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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Economic impact could be 'millions a day'

June 25, 2012
photo - An aerial view of the Cave of the Winds tourist attraction, near Manitou Springs. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
An aerial view of the Cave of the Winds tourist attraction, near Manitou Springs. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

The Pikes Peak region stands to lose “millions of dollars a day” in economic activity because of the Waldo Canyon fire, as visitors cancel hotel rooms, tourist attractions close and employees lose paychecks, one local economist says.

“It really depends on how many hotel cancellations we get,” said Fred Crowley of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “But a conservative number, and you throw all these things together, it would amount to in excess of $1 million a day, is probably a fair way to say it.”

Meanwhile, the fire left officials mulling the fate of one of the area’s biggest summer events — the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the annual motor race to the summit of Pikes Peak that draws thousands of visitors from around the world. This year’s race is scheduled for July 8, with a fan festival two days earlier in downtown Colorado Springs that race organizers say is expected to draw upward of 35,000 people.

On Monday, the race remained a go, although Hill Climb officials were scheduled to meet with Springs city representatives Tuesday and expect to also talk this week with officials from El Paso and Teller counties and the U.S. Forest Service, said race operations director Megan Leatham

“Everything is moving forward,” she said. “We just don’t have any information because we haven’t had these meetings. I’m working like we’re racing.”

Ten major area tourist attractions were closed Monday because of the fire, including the Garden of the Gods park, the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and the North Pole.

Area attractions are weathering the storm, although, “the longer it goes on, the tougher it’s going to be,” said Michele Starling, executive director of Pikes Peak Country Attractions.

The association fielded calls Monday from visitors wondering what they should do about coming, she said. Callers were told the fire situation is “day to day” and were directed to the association’s website for more information.

The Cave of the Winds, north of U.S. 24 just outside Manitou Springs, was on pace for a record-setting day Saturday when it was forced to close around 3:30 because of the fire, said longtime general manager Grant Carey. The Cave of the Winds also was closed Sunday and Monday, which probably would have been similarly strong days when it comes to admissions, he said.

“Every day in the next 90 days are the bread and butter days for us,” Carey said of the summer months. “They’re the days that we’re in business. The rest of the year, we’re just kind of maintaining, waiting for these few days. ”

The Cave of the Winds’ 100 seasonal workers and 25 full-time employees also don’t get paid when the attraction is closed.

“It has a far-ranging impact on our employees,” Carey said.

But the attraction will survive, Carey said. And, emergency fire personnel “are working their (tails) off” to protect residents and their homes, businesses and attractions like Cave of the Winds, he said.

While fire crews battle the Waldo Canyon blaze, tourism and lodging officials fight a perception problem about the location and extent of the local fire.

Ten years ago during the Hayman fire, which was about 25 miles north of Woodland Park in Teller County, Pikes Peak region attractions lost 15 percent to 20 percent of their business that summer, Starling said.

Last week, CNN told its viewers that the massive High Park fire outside Fort Collins was burning near Fort Carson. That led to creation of a Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau web page to correct the misinformation; the same page now is being used to put out Waldo Canyon Fire news, said CVB spokeswoman Chelsy Murphy.

Even as some attractions are closed, 95 percent remain open, whether it’s rafting down the Arkansas River or museums, restaurants and other attractions in downtown Colorado Springs, Murphy said.

At stake for the tourism and lodging industry are millions of dollars in income.

A family of four staying at an area hotel might spend more than $200 a day on lodging, meals and attractions, Crowley said. Their spending, in turn, fuels wages for thousands of area employees, while Colorado Springs and other governments collect tax revenue on the souvenirs they buy, the cars they rent and the like.

When spending is disrupted by a disaster such as the Waldo Canyon fire, the area’s lodging and tourism industry, its employes and local governments all take a financial hit, Crowley said.

Steve Ducoff, executive director of the Pikes Peak Lodging Association, said it’s too early to predict what effect the fire is having on area hotels.

“Generally, this is a bunch of bad news for Colorado,” Ducoff said. “It’s not good for our lovely forests, it’s not good for the economy and millions of dollars are being spent to fight it. And it’s not good for the tourist-hospitality industry because people are maybe turned off from it. But I don’t have figures yet.”

How long the area will feel the economic pinch will depend on the fire’s duration, Crowley said.

“The Hayman fire several years ago, 10 years ago, people were cancelling (visits and hotel rooms) for an extended period. That really did hurt. Hopefully this is out tomorrow. I doubt it. But if it’s out shortly, it’s a wrinkle. If it goes for an extended period of time, then we might have (areas) of tourism hurting.”

Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen

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