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Estes Park, Colo. rises to challenges of next century.

July 15, 1992 dawned bright and sunny in Estes Park, ColOrado--a community nestled in the Rocky Mountains at the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Residents waking to this crystal clear morning were stunned to hear local radio announcers urging everyone to get out of the downtown area as Fall River was flooding and it was expected to reach the commercial area within the hour.

This devastating flood, caused by a break in an earthen dam located high above the town in Rocky Mountain National Park, damaged or destroyed nearly all of the retail businesses in this tourist community--at the height of the summer season.

"While I ,am sure no one thought so at the time, the flood was actually a blessing in disguise," Mayor Bernerd Dannels explains. "In the early 1980's, Estes Park had become content to rest on its past reputation as a premier summer resort area. Studies done prior to the flood showed Estes Park had actually peaked as a summer destination around 1975 and was losing ground. The community had simply failed to reinvest in itself, and other areas such as Vail, Aspen, and Steamboat Springs, were capitalizing on our lassitude."

As cleanup efforts got underway, community leaders began looking for the vehicle to revive the disastrous blow to the town's economy. Federal and state funds were not available, but armed with a federal disaster designation, the town was able to expedite the formation of an urban renewal authority.

This authority took the traditional approach of funding public amenities with tax increment bonds--anticipating the private sector would also rebuild, thus, generating the increased sales tax to pay off these bonds.

To date, the Urban Renewal Authority has financed bonds equalling $8.3 million for a total cost of $11 million in downtown projects.

Starting with streetscape improvements, the authority widened sidewalks, did extensive landscaping and provided attractive and comfortable benches and lighting to enhance the pedestrian atmosphere of the downtown shopping area. The cornerstone and showplace of the downtown redevelopment is Riverside Plaza, a pedestrian park area which capitalizes on the confluence of two rivers in the heart of the downtown area.

Extending from this plaza is a Riverwalk, again building on the town's natural water features and tying in public areas with restaurants and retail businesses.

The town and authority's most ambitious project to date is the recently completed $3.5 million conference facility, also funded with urban renewal bonds.

Consultants hired by the town to produce the redevelopment/urban renewal plan in 1983 insisted that a public infusion of money would generate the private investment, and it certainly has happened.

The 22,000 sq. ft. Estes Park Conference Center opened in late August, and bookings have been very solid. Total retail sales have doubled since 1982, with August 1991 sales tax figures (the chief revenue source for the town) reaching an all-time high.

"Our economy is much stronger than the early 80's prior to the flood. Our urban renewal bonds received a very favorable rating by Moody's and we have done all of the improvements without additional taxes on the residents," Dannels said.

While few in this community of 3,500 would argue that 1989.'s flood was a disaster, Dannels prefers to think of it as the "opportunity" which propelled Estes Park out of the 20th Century and right into the 9.1st Century as a premier vacation area. "And we did it ourselves, without federal dollars!" exclaims Dannels proudly
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Title Annotation:Small Cities
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Feb 22, 1993
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