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New Westside brewpub keeps Roundhouse alive

Fri, Sep 14, 2012

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It had been a year or more since the owners of the Colorado Mountain Brewery had announced plans to expand to a second location, the recently restored Midland Roundhouse at 21st Street and U.S. Highway 24. Since we live five blocks away, we showed up at 6:30 p.m. on opening day.

As we approached the door, a friend was exiting.

“It’s too crowded,” he said. “I’m going downtown.”

Every table was taken, the bar was packed, and the hostess told us we could expect a two-hour wait.

“Come back when we’re less crowded,” she suggested cheerfully.

We were slightly peeved, but glad to see such a successful launch. If you’re the person who has put time, reputation and money on the line, time seems to stand still in the moments before the doors open on Day One.

Will anybody show up? Have I overspent? Maybe this location sucks! Have I spent too much? Are my servers competent? Is the chef drunk? What did I forget? I wish I’d stayed in the Air Force/gone to med school/gotten a job at the post office. Why am I putting myself/my family/my employees through this?

And then it all works out. The place is full. Things are going smoothly, and your biggest problem is soothing the ruffled feelings of customers you’ve had to turn away.

Millions of Americans start businesses every year, and most of them don’t make it. They’re underfunded, poorly conceived, badly located, or badly managed — choose your poison.

Former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan once opined that the then-buoyant stock market was afflicted by “irrational exuberance.”

He was right — and that’s the natural state of American business owners. Steely optimism characterizes every local business person of my acquaintance, from Richard Skorman to Will Perkins. Steely optimists build and prosper or build and go broke — but they never stop building.

Consider the long history of the Midland Roundhouse — built, maintained, renovated, and occupied by five generations of optimists.

Headquartered in Colorado City, the Midland Railway ran up Ute Pass to Divide, and thence to Leadville and Grand Junction. It was the first standard-gauge railroad to cross the Continental Divide in Colorado. Intended to be a serious competitor to the Rio Grande for east-west traffic across Colorado, it succeeded only, as one railroad historian put it, “in becoming a close second.”

In its brief heyday, largely financed by mining magnate J.J. Hagerman, the railroad employed hundreds of workers at its Colorado City headquarters. The roundhouse, constructed in 1887, provided repair and maintenance facilities for the line’s steam locomotives.

Hagerman sold the railroad in 1890. It subsequently went bankrupt on three separate occasions, and finally shut down for good in 1921.

The portion of the line between Colorado City and Divide was sold to the Midland Terminal Railroad, which managed to stay in business until 1949 when the line was abandoned.

In 1955, the vacant roundhouse was acquired by the Van Briggle Pottery, which remained there for more than 50 years.

In 2008, the irrepressible optimists at Griffis-Blessing acquired the historic old wreck, spent a reported $2.5 million to renovate it, and sought other optimists to lease the newly restored space. Carmichael Training Systems signed on the dotted line, as did a couple of smaller tenants, but the building’s premium space remained vacant.

Enter Scott Koons, an AFA graduate who started Colorado Mountain Brewery two years before. Creating a second brewpub in the magnificent space may have cost more than $500,000, every nickel of it at risk for Koons and other investors.

Right now, it looks as if Koons’ steely optimism will be rewarded, and that he’ll join our local pantheon of successful restaurateurs. Good for him — successful businesses benefit the entire community.

In a perfect world, Koons would welcome President Obama and Governor Romney to his sparkling new establishment. The two leaders might amiably share a pizza while they discuss their sunnily optimistic views of American business, and our country’s future.

That won’t happen.

Romney and Obama may be the most sourly pessimistic presidential candidates in modern American history. It’s hard to imagine either starting a business — for them, it’s all about cleaning up the dismal wreckage that the other’s party has created.

In a perfect world, they’d be forced to start a brewpub together. Just imagine — Barack behind the bar, Mitt at the hostess station. The owners would quarrel, the staff would be sullen and demoralized, the food would be mediocre, and the customers would go to the roundhouse.

Not me — as Yogi Berra once remarked about a favorite watering hole,

“Nobody goes there anymore — it’s too crowded.”

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