As the sun rose on that Tuesday morning of March 13, nobody in Manitou Springs had reason to suspect an imminent shock to the city’s collective psyche, actually its entire local business scene.
Yes, there were ongoing concerns, such as the constant irritations spurred by torn-up streets from so many projects. But there was, and is, light at the end of those tunnels.
All that aside, many local businesses felt buoyed by the prospects for a rewarding summer tourism season ahead. They were counting on visitors by the thousands again flocking to the region, fueling a local economy in need of a boost after a paltry “offseason” influenced by all that construction.
And after a winter of being closed for repairs and maintenance, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway would produce the steadiest flow of tourists, often making the difference between average and thriving days.
Sure, everyone shares some worry about the super-dry winter, raising fears of an ominous fire season perhaps as destructive as 2012-13 with the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest infernos.
Otherwise, Manitou’s outlook for the Summer of ’18 was all positive, with no rumors or secrets to the contrary (as far as anyone knew).
Then the hammer dropped. Within about 12 hours, word came from The Broadmoor that the cog railway would not reopen in 2018. In fact, we learned, the Broadmoor/cog/Gazette ownership headed by billionaire Philip Anschutz might not bring back the railway to Pikes Peak’s summit for up to three years … and perhaps never.
That changed everything. You can’t minimize it. One of our region’s most iconic, unique and exhilarating attractions, in business for more than a century, suddenly is shut down for the indefinite future.
Perhaps most frustrating has been the lack of detail or even basic explanations from The Broadmoor. Why such an abrupt decision? Why no warning to Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, which stand to be impacted the most?
Why no inkling to give everyone, from the Barr Trail and Summit House operations to the Pikes Peak Highway, an idea that something this drastic might happen? Why not inform the organizers of the massive new Summit Complex construction project, due to start this year?
Nobody knew anything.
We’ve since heard maintenance problems likely have been worse than we knew. There were lots of scheduled cog trips canceled last summer, particularly early and late in the day, and not because of poor business. It was because some trains were not functioning. Also, we understand, there might have been near-accidents involving maintenance to the tracks.
Just given that unconfirmed information, it’s a little easier to understand. But still, nobody knew. The cog’s office was taking reservations for this coming summer up to the very minute when the word came.
So obviously, it would’ve helped if The Broadmoor had been more open about it. Not secretive, which suggests there might have been something to hide. From this view, the Anschutz executives owe Manitou Springs, actually the entire region and its tourism industry, a much more thorough assessment addressing all the still-unknown issues.
But it does no good now to treat this like a scandal. Manitou’s city government and business community have responded admirably, realizing they can’t move forward by wallowing in self-pity. Mayor Ken Jaray and city council have taken the right approach, looking for solutions and strategies instead of just hoping for the best.
Others have even suggested that by removing the congestion of all the cars going through downtown up Ruxton Avenue to the cog, and then back again, the result will be positive for Manitou’s congestion and parking issues. Who knows, a few have said, we might not even notice an impact.
That’s not realistic. Yes, there will be impact, starting with the $500,000 or so each year that comes to Manitou Springs via taxes on cog tickets and sales at the railway’s store and concessions. That revenue is gone and won’t be redirected elsewhere in Manitou.
The best way to gauge the cog closure’s effect — other than anecdotal information from local businesses — will be Manitou’s monthly sales tax reports. But at the same time, the city should take advantage of this unpredictable time in another way.
Manitou needs to have a better idea of its real tourism numbers: The number of visitors and cars, where they’re staying and for how long, how much money they spend here, where they come from, how often they visit and more. That means being more aggressive in research and engaging visitors, not just counting cog admissions or other partial means.
Yes, it might cost some money to do that. But any top-notch economic research company, perhaps helped by college interns with need for that experience, could produce mountains of new, reliable data about our visitors. It also could become an annual priority, starting with a new baseline for the future.
And that data also could help in determining next steps, such as whether some entity might want to purchase or lease the cog and take over its operation.
As we’ve learned with the cog closure, we can’t just be naïve and count on others to let us know everything ahead of time. It also doesn’t help to stay mad or offended, though it’s worth noting, in 36 years of having Manitou Springs as part of my life, I’ve never seen the town at the foot of Pikes Peak so united in anger — even outrage — as now over the cog.
Let’s just try to direct those emotions toward a positive outcome.