On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of cars flowed down Tenderfoot Hill toward Cripple Creek. After 18 miles of sometimes testy driving on Highway 67, the twisting, two-lane road that links Cripple Creek to the rest of the world, most drivers ignored the Pikes Peak Heritage center, perched on a ridge overlooking the town.
At 2 p.m., the casinos were thronged with customers, and the adjacent streets and parking lots were almost full. But at the new $3.7 million Heritage Center, there were fewer than half a dozen visitors admiring the inventive displays, or enjoying the panoramic views from the building’s two-story windows.
Scott Kerr, the center’s director, said the facility is on track to become a popular, oft-visited tourist attraction, one which will help Cripple Creek diversify from its present economic base of casino gambling.
“(Visitation) is going to be down at this time of year,” he said, “but we anticipate that it will increase drastically as the weather improves.”
Steph Hilliard, who manages the center, echoed Kerr’s comments.
“In the winter, people in Colorado Springs think that it’s snowing in Cripple Creek if they see a cloud over Pikes Peak, so they stay at home,” she said. “But people who come here just love it. Today I had three people from the Springs who dropped in, and they ended up staying for two hours.”
Although the center has only been open since the end of August, Hilliard said that September’s visitor numbers bode well for the future.
“We were only open on weekends, but we averaged 1,200 visitors per weekend,” she said. “Now we’re open seven days a week from 9 to 5, so we think we’ll get a lot more. We’re expecting a lot of school tours. A teacher called me yesterday from Arvada and asked me how much we charge. When I told him that we were free, he was really happy.”
Kerr said that visitation would strengthen substantially if the Colorado Department of Transportation would close the scenic overlook Highway 115.
“People stop, get out of their cars, snap some pictures, and pile back in,” he said. “They’re not going to stop again half a mile down the road. But if we were the turnoff, they’d have a better view, plus restrooms and the center.”
The center’s exhibits include mining tools, minerals, ore carts and other paraphernalia of Cripple Creek’s mining history, as well as elaborately constructed displays such as one which shows a cutaway view of an underground gold mine.
There’s one curious omission, though: In a multi-million dollar facility largely devoted to mining, there isn’t any gold.
Kerr said the reasons there are no gold nuggets, gold crystals, gold dust or objects made of gold on exhibit, are cost and security.
“We tried to get some material from the Cresson vug (a famous cavity lined with crystalline gold, found in the Cresson mine at the turn of the century), but we couldn’t authenticate it,” he said.
The center’s budget, about $250,000 annually, is provided by gaming taxes, a portion of which must, by state law, be used to support historic preservation in the mountain communities where gambling is permitted.
But the Heritage Center is more than just an emerging tourist attraction: it played a role in the Cripple Creek mayoral race last November.
Mayor Ed Libby had spearheaded the construction of the Heritage Center, which he saw as a key to diversifying Cripple Creek’s gaming-based economy. During an interview last year, Libby said that “97 percent of the city’s revenues come, directly or indirectly, from gambling.”
A recall that was organized by residents who disagreed with Libby’s stance about gaming and who were concerned about the amount of money being spent on the Heