek, says Lono, they can tap into their store's security cameras. At one point, all they could see was smoke. They were certain that they'd lost everything. For nine days, they waited for confirmation.
"We were sweating all week, thinking that we were going to lose the place," says Lani.
"And we couldn't get in to water our plants. So even if the building didn't burn down, if the plants all died, we'd lose our business."
When they returned two Sundays ago, they found that not only did Eagle's Nest survive, but the majority of its plants did, too.
Since the power wasn't shut off, the air conditioning had kept the plants cool during the blistering hot days. The grow lights were never disturbed, either, and Lono says it was fortunate that they had recently shifted to using larger-than-average planters, which allowed for more water to be in the organic soil.
All in all, they swear they feel lucky. They did, however, lose 20 percent of their harvest. Many of the plants that they lost were mothers, which are the ones they clone off of. Coupled with going nine days with their doors shut, the business has been set back tens of thousands of dollars. The Ho'alas don't have insurance coverage for their plants, as most insurance companies won't cover their product — others charge outrageous premiums. So there'll be no claim filed to recoup money for the plants that didn't make it. — CH
The long view
On Sunday afternoon, pedestrians choke the streets, eating ice cream cones, carrying bags, running into each other. Cars form a slow line down Manitou Avenue.
At the beautifully restored Manitou Spa Building in the center of town, home to the popular Adam's Mountain Café, people gobble down pear and pecan salads and Senegalese vegetables.
This is July in Manitou Springs. But despite appearances, business is hurting here — in a big way.
"You can drive around right now and people feel like, 'OK, it's over, everything's back to normal,'" says Farley K. McDonough, owner of Adam's.
"But in Manitou, because we're seasonal and we prepay so much in the summer going into the winter, a lot of that is not going to happen."
McDonough says that normally, by June 1, she's recovered what she lost over the winter. She makes all of her money over the following few months — and spends a lot of it on business expenses, too. Just before the fire, she had issued her biggest payroll and made her biggest food order of the year. She was able to cancel most of the food, so it didn't rot in the kitchen. But she still felt the loss.
"We were closed for one day," she says, "and every day after that, we were down 70 percent compared to 2011 for the following week."
The next week, business was only down 15 percent. But she's still planning to cut back on her maintenance budget, as well as any extras. That means no solar shades for the windows or new broiler for the kitchen. No bonuses for employees. And McDonough's family vacation and annual contribution to her son's college fund are canceled.
McDonough says she's been touched by the way locals, some of whom she's known for decades, have tried to help. But most have come for lunch — always Adam's busiest meal. Since the restaurant is packed for that meal anyway, McDonough says the only way she could make up what she lost is if more people showed up for less-popular meals like breakfast and dinner.
She's not holding her breath.
"At this point," she says, "my mind is all around cutting expenses and cutting all the fat we can, everywhere." — JAS
The closure of U.S. Highway 24 choked off the main supply of customers for Jamie and Ben Caperton's Woodland Park wine bar, the Cellar Door, for more than a week.
"About 60 percent of our business is tourist business, and they typically come up through the pass," says Jamie.
Likewise, many neighboring business owners were cut off from their shops. So Jamie says she and Ben made it a habit to check on those places, just to make sure everything was safe. It was eerie; the downtown, she says, "felt very vacant."
The Capertons have owned The Cellar Door for six years, and one of their traditions is to have a full-moon party every month. June's event was scheduled for the Friday before the evacuation was lifted. "We were trying to decide whether we were going to go ahead and do it or not," she says. "Several of the community leaders said, 'You need to do it. The town really needs you to do it.'"
They brought in an entertainer, customers brought their own food, and more than 75 people showed up.
"We were amazed by how many people came out for it," she says. "We all sat on the patio, drank wine and had potluck, and listened to music."
It was a welcome break from the stress and worry that the fire caused. For the Capertons, the cost of the fire is several thousand dollars. Even days after the highway reopened, Jamie says the tourists haven't returned.
"I typically have several folks sitting on my patio, drinking wine," she says. "There's nobody out there right now."
For example, on their recent outing to the farmers market, they did about half their regular sales.
"I think that people are just scared right now," she says. "They are scared to make plans, they are scared to come to the area. But I rely on people coming to my community. We need people to come up here and to feel safe coming to our town.
"And it's a great town. We just had a little rain that cleared the air. It's beautiful right now." — CH
It's not like anyone enjoys prospering from someone else's grief. But a silver lining to the Waldo Canyon Fire destroying 345 homes might come to local businesses who specialize in demolishing, building, furnishing and even cleaning homes.
Rob Gardner's business, Speedy Demolition, has been hurt by the recession, so the prospect of his services being needed by hundreds could give a boost.
"We should see a little bit of a spike, because it's probably going to include excavation, which I do, and demolition," he says. "It should give us a little relief, some extra money."
Other businesses that could benefit include steam cleaners, carpet cleaners, appliance stores, furniture stores, construction workers, drywallers, framers, bricklayers, interior designers, drapery makers, cabinet makers, light fixture stores, landscapers, even artists whose work was destroyed.
The new construction would come at a time when home-building has been making a slow comeback after the worst setback in more than a decade. The Pikes Peak Regional Building Department issued 268 single-family home permits in May and 232 in June — the first two months that exceeded 200 since mid-2007, says building official Bob Croft.
"I would assume there's going to be an economic upturn for those people," Croft says. But he notes that how quickly homeowners begin to rebuild depends on a lot of factors, such as how fast insurance companies settle the claims, and whether homeowners can build on existing foundations. Then comes demolition, which can take time. "If they start in August," he says, "it won't be till the end of the year or early next year that people are moving in."
— Pam Zubeck