Defiance Rafting employee James Linstrom leads rafters to put in at the Colorado River at the Shoshone Boat Ramp on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Glenwood Springs. The family-owned Defiance Rafting, now in its fourth season of operation, handles over 13,000 customers per year. “Usually sections of the river don't change this dramatically,” Linstrom said. “I’ve worked all across the state. This is some of the most dramatic change I've seen.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

After a year marred by disease and wildfire, Defiance Rafting just east of Glenwood Springs was having a gangbuster whitewater season this summer — so much so that owner Gregory Cowan planned to replace the 26 rafts that came with the business when he bought it three years ago.

But the mudslides that closed Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon this summer also shut down his business at the peak of rafting season in late July and early August, forcing him to put the raft replacements on hold. 

“We were finally firing on all cylinders,” Cowan said. “Then the bottom fell out.”

Defiance Rafting is one of many Glenwood Springs-area businesses rebounding from the impacts of COVID shutdowns and the 2020 wildfires that had their momentum thrown off by the highway closure this summer — though tourist numbers in the region remain strong.

The financial toll of the highway closure on local businesses isn’t yet entirely clear, but Glenwood Springs restaurants likely saw revenues fall by 25% and lodging by 50%, said Angie Anderson, who heads the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, which represents 400 businesses in Glenwood Springs and the surrounding area.

Federal loan programs helped keep area businesses afloat during the early days of the pandemic and as the Grizzly Creek fire chewed through steep terrain above Glenwood Canyon in 2020. 

Now, a new round of federal aid is available to local businesses rocked when a late-July deluge hit the Grizzly Creek burn area, unleashing a torrent of mud and boulders that left I-70 impassable until mid-August.

Defiance Rafting Company staffers transport rafts to storage on Sunday, the last day of the company’s river season. The family-owned Defiance Rafting, now in its fourth season of operation, handles over 13,000 customers per year. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The federal Small Business Administration announced in mid-September that low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans are available to affected businesses in Garfield County, home to Glenwood Springs, and in Pitkin, Eagle, Mesa, Rio Blanco and Routt counties. Businesses must be able to demonstrate they took a hit from the highway closure and cannot find funding elsewhere. The deadline to apply is June 16, 2022.

Cowan said the highway closure cost Defiance Rafting perhaps 2,500 paying customers and more than $200,000 in revenue, which would make the company a good candidate for the new round of loans. But he is holding off for now.

“We took full advantage of the COVID loans,” he said. “They were really helpful, but we’re trying to be debt-conscious. They’re fair rates and terms, but we need to see how we can be smart with what we have going forward. But it’s good to know those loans are there.”

Erin McCuskey, who heads the Northwest Colorado Small Business Development Center — one of two agencies providing free help to business owners seeking the loans — said the loans have been an important element of how her office has helped small businesses endure recent disasters.

The I-70 closure threw business in the region into disarray, she said. Supply chains, already stressed by the pandemic, saw further disruption as the primary trucking route to the Front Range and beyond was cut off. In an already tight labor market, employees who live scattered on either side of the closure were unable to report to work.

The ironic thing is, many businesses in northwest Colorado are seeing record profits thanks to a boost in tourism as pandemic-weary travelers seek the type of outdoor adventures Glenwood Springs provides, McCuskey said.

Defiance Rafting employees transport frames to storage on the last day of the company’s seasonal operation on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Glenwood Springs. “Anytime there’s business interruption… we’re seasonal, so we can’t make it up,” said co-owner Heather Cowan. “When we close down in the middle of our peak season, we have to just be agile and adjust as much as we can. And prepare for the next.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“The unfortunate thing about the I-70 closure was that it interrupted that momentum we’ve been building,” she said.

How big of an interruption isn’t known yet. Sales tax receipts for August, when the bulk of the closure took place, won’t be tabulated until early October, said Glenwood Springs finance director Yvette Gustad.

But sales tax collections for July show Glenwood Springs had been having a pretty good year. Year-to-date sales tax revenues were up 18.6% over July 2019, and up 33.7% over 2020, according to city documents.

McCuskey said she is aware of “several hundred” businesses that may be interested in applying for the new EIDL loan, running the gamut from hospitality and transportation outfits to community-focused nonprofits.

So far, though, she has been approached by only a handful for help filling out applications.

“We’ve already had multiple loans open currently, tied to these multiple disasters we’ve been dealing with,” McCuskey said. “This new one is open for a year. We’re not seeing a huge rush to apply just yet.”

Defiance Rafting Company staffers make a final trip with rafters to the Colorado River at the Shoshone Boat Ramp on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Glenwood Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The bigger picture, McCuskey said, is the past couple years have laid bare the need to adapt to growing threats from wildfires and mudslides on local infrastructure like I-70 — threats worsened by climate change, climatologists say.

“These are trends we’re not getting away from,” McCuskey said.

The bright side, she said, is the series of calamities seems to be incubating a new sense of collaboration and cooperation between the local business community and agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“We’re building great working relationships between business, government and nonprofits,” she said. “These situations aren’t hypotheticals anymore. We’re all committed to finding paths toward resiliency.”

The EIDL loans can be an important piece toward the goal of community resiliency by allowing businesses to shift or diversify business models to better insulate against disasters, she said.

Rock and mud are up to the rest area sign on Aug. 5 in Glenwood Canyon after the interstate closed because of devastating mudslides. (Pool photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

“These are loans, yes, but they’re low-interest,” she said of the loans that are offered at interest rates less than 3%. “It’s about the lowest rate you’re going to find. You do have to tie it back to this disaster, but if businesses are looking for capital to pivot their operations in the face of what we’ve been learning these past couple of years, these are some of the best funds you can go after.”

Defiance Rafting’s Cowan is grateful for that growing sense of local resilience, saying increased contact between local outdoor businesses and government agencies is improving everyone’s ability to manage the impacts of disaster.

“It’s that kind of collaboration that gives us the opportunity to get back to something like normal,” he said.

These developments are welcome, Cowan said, especially following the pain felt by the Glenwood Springs community in the wake of the highway closure.

Defiance Rafting employee Alex Brotzki (right) watches rafters on the Colorado River on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Glenwood Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“The closure just sapped Glenwood of energy,” he said. “Even once the highway reopened, there was still a prolonged hangover before people started feeling safe to head out this way again.”

As the end of rafting season approached in late September and Cowan prepared to mothball his fleet of rafts, kayaks, buses and vans, he said he is hopeful about the future. He and his wife bought a property on the west end of Glenwood Springs, a few miles downriver from Defiance’s current base, to use as an alternate launch for rafting trips on the Roaring Fork River.

“With any luck we’ll get a normal season next year,” he said. “It’s just the nature of this business. We’re dancing cheek-to-cheek with Mother Nature. Sometimes she leads, sometimes we do. You just have to accept that.”

David is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. Twitter: @davidgilbert4u