Pandemic and Fire in the Same Year – What are the odds?
The members of the Mount Lemmon Business Economic Association (MLBEA) are anxiously awaiting news from Pima County officials notifying them of the date they can begin welcoming visitors once again. After weathering the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring, traffic levels were starting to rebound when the Bighorn Fire forced the evacuation of Mount Lemmon.
The mountain has reopened to Summerhaven residents but remains closed to the public.
“Pima County announced the highway will reopen when fire-damaged guard rails are repaired,” said Jennifer Zimmerman, who serves as MLBEA President and manages the Sawmill Run Restaurant and Smokehouse in Summerhaven with her son, Nick Avram. Zimmerman continued, “We need at least a week’s notice to replenish food stocks that spoiled because of power outages during the fire. When the evacuation began, we had to lay off all our employees. If we don’t reopen soon, we risk losing them to other opportunities.” Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Sawmill Run closed on March 17 but provided takeout orders on the weekends starting on April 29. Dine-in service was relaunching just before the evacuation was announced.
Recently, the Mount Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop has been open for limited hours to serve Summerhaven residents. “It’s mainly a convenience for our mountain neighbors, but our main source of revenue comes from Tucson visitors. Without them the store will not survive,” clarified Grey Carpenter, who has owned the General Store with his wife Teri for the past two years.
Justin Hafner, whose Mount Lemmon Hotel construction progress was shut down due to the fire, has been unable to give his growing list of future guests an opening date. Hafner said, “Construction has resumed, but we missed three weeks of dry weather. Although the monsoon is, in many ways, the answer to our prayers, it also has the potential to further delay construction.” Hafner plans to start accepting reservations as soon as a firm opening date can be set.
Due to pandemic restrictions, The Living Rainbow closed on March 27th. Debbie Fagan, owner since 1978, rebuilt the unique gift shop after the Aspen Fire destroyed it 17 years ago. The store was preparing to reopen with significant occupancy restrictions before the evacuation. Fagan said her shop has a loyal group of regular customers waiting for the opportunity to return.
The Cookie Cabin, a pizzeria famous for its dinner-plate-sized cookies, weathered the COVID-19 shutdown by reconfiguring for takeout-only service. “Our smaller menu and mostly outdoor seating arrangements really worked in our favor,” said Samantha Beal, long-time general manager. “We’ve cleared out the spoiled food and scrubbed the kitchen. All we need now are customers.”
Ski Valley, which encompasses the Iron Door restaurant, Motherlode gift shop, Grub Stake snack bar, Miner’s Sweet Tooth candy shop and seasonal Sky Ride, shut down completely for over two months due to COVID-19. General manager Graham Davies’ family has owned the attraction since 1969, boasting the southern-most ski area in North America. Davies explained that time is of the essence for Mount Lemmon Businesses. “Our most reliable source of visitors is Tucson’s summer heat. Once the weather cools down, traffic slows until snow falls,” adding that snowfall has been less reliable in recent years. Davies is also concerned that another wave of Coronavirus restrictions could impact Ski Valley’s annual Oktoberfest celebration this fall.
Grey Carpenter from the General Store will be available for media interviews by phone (520-576-1468) and video conference. Photos for media use have been posted at https://mlbea.org/photos/ . MLBEA has a photographer/videographer in Summerhaven and will make additional photographs and video available for download upon request.