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Russian River business owners hoping for busy Labor Day weekend

GUERNEVILLE

Out-of-towners streaming into the lower Russian River area this Labor Day weekend will be hard-pressed to find many signs of the flood waters that inundated homes, hotel rooms and businesses here six months ago in the region’s worst disaster in nearly a quarter century.

Many of the lodging, dining and drinking outlets have reopened, including the R3 Hotel in Guerneville, where on Friday guests were welcomed for the first time since the late-February calamity.

“In a flood, the water only comes up a few days, but the devastation lasts a long time,” said Leslie Crane, manager of the Appaloosa Bar on the corner of 4th and Mills streets.

For businesses that suffered major flood damage, the slow recovery cut into crucial revenue-generating months during the peak summer season. Many are hoping for a busy Labor Day weekend to make up for lost revenue.

“I’m praying this weekend will be a good one,” said Jilla Gauthier, owner of River Queen Handmade and Collectibles and River Queen Clothing on Main Street.

“Everybody out here has to make their income so we can survive this winter,” she said.

Gauthier lost two months of revenue while her landlord replaced flooring and did other repairs in her shop.

“Overall, I’m down about 25%,” she said.

The Appaloosa bar, which sits directly beneath the Timberline Restaurant, was badly flooded and had to be stripped down to the studs and concrete floors. The entire building required new electrical, plumbing and other repairs that totaled $332,000, said Larry Voeger, the restaurant manager.

Both establishments were closed for months for repairs, but even after reopening, business was slow throughout this summer, Voeger said. That was especially noticeable for the restaurant, which relies more on overnight visitors.

Voeger said he’s worked closely with lodging operators like Michael Preaseau, owner of The Woods resort, to spur the recovery through the summer. Cabins, cottages and hotel rooms are what funnel customers to restaurants like Timberline, Voeger said.

Voeger said about 75% of the restaurant’s revenue comes during the summer season, which runs from about June 15 to Sept. 15. The restaurant has been closed during the week and is only open on weekends because of the absence of overnight visitors.

“We’ve lost probably about $300,000 in (revenue) in the last four months,” he said.

In an effort to shore up business before the winter comes, local business leaders are planning a series of off-season events, including “Feast Above the River” on ?Oct. 6. Held on the Guerneville Bridge, the fine dining event will feature well-known Sonoma County chefs and world-class wines.

Next weekend, on Sept. 7 at 11 a.m., Guerneville will host Russian River Pride, the town’s first pride bash since Sonoma County Pride moved its early summer event to Santa Rosa. Russian River Pride organizer Rodger Jensen noted the theme of the event: “Flooded with Love.”

“It’s also significant because of everything we went through this season,” he said. “It’s the kickoff to the ‘back season’ to show that we’re open and doing good.”

Preaseau, The Woods resort owner, said getting his cottages, cabins and basic rooms repaired and reopened has been a huge endeavor. He said 15 of the 19 units at the resort were damaged by flood waters. Still out of commission were six cottages on the lower ground level, where flood waters reached about 8 feet, Preaseau said.

On Friday, new windows for those units sat wrapped in plastic, awaiting installation. Just feet away, a couple of visitors lounged in the pool area, where the The Woods was set to host a party on Saturday and Sunday with full bar and music.

Inside the cottages still in repair, bare wood studs awaited drywall, taping and painting, which could take a couple of weeks. When all the work is done, the repairs for last winter’s flood will cost about $500,000, Preaseau said.

Like others, he said the biggest obstacle has been the insurance payout process. “We sign off on it, but then the insurance money goes to the bank and they want receipts for everything,” he said.

He said the stress of the recovery is taking a toll. At one time during the summer, he had guests showing up to check in even as construction crews were doing last-minute work on their rooms.

Even six months out, the long slog of flood recovery has impacted the livelihood of the entire Russian River community, he said.

“It affects the whole town, the bars, the restaurants,” he said. “It hurt the whole community.”

Karen O’Brien, owner of Inn on the Russian River in Monte Rio, said eight of the inn’s 11 units, including the laundry room and storage area, were damaged and shut down for repairs because of flooding.

Though the inn was closed March, April and May, it reopened for the summer season. O’Brien said she had about 90% occupancy during June, July and August, but her bookings are beginning to dry out.

“Right now I’m looking at next week and it’s really light,” she said. “I lost income for three months.”

At the R3 Hotel, guest Sandy Oxley of San Francisco waited early Friday afternoon to check into his room. Oxley, who works in construction management, said he understood the difficulties Russian River businesses and residents have endured following the floods earlier this year. Oxley said that between 1996 and 2008 he was part-owner of Dubrava Village, a gated condominium community just outside of Guerneville.

He tries to visit the area at least once a year, he said, adding that he was excited about being back in Guerneville. “In a way, it’s like a homecoming,” he said.

Gauthier, the Main Street shop owner, said that with the warm weather that lasts into September and additional off-season events planned, she and others hoped the stream of visitors to the region would remain strong. The viability of many businesses may depend on it.

“These off-season events are going to be make or break events,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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