Lyons is resolved to open for business after the devastating September flood.
By Debra Melani
On the night of Sept. 11, 2013, Jay Hodge assessed his options as the incessant rain continued. The river abutting his Rock n River Resort, a few miles above Lyons in the North St. Vrain canyon, was rising. Every half hour, Hodge braved the deluge to check the river level, which slowly inched higher.
By 1:30 a.m., the crest had reached within 8 inches of his bridge—the only way out. He, his wife and the inn’s five guests fled, leaving behind the Hodges’ livelihood and home, and the massive damage it was about to incur.
In Lyons and the extended community, no business was left unscathed by the September flood, which devastated mountain and foothill communities throughout the Front Range and plains. Every business in Lyons was shut for weeks, as the raging river wiped out the town’s entire infrastructure, leaving it uninhabitable and cut off from society. Today, as “closed” signs slowly give way to “open,” a determination to get the town’s businesses up and running again exists among most commercial owners.
“It’s who we are,” says Mike Loukonen of his company, Loukonen Bros. Stone, one of Lyons longest-standing family establishments. Founded in 1890, and still run by Mike and his siblings, the company’s physical losses could hit $1.5 million. Brushing aside rumors that the business would fold, Loukonen says that was never a thought. “We’ll do it. We’re like a bunch of bulldogs. It will just take time. I feel we’ve made great strides already, and just to be open is truly amazing.”
Of Lyons’ 150-plus businesses, most are home-based or true mom-and-pop establishments run by families who have strong roots in the town or are passionately committed to the community.
Whether their losses were relatively minimal or catastrophic, these small-town business owners are driven to recover. It’s not just a job; for many, it’s a way of life.
When the overflowing river came through the Loukonens’ property at the east edge of town, it carried what it gathered from above and took nearly everything in its path, including a 48-by-80-foot steel maintenance building and $30,000 worth of stone. “It pretty much destroyed all of our operations,” Loukonen says. “The entire property was under 5 to 10 feet of water. It’s just been very labor-intensive.”
Pointing to a stark, massive chasm of mud and dirt that was once part of a meandering, tree-lined riverbank, Loukonen says floodwaters claimed about 6 acres of his property on either side of the river and 117,000 cubic yards of soil and rock. “It’ll probably take 10,000 tons of material to rebuild just on this side of the river,” says Loukonen, whose stone graces the CU law and business schools.
At the opposite end of town, Planet Bluegrass’s historic buildings and owner Craig Ferguson’s home were also swamped. The flood devastated Planet Bluegrass Ranch at the base of the North St. Vrain canyon, home to the renowned RockyGrass and Folks festivals. The picturesque acreage that hosts about 25,000 “festivarians” each year, along with an additional 20 weddings and 20 smaller concerts, gave way to a bleak construction zone dotted with numerous 20-foot piles of silt and sand.
Although the stage withstood the torrent, every building needs repairs, and anything sitting below the 4-foot watermark was a loss. Totals could reach up to $1 million, Ferguson predicts.
“I’ve had to convince people for months that the festivals are even going to occur again,” says Ferguson, noting that the dramatic video of the submerged Planet Bluegrass stage went viral after the flood, attracting both dismay and bookings. “Ironically, we’ve seen a heightened interest in weddings. It’s given it a special aura.” Despite the damage and cancellation of about $50,000 worth of weddings so far, Ferguson remains optimistic, and his website asks people to help the town. “Once we get past the shock and awe, Planet Bluegrass will be just fine.”
Ferguson’s crew is toiling nonstop to ensure a return to business by the crucial months of May through October. The first Planet Bluegrass wedding is set for May, and July’s RockyGrass is nearly sold out, with Friday-only tickets remaining.
Throughout town, stories of spirit, support and perseverance abound, leading John O’Brien to predict that most businesses will survive. “Lyons is resilient,” says O’Brien, chair of the town’s Planning & Community Development Commission. “But it’s going to be a long spring in more ways than one.” He notes that while many downtown businesses remained dry, every business suffered economic loss, from absent sales to ruined inventory. The town estimates a $3.5-million loss in gross sales just through the end of 2013.
As soon as the waters receded enough for them to get into their property, the Hodges constructed a makeshift bridge, stairs and boardwalk to reach their inventory: 500 cases of wine. While most of the once-charming property was destroyed—most of the inn and the entire bridge floated away shortly after they fled—the wine survived, despite some damaged labels. With the help of volunteers, the Hodges set up a temporary wine shop at Twin Peaks Mall in Longmont. Liquidating the wine has been all encompassing, says Hodge, whose discounted damaged bottles have often been bought as keepsakes.
