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Closure no little loss for Glenwood

Dennis Webb

When Smokin’ Willies closes today, Glenwood Springs will be losing more than a mainstay restaurant.It also will be losing, at least for the time being, a business owner who has done much to share his profits with his community – and some much-cherished visitors.Among them are the families of the 14 firefighters who lost their lives on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs.”We still take care of the families when they come back, Greg more than anybody,” said Steve Beham, owner of the Bayou Restaurant in West Glenwood.Greg Little served on the Storm King 14 Committee, which spearheaded the creation of a memorial to the firefighters in Two Rivers Park, and whose members acted individually as liaisons to each of the 14 families.He also has provided his share of free food to the families, but they’re far from the only beneficiaries of his largesse over the years.Little recently had his accountant figure out how much he donated in in-kind and cash contributions and benefit sponsorships over the last 12 years. It totaled more than $250,000.”I told him I wished he had not told me,” said Little with a grimace, as he faces a bankruptcy that he said will wipe him out financially.But he quickly said he had no regrets about his charitable giving.”We did it for the right reasons. And I’m probably not one of the bigger people, as far as what some of the companies give back. And it’s not the larger corporations; small mom and pops probably give the biggest percentage,” he said.As he faces the loss of his own business, Little expressed concern about some new restaurants “coming into the community that are not really part of the community,” he said.”The primary owners, the money goes somewhere else, it doesn’t stay here as much in the community as it has with others,” he said.He also hopes that when area residents choose what businesses they patronize, they give at least some thought to local ownership, and to how much some businesses give back.”I think the people in the community, as much as they support a lot of us, need to think about the individual businesses that they contact constantly for support, donations, whether it’s cash or food, whatever it may be, and remember them when it’s time to go out for dinner or whatever.”That said, Little is careful to note how highly he thinks of Glenwood Springs as a community.”This is the longest I’ve ever been anywhere,” noted the 23-year resident, who is originally from Ohio.Within a few years after his arrival to serve as assistant manager of the Village Inn, he witnessed, and joined in, the overwhelming community response when 15 miners died in an explosion at the Mid-Continent Resources mine near Redstone in 1981.Food, equipment and provisions were readily donated for one disaster after another in a city and surrounding area that have seen more than a fair share: first the mine blast; then the 1985 Rocky Mountain Natural Gas explosion, in which 12 people died; the Storm King Fire; and this year’s Coal Seam Fire, which burned 29 homes.”To have major disasters like that in a community this size, some of the people I’ve talked to that are aware of all those things say, `How does a community deal with something like that?’ I say I’m glad I’m in this community because it’s so giving.”While he wouldn’t have minded seeing the community provide more support for its restaurants, particularly locally owned ones, in hard times, he’s not blaming anyone for his bankruptcy.He said his financial problems result in part from “really, really bad personal decisions” he made over the last several years.”I made them when times were really, really good and it just got away. I can’t blame it on my landlord, my bank or whatever,” he said.When the economy soured, Little was overextended and couldn’t obtain the financing needed to survive. And of course, there was no predicting the June 8 Coal Seam Fire.Little has a picture of the fire and smoke, with his Smokin’ Willies truck in the foreground. The juxtaposition seemed humorous at the time, but appears ominous now. While the fire left his business standing on June 8, it could be said that it consumed Smokin’ Willies in the end.”The fire was devastating to my business,” he said. “Would I have survived if it hadn’t occurred? The chances are a lot better that I would have. …”In retrospect, Little kicks himself for not applying for disaster assistance that might have helped him survive.”The funds are there (to help), but I waited too long” to apply, he said.Beham said he took advantage of the assistance made available by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.”Thanks to FEMA and the SBA, we’re not going through anything near the extreme of Greg,” he said.Beham said he would have survived without the help, but he used the low-interest loan to pay off higher-interest loans and offset some of the reduced business caused by the fire.Little said he was surprised that businesses got assistance because they didn’t seem to need it. But in retrospect, he said, the aid makes sense. If the slow economy continues it may eventually prove to have been crucial.”It’s a preventative maintenance kind of thing on their part, and I can’t knock that. I should have had the foresight to do it myself,” he said.He said he might have had trouble repaying a disaster loan. However, he said he knows of one local business that was turned down for that reason, but then the SBA later reconsidered and provided it funding on short notice because its need became so great.For whatever combination of reasons, Little’s business won’t survive this difficult year.Already he has lost a property in Tucson, a motorhome and two trucks. Now, his home in West Glenwood will go into foreclosure, he said.”I’ll lose everything that I’ve worked 30-some years for.”He’s not sure if he’ll be able to afford to remain in the area, and what he will do next for a living. He has had conversations with people about a few different options, including one in the restaurant business.Little, who also previously operated a Dairy Queen here and worked in the business in Minnesota, doesn’t rule out continuing to work in restaurants.”For a long, long time the business has been very good to me,” he said.He also keeps his current situation in perspective.He is looking at the loss of a business and personal possessions. But on the night of the Coal Seam Fire, he got seven or eight phone calls from relatives of firefighters who died on Storm King.”Without exception, each one of the families that called, the first thing they said was, `Is everyone OK?'”The loss of homes at the Coal Seam Fire was sad, but at least homes can be rebuilt, Little said.”Once a life is lost, it’s gone forever,” he said. “I can start over. Those kids (who died on Storm King) can’t. I mean, they’re gone.”Little plans to open the doors of Smokin’ Willies, 101 W. 6th St., today at 11 a.m.He welcomes anyone to visit him on his restaurant’s last day. He’ll remain open, he said, “until the food is gone.”


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