Cortez Journal

Locals watch as summer business goes up in smoke

Aug. 8, 2000

By Katharhynn Heidelberg
Journal Staff Writer

Local businesses are feeling the heat of area fires.

Business at the Country West Motel in Mancos was "killed by the fire," manager Russ Harris said Monday. Weekend traffic, ordinarily high, was down to a trickle ó there were only a few evacuees from Mesa Verde National Park at the 12-room facility. Sunday evening, only one guest stayed.

The motel relies heavily on summer tourist traffic. Harris said that 75 percent or more of his business is seasonal, and he depends on a strong summer to make it through the winter.

"It was bad before the fire," he said, "but then it just absolutely died." As the flames grew higher, he and his staff logged cancellation after cancellation.

The day park officials announced the reopening of Mesa Verde, Harris said his phone "rang off the hook" and raised his hopes. Those hopes were dashed approximately 12 hours later, when the Pony Fire galloped along the edge of Wetherill Mesa, and the park was closed again.

Harris said he is unable to recoup his losses. "The only way I could have recouped is if they could have put their (fire) personnel here, but they chose to put them in Cortez," he said. According to Harris, another motel in Mancos closed completely.

As a back-up plan, Harris said the county needed to promote area tourism ó not just Mesa Verde ó more. "We need to do something to get the tourists in; weíre so close to so many things. I donít know if weíre doing anything to promote tourism. Itís really a shame. Itís a beautiful area."

Those concerns are familiar to Rick Bell, manager of Folk Art of the Four Corners. Bell said that business has been "pretty well eliminated. This is like winter." Instead of the busy week he anticipated, on Monday, he had only three people in his shop ó two of whom asked for directions.

Bell is being forced to rely on other means to make ends meet, such as doing road shows.

Although he respects the natural power of fire, "that doesnít help anyone who canít survive the summer without tourists," Bell said.

He said that state-funded relief is a must for himself and the many business in the area that rely on the summer season.

Bell is appreciative of the work the Chamber of Commerce and Umbrella Tourism Committee have done, but "they canít make the fire go out." For now, Bell is doing what he can to keep visitors interested in area attractions.

"You try to get across that there are other things to do, but itís still a disappointment (to tourists)."

Looking to the future, Bell considered the economic possibilities of the recently created and highly controversial Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. "(It) can potentially be as big a draw as Mesa Verde," he said. "Itís a huge plus people arenít thinking about, but itís got to be promoted, and thereís got to be an infrastructure."

But not all tourism-related businesses in the county have seen a decline in traffic. The Dolores River RV Park has not been demonstrably affected by the recent fires, according to employee Cherie Robinson. There have been "a couple of cancellations" stemming from the blazes, but most seem happy with the other area attractions that Dolores River RV staff have referred them to.

State Rep. Mark Larson (R-Cortez), himself a business owner, is worried by the countyís bleak economic picture. He has begun the process of getting small-business assistance loans from the state.

If businesses had been affected for only two weeks, "We might not have gotten very much response, but Iím sure that now weíre looking at almost a full month of closure that will severely impact Montezuma County," Larson said via telephone on Friday.

With the park closing a second time, and no reopening date set, Larson said on Monday that the damage was "significant, and we need the state involved."

Customary funds available for such crises are low-interest loans to help business owners recover lost revenue.

Larson said that his own business, the M&M Truck Stop, gets "substantial tourism" in addition to trucking traffic. The fire comes as something of a blow after two years of highway construction cut profits by 40 percent.

"Anything we get right now is a blessing," he said. "Itís hard to gauge."

Larson declined to speculate on how much aid the area might receive.

As of Monday morning, Larson said he had logged several calls from constituents who own businesses and are in dire need of relief. "None of these businesses are looking for a hand-out. They are looking for a hand up," he said.

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