About 40 people gathered in San Simeon July 12 to learn more about when Highway 1 might reopen north of Ragged Point, and how local business people might lessen economic impacts from prolonged closures of the famous scenic highway along the rugged shoreline.
The short answers? There is no quick fix, it will take a long time for Caltrans to make repairs and reopen the entire Cambria-to-Carmel stretch of the highway, and increased marketing and advertising of the area’s attractions is how business interests can best combat any economic slide caused by the closure.
The massive Mud Creek slide, north of Salmon Creek, is the most problematic and will take the longest to clear, according to Caltrans officials.
The highway has been closed to through traffic since January, and heavy rainfall since then triggered a series of new slides. The land movement created isolated islands along the stretch between Ragged Point and mid-Big Sur.
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Motorists can drive as far north as the Salmon Creek area, and can access 35 miles of the roadway from south of Gorda to just south of Pfeiffer Canyon. But to get to the middle section, they must start from Highway 101 and take Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (wryly nicknamed “Nasty Fergie” by locals), which wends its way across the Santa Lucia range. It’s not an easy trek, but for some, the lure of enjoying a bit of Big Sur magic with far less traffic than usual is enough reason to make the journey.
At the July 12 meeting, officials confirmed that hills are still sliding above the highway at Mud Creek, according to Mary Ann Carson, executive director of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s still moving up there,” she said. “Teams of engineers are trying to figure out what to do when it stops moving,” and determine whether there are any remotely plausible solutions that could reopen the highway more quickly.
Jim Shivers of Caltrans, Supervisor Bruce Gibson and representatives of Visit SLO Cal spoke at the meeting, “which was for financial advice and to get information about the slide,” according to attendee Fidel Figueroa, a member of the Cambria chamber board. The session “went well, although we didn’t learn very much” that most audience members didn’t already know.
Business owners I talked to said that (business at) some hotels are down 15 to 25 percent and restaurants from 25 to 40 percent.
Fidel Figueroa, board member, Cambria Chamber of Commerce
Carson said Shivers had “a very good power point of photos” of the trouble spots at Mud Creek, Paul’s Slide and the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. The latter was damaged by earth movement, was removed and is being replaced by a new structure.
Gibson said in an email interview Monday, July 17, that “the most important thing we talked about is setting up a way that news of progress toward a fix can be communicated.”
Throughout the closures, Susana Cruz, Shivers and other Caltrans spokespeople have sent frequent email updates — sometimes, several a day — to area residents and businesspeople.
Gibson feels “promotion efforts over the last 15-to-20 years have helped moderate” somewhat the economic impact of this highway closure. Those efforts contributed toward making the Cambria-San Simeon area a destination in its own right, separate from the international reputation of the Big Sur highway and Hearst Castle.
“Before that effort,” Gibson said, “a closure of this magnitude would have caused much greater losses of business.”
Figueroa said “business owners I talked to said that (business at) some hotels are down 15 to 25 percent and restaurants from 25 to 40 percent.” He added that Gibson “is going to give us information once a month” and “will be communicating with Caltrans in order to provide us with more information about what is going on.”
Gibson said any help from the Small Business Administration “is frankly pretty minimal. Their only offering is a low-interest loan that I realize won’t provide much help to most people.” The offering currently is linked to “loss caused by the February storms only, with a request for info put out regarding later storms, which might cause the program to be extended.”
Entrepreneurs can fill out forms with that information and send them to the state Office of Emergency Services. To get the Disaster Economic Injury Worksheet for Businesses form and other details, call the county’s OES at 805-781-5011 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
However, Carson explained that, even if the feds extend the benefits to include the Mud Creek slide time frame, “These would be low-interest loans. It’s not like they’ll give people money,” and even then, “there’s very little of it to go around.”
She added, “The upshot of the whole meeting was that the only way to get people here and keep them here is to increase the marketing” for individual businesses and the entire area.