Business Monday: When I-70 closes, Craig takes in visitors; is it ready?

Moffat County town businesses making effort to put a good face on for unexpected guests

Signs around Craig that point out the city's attractions, like this one at Yampa Avenue and Victory Way, have received positive feedback, according to Visit Moffat County.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

Interstate 70 is more than 60 miles south of Craig across rugged terrain.

But when the east-west thoroughfare that bisects the state is shut down due to mudslides in Glenwood Canyon, the impact is felt close to home.

Craig residents couldn’t help but notice the increased traffic last week, but even on lighter days, businesses take note of the uptick in out-of-town guests.

“Mostly I’m seeing a bunch of faces I don’t normally see,” said Danny Griffith, owner of J.W. Snack’s along Victory Way.

Victory Way is also U.S. Highway 40 and is a critical detour route for travelers when I-70 is closed.

“Some of them are mad as hell because it’s 150 miles out of their way,” said Dennis Otis, owner of Cool Water Grille, another prominent restaurant facing the highway. “We pick up some lunches — (Thursday) morning I picked up a couple breakfasts, but it’s not as much as the guys who do dinners.”

Cool Water is only open until 2 p.m., so it’s not able to benefit quite as much from the traffic uptick as a place like J.W. Snack’s or others, but even Otis gets a bump in business.

“It’s pretty busy at lunch,” Otis said. “I was off (Wednesday), but they said it was pretty tight. I was up to my eyebrows driving in it instead.”

It begs the question: Is Craig ready for this sort of thing when it happens? Can the city provide sustenance to the unfamiliar faces passing through — and see a micro business boom in return?

“We’re always ready to let people know what we have to offer,” said Theresia Bohrer of Visit Moffat County. “I’ve had several people tell us they came back after their little trip through, that it was great and they’re going to tell their friends.”

The primary effort Visit Moffat County is making to capture passers through, Bohrer said, is signage. The new blue signs around town that point folks to Craig’s attractions are at the front of that effort.

“We have gotten some feedback,” she said. “Several people say they can see our signs and it took them over to what the signs pointed out.”

It’s hard to measure the impact of the signage beyond anecdotes like that. But what’s certain is Craig is making an effort to put on a good face for unexpected guests.

“Seems like people on the main drag have tried to make their businesses look nice,” Griffith said. “We’ve gotten some help from the city even to increase the curb appeal.”

That comes in the form of Small Business Grants, provided by the city to businesses in city limits for one of two reasons: aesthetic improvement or capital investments.

“The grant started in 2019,” said Melanie Kilpatrick, who facilitates the grant program as executive assistant to the city manager. “It does seem like businesses within the downtown area have taken advantage of the program the most. It definitely is open to businesses citywide though.”

Kilpatrick said the funding, which totaled $85,000 this year, is tapped out for 2021, but that there’s already a waitlist of a “handful” of businesses who would like to apply or reapply next year.

“You can do facade improvements, which is the most noticeable, most visual impact, or you can get economic development for capital improvements, like the brewery was able to get funding in 2019 to purchase equipment, and now they’re brewing beer in the Craig Taproom.”

Craig’s unique location will likely continue to drive unexpected traffic, said Cool Water Grille’s Otis, so it behooves the city to continue to improve its front-facing appearance. That includes those coming from north to south along Colorado Highway 13, he said.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Otis said. “I wish they’d make (Highway 13) four lanes from I-80 to I-70. That would help.”