In recovery mode, Pikes Peak region businesses working to attract visitors after fires, floods

By Ned Hunter Updated: September 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm • Published: September 8, 2013 | 8:55 am 0

First fires then floods.

Perhaps the only "F" word left that could hurt tourism in the Pikes Peak region is famine.

The June 2012 Waldo Canyon fire sent tourists to other states, as travelers avoided the flames that torched nearly 350 homes on the western slopes of Colorado Springs. Then, just when it seemed tourists were about to return to the area this summer, 12 wildfires erupted across the state, including in Black Forest and the Royal Gorge area. The national media coverage that showed images of burned homes and charred woodlands again pushed tourists to other states or areas of Colorado.

As the fires were extinguished, the flames were replaced by floods in and near Manitou Springs on July 1 and 10 and Aug. 9 that closed businesses and left residents homeless. Floodwaters and flash-flood warnings several times closed U.S. 24, the main route between Colorado Springs and Teller County, including Cripple Creek.

Flames and floods did not affect visits to all attractions in the Pikes Peak region, said Ryan Cole, executive director of Pike's Peak Country Attractions.

"For some," he said, "it was another struggling season like we had last year."

Cole cited the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, which was on the rebound this year, but now expects to see less tourist revenue than last summer.

Yet the Air Force Academy believes it had more tourists this year than last summer, although it doesn't keep statistics. Also, visitor counts at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo have "soared" this summer, mainly because of the attraction's new Encounter Africa exhibit, said Erica Meyer, public relations manager. The zoo had 353,685 guests pass through its turnstiles from May 1 to Aug. 30 this year, a 13.7 percent increase from the number of guests in 2011 for the same time period.

The total economic impact of this summer's fires and floods on the region's tourist economy will not be known until October and November, said Doug Price, president of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. That's because sales and some other taxes collected by the state are returned to cities two months after the collection date.

Visits to Colorado Springs appeared to regain momentum in early summer, before the fires and floods. The May and June combined LART tax collections were 2.8 percent higher than the previous May and June. The LART tax, or Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax, is a measure of how many rooms and automobiles have been rented in the Springs. It is not a perfect indicator because anyone renting a car or room, including those who live locally, pays the tax.

With three weeks left in this year's tourist season, Price said the best thing for cities to do now is work toward attracting visitors during the offseason.

"We have our work cut out for us to convince people it is still safe, and it is still pretty to come," he said.

Cañon City and the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park

Cañon City's tourist business has been nearly nonexistent since the June fire that burned 3,218 acres and shut down the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park 24 miles west of the city. The fire destroyed 48 buildings that housed gift shops, eateries, attractions and other facilities. The bridge suffered only minor fire damage, but remains closed to visitors.

The buildings and bridge are owned by Cañon City and leased to The Royal Gorge Co. of Colorado. The company has held the lease since 1947, said Mike Bandera, general manager.

Demolition of the destroyed buildings is about 95 percent complete, he said. The Cañon City City Council on Aug. 29 approved the company's plan to rebuild the attraction. Bandera hopes his company can rebuild the park by June 1 at the latest, in time for the 2014 tourist season. The project is estimated to cost $35 million.

The buildings and the bridge were insured, Bandera said. The lease payment to Cañon City, which has hovered around $1.7 million annually for the last several years, also was insured, Bandera said.

What was not insured was the estimated $25 million in tourist spending Cañon City expects to lose from June 7 to Sept. 30, said Cañon City Mayor Tony Greer. The Royal Canyon Bridge and Park attracts an average of 310,000 people annually, and 85 percent of those travelers visit between May 1 and Oct. 1.

"When they come here for the bridge, they end up staying to eat and for the river rafting, the railroad, or to ATV through the mountains," Greer said. "All those ancillary tourist reasons that have profited from the bridge in the past have taken a hit."

Tourists avoided the city last year during and following the Waldo Canyon fire. Greer said when tourists cancel trips to Colorado Springs, they cancel other trips in the region.

Ironically, money spent fighting the Royal Gorge fire that started on June 7 will replace some of this year's lost tourist dollars, Greer said.

"That's because we had several hundred firefighters here staying in hotels and eating," he said.

Manitou Springs

The Cliff House hotel was undamaged after the first two summer floods that swept through the region in July.

The hotel and fine dining area were not as lucky when the Aug. 9 flood swept down Canon and Park avenues, said Paul York, general manager.

It damaged the hotel's kitchen, ballroom, an emergency exit and three outside light posts. It also deposited 3 inches of mud across the hotel's parking garage. People canceled reservations and diners stayed away from the restaurant. The hotel lost about $30,000 in room reservations and another $25,000 in lunch and dinner revenues for July and August, York said.

"When the physical damages are added, the losses will exceed $70,000 at just the Cliff House," he said.

The cost to clean up Manitou Springs was minimal after the July 1 flood, said Rebecca Davis, city finance manager. Cleaning up after the August flood, however, "will cost a lot more" - much of the debris had to be sent to a hazardous waste site because of its unknown contents. Davis did not know the cost of either cleanup.

The floods came just as the city was recovering from the effects of last year's Waldo Canyon fire, Davis said. That fire kept visitors away from the city for nearly five weeks. Although the fire never reached Manitou, it closed U.S. 24 for days and the proximity of smoke and flames drove tourists away.

Manitou Springs' June sales tax revenues had climbed 8.8 percent higher than those in June 2012. Sales tax revenue for the city that operates on a calendar year budget was 3.6 percent more than 2011 for the period of Jan. 1 to June 30.

Then the floods hit.

The city will not receive its sales tax collections for July and August until September and October respectively, Davis said, but she is not hopeful.

Cripple Creek

Flooding and flash-flood warnings that closed U.S. 24 several times this summer affected gaming and sales tax revenues in Cripple Creek, even though the town is a 40-mile drive west of Manitou Springs.

The affects of the July 1 and 10 floods affected Cripple Creek's tourist industry for several weeks, said Ray White, city administrator. Travelers worried about getting to and from the gaming town. That anxiety was compounded after the Aug. 9 flood, White said, and potential visitors avoided town or left Cripple Creek earlier than usual, he said, cutting gaming revenues.

"There is a heightened awareness of floods down there," White said, "so people are planning accordingly."

The city's sales tax collections fell 29 percent to $45,184 in July compared with $63,947 in July 2012, according to city records. Gaming revenues also fell. The amount spent by gamblers in July fell $2.66 million, or 3.4 percent, to about $76.5 million from July 2012, according to city records. Both losses were attributed to floods and flood warnings to the east. Gaming revenues comprise 66 percent of Cripple Creek's annual budget. The floods hit at a time when the city seemed poised to meet or exceed 2011 gaming amounts.

"When there was favorable weather," White said, "our attendance was actually higher than in previous years."

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Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275

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