Similarly, other businesses rented space in Longmont or Boulder while Lyons remained off-limits for two months. A few businesses, including the St. Vrain Market and the Dairy Bar, opened early on without utilities and with no hope of profits to support their neighbors as they dug out.
“It was extremely important to us to be able to open our doors again, because this is our town and this is our community,” says Juli Waugh, who owns the Dairy Bar with her husband. The couple opened the store shortly after the flood with a portable potty and hand-washing station, and food items packaged elsewhere and brought in each day.
“We wanted to say, ‘Hey, we are here. We want you guys to come back,’” says Waugh, who is also president of the Lyons Chamber of Commerce. “We wanted to show people that it could be done, and our town is not dead, and we’re going to thrive.”
Donations, financial support and volunteers (who have logged 35,000-plus hours so far) have aided stricken businesses. “What really helped was people jumping in to be active,” Waugh says. “It gave us some hope.” Even with smaller losses than many, Waugh estimates she’s already down at least $30,000.
Few businesses got any insurance help, as many had no flood coverage, and those with umbrella policies for “economic loss” found a tiny “act of God” clause that voided it. But other resources came from a resident-organized Cash Mob to an Oskar Blues’ CAN’d Aid drive that disbursed up to $10,000 in grants to individual businesses, O’Brien says.
On the town level, loans, guidance and fundraisers have helped owners get back on their feet, including Julie Thongsoontorn of Julie’s Thai Kitchen, a popular restaurant that withstood major damage. “It was almost like starting over again,” says Thongsoontorn, who runs the small eatery with her husband and son. But little things, such as Waugh encouraging her to apply for loans and Oskar Blues giving her a stove, coupled with a large volunteer response, pulled her through. “Oh, we are blessed,” she says. “We love this small town.”
The Lyons Economic Development Commission has two revolving loan funds—one specifically for businesses affected by the flood. The loans are for up to 10 years at prime rate-less-1-percent, and interest-free for up to three years with no balloon payment. “You could never get help like that anywhere,” O’Brien says.
Support from Gov. John Hickenlooper—who attended a Christmas Eve event at Planet Bluegrass, Christmas shopped in Lyons and toured the town more than once with political leaders—brought more than just photo-ops; it brought hope. Some business owners, particularly if they lived on their property, got FEMA grants; others applied for Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans. “I’ve been amazed at their relative sensitivity through the whole thing,” Ferguson says. “And I’m not a government guy.”
Despite community spirit, it’s not all rosy in Lyons. Some businesses must absorb major costs. Loukonen predicts his business won’t recover for another two years. Hodge and his wife, who bought the Ciatano winery at Rock n River Inn only a year ago, aren’t sure about their future. They want to rebuild, but “it’s still just too much,” Hodge says of future plans.
Other businesses (GearSPOT, Valley Bank & Trust, Mama’s Café) left town immediately after the flood, and some remain unsure about reopening, although most businesses closing or struggling “had issues” before the flood, or looser ties to the community, O’Brien says.
While Ferguson booked the Lyons’ Bohn and Meadow parks for festival camping and parking come July, currently both parks remain closed to the public. “Our parks are gone,” Waugh says. “It makes me cry.” The town predicts a 70-percent loss in park-related revenue this year, which will affect the business community as well.
Major volunteer support is still needed this spring and beyond, as the town turns to restoring its natural beauty. For now, O’Brien asks people to visit Lyons’ businesses whenever possible. And he remains confident the community will survive.
“Absolutely. No question. You can’t keep these entrepreneurs down.”
Playing the Numbers
Total estimated damage in public infrastructure alone in Lyons:
• $50 million (20 percent of the town’s housing was also damaged)
Donation estimates as of Jan. 1, 2014:
• $10,000 from Chamber of Commerce
• $1 million from Lyons Community Foundation
• $535,000 from Oskar Blues
• $50,000 from Lyons Economic Development Commission
• $30,000 from Lyons Elementary
• $15,000 from miscellaneous donations
To donate, volunteer or organize a fundraiser, visit www.lyonsfightsback.org.
New businesses that have joined or indicated they’d be joining the community include:
• Button Rock Bakery
• Lyons Cinema and Photography Art Center
• Lyons Love, an indoor market
• Haven, a home-décor retail business
• Local: Eat + Drink, a restaurant and bar
• Red Fox, an outdoor sports-equipment chain
—Source: Town of Lyons