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5/30/2004

Prices, Schmices

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

ESTES PARK — Grin and bear it: That seems to be the attitude most of the nation is taking when it comes to paying at the gas pump.

AAA is predicting a record number of travelers on the road this Memorial Day weekend, and for a town that relies on tourists arriving on four wheels to keep its economy humming, that’s very good news.

“We had gas prices like this in 1976, ’75, and it really didn’t affect the area then,” said Nick Kane, manager of Nicky’s Motor Lodge Resort for 36 years. “Everybody’s pretty optimistic that it’s going to be a good summer.”

Kane said he thinks people are tired of being bombarded by television and newspaper stories about “record-high” gas prices, and “they’re just going to say, ‘The heck with it. We’re going to the park and having a good time.’”

This is the biggest driving weekend of the year. Of 31 million travelers this weekend alone, 84 percent are expected to go by car, according to AAA.

It’s also the unofficial kickoff to summer, a season in which Estes Park goes into full-blown tourist mode. According to town advertising manager Peter Marsh, a “significant portion” of the entire year’s sales tax is collected during the six-month period from May to October, with the largest portion of that coming from June to August.

Marsh doesn’t believe gas prices will keep people away from the town this summer.

“It’s not much of an issue for the individual driver, and we are a driver’s market, much more than we’re an airline market,” he said. “I would say we’re very optimistic. The economy has been very difficult for all of the resort communities the past couple of years, and I’m very pleased to see we’re expecting a normal year.”

Normal, that is, compared to the economic downtimes that have plagued Estes Park and other tourist areas over the past three years, Marsh said.

Kurt Streib — owner of Simply Christmas and a new gourmet food and coffee store next door, Mocha Angelo’s — is a subscriber to the “grin and bear it” theory.

“No, I don’t think (prices are) going to bother it that much, and the main reason is people have gotten to the point where it doesn’t affect their psyche as much,” said Streib, who co-owns the two businesses with his wife, Nadine. The two are 20-year residents of Estes Park.

“You going to stay home for a dime? I won’t,” Nadine noted.

“I think people have gotten desensitized to it. The prices are there — they deal with it,” Kurt Streib said, adding that he thinks the whole gas-price issue is one of “a perceived notion.”

“If you actually stop to figure it out, it’s not that much more,” he said.

Cal Moore, who co-owns the Mad Moose and the Rocky Mountain Bear Factory, said that although the season is just beginning, he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

“Last year, we had a lot of traffic, but people were very cautious with their spending,” said Moore, who has owned the Mad Moose for two years. “This year, so far I’m noticing more people sooner, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to buy something — I’ve held off for two years.’”

Moore said some of the grumbling he’s heard in the past about the economy hasn’t been heard this year, another encouraging sign.

Moore said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the type of “normal” year to which Marsh referred.

“Last year, we’d go two weeks and sell nothing over $15, and for a store like this, that’s tough,” Moore said.

If business is as predicted, he he and his wife hope to take their own vacation this summer, driving their Chevy Suburban to Banff, Alberta, Canada.

“If we can swing the gas and everything, we’ll probably go ahead and do it,” he said.

This week, early season visitors began arriving to Estes Park.

Robert and Linda Villiard drove out from Kansas City, Mo., to stay with friends in Longmont. Robert was enjoying returning to Estes Park, the town in which he grew up.

Villiard said gas prices in Colorado are a bit higher than what he was paying back home. He added that he had decided to take the family’s Dodge Ram — “It’s got the 360 in it, and that’s a pretty big motor” — rather than drive his mobile home.

“No, it costs too much,” Villiard said. “It’s like pushing a brick through the air.”

Marsh, who has been in Estes Park for 32 years, echoed the comments of Streib when he said, “A lot of times, what you find is the pent-up demand for vacations overrides the current inconvenience.

“My daughter and son-in-law not only have one SUV, they have two SUVs,” he said. “They don’t care what the price of gas is.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.