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Pikes Peak tourism industry rues closure of Cog Railway

March 25, 2018 Updated: March 27, 2018 at 6:27 am
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People watch the runners cross the finish line from the Cog Railway as over 1,000 participated in the Pikes Peak Ascent on Saturday, August 19, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway isn't the region's only tourist attraction, yet its closure over the next few years looms over the area like its namesake mountain.

Manitou Springs, where passengers board the 126-year-old railway for three-hour, scenic round trips to the summit of Pikes Peak, will take in about a half-million dollars less in tax revenue without the attraction, the city's mayor estimates.

Restaurants and stores in Manitou's eclectic downtown expect fewer customers because some of the several hundred thousand Cog Railway passengers no longer will pass through town on their way to and from the train.

And the Pikes Peak region's tourism industry, which has enjoyed a surge of visitors in recent years, is ruing the loss of an iconic attraction. Cog Railway passengers contribute to the region's more than 23 million annual visitors, whose spending pumps $2.25 billion a year into the local economy, according to the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau's latest figures.

"We just are busy," PK Knickerbocker, executive director of Pikes Peak Country Attractions, said of visitors already buying tickets and downloading coupons on the marketing group's website. "You can just sort of almost feel it. It's like it's palpable that it's going to be another busy season. People love Colorado. I don't see that slowing down."

Yet, when it comes to the Cog Railway's closing, "it just sucks," he said.

The announcement nearly two weeks ago by The Broadmoor hotel, the railway's owner since 1925, shocked many in the community. Saying the railroad's aging infrastructure - tracks, rail cars and other equipment - has "run its useful life," the hotel won't reopen the railway for the spring after several months of winter maintenance.

Instead, the hotel will undertake a review of the Cog Railway that could last two to three years. At the end of that time, the hotel might choose to rebuild the railway - or close it permanently.

Even a short-term closure of the railway is disconcerting for area businesses.

Jordan Jacobson, a manager at Ruffrano's Hell's Kitchen Pizza, said Cog Railway passengers commonly stopped at the pizza place on Ruxton Avenue in Manitou Springs, a little less than a mile from the railway's depot. Or, he said, Hell's Kitchen employees would send inquiring customers over to the railway.

The Cog and the traffic it generated, he said, will be missed.

"We definitely do get our fair share of customers from there and the (Manitou) Incline," Jacobson said. "It's definitely a big driver for business here."

Paul York, general manager of The Cliff House at Pikes Peak in the heart of downtown Manitou, said the hotel doesn't know how many of its guests stay at the hotel because of the railway.

Still, an attraction as popular as the Cog Railway helps keep visitors in the region for longer stays, York said. On the day they're scheduled to ride the railway, passengers might come into town early to find a parking spot and patronize stores, restaurants and cafes, art galleries and souvenir shops. Without the Cog, York said, some of those sales will be lost.

"We're all kind of holding our breath here in Manitou Springs to see the direct impact," York said.

Based on figures supplied by the Cog Railway, Manitou Springs stands to lose "probably, at least, $500,000-ish" a year in sales and excise tax revenues generated by the attraction, said Mayor Ken Jaray. The city also potentially will lose revenue from sales at stores, restaurants and the like if fewer people pass through town because of the Cog's closure, he said.

"What I'm hoping is that we have enough other attractions and amenities in our community that people will obviously still want to come here, although they don't have the Cog to take," Jaray said. "There are many other ways of seeing Pikes Peak."

One way is the city-operated Pikes Peak Highway, which motorists can drive year-round - weather permitting - to reach the summit.

An estimated 170,000 to 200,000 vehicles travel the road each year, said Jack Glavan, the Pikes Peak Highway's manager. Meanwhile, figures supplied by the Cog Railway show a little more than 300,000 passengers rode the train in 2017, he said.

With the railway's closure, Glavan is preparing for perhaps half of those train passengers to drive the highway. That will translate into another 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles a year on the road, he said.

That might lead to more congestion at the highway's entrance gate, parking lots might be a little fuller and more cars will be on the road at the same time, he said.

But the highway plans to add staffing - up to six workers instead of the current one or two - at its three gates to ensure vehicles aren't stacked up at the entrance, he said. On the road, Glavan said, vehicle traffic tends to thin out as motorists drive up the highway.

If construction begins on a new Summit House this summer at the top of Pikes Peak, general contractor GE Johnson Construction Co. of Colorado Springs plans to shuttle its employees to the top. Aramark Corp., the food and facilities vendor that operates the Summit House and two visitor centers along the highway, also plans to adjust staffing to accommodate more vehicles, Glavan said.

Aside from Manitou's loss of a half-million dollars, there's probably no way to accurately measure the overall financial impact on the region, said Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I can't put a number on it," he said. "It's probably our oldest attraction, my guess. It's just been a part of the heritage of the Pikes Peak region that dates back 126 years. The heritage of it is as significant as the financial aspect of it."

Even with the Cog's closure, and the acknowledgment by Jaray and others that revenues will be lost as a result, tourism industry officials expect another banner year.

Miramont Castle, the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, the Mineral Springs and Cave of the Winds are just a few Manitou Springs attractions. Pikes Peak, meanwhile, remains accessible for hikers and cyclists.

The city's Garden of the Gods Park is another iconic attraction, despite parking and traffic congestion that Springs officials are trying to remedy. Next year, the U.S. Olympic Museum is expected to open in downtown Colorado Springs.

"It will be missed," Price said. "But the good thing is, we do have alternatives for people who want to experience the outdoors of Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region."

For tourists who want to ride a train, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Cañon City offers passengers scenic trips through the Royal Gorge, south of Colorado Springs.

"It's very sad for us that they're going to be closed," Leslie Lewis, executive director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, said of the Cog's closure. "So, we'll continue to promote everything else that's great about the Pikes Peak region and Manitou Springs, and encourage lots of people to still come to the area."

The Broadmoor is owned by the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose Clarity Media Group owns The Gazette.

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Contact the reporter: 636-0228

Twitter: @richladen

Facebook: Rich Laden

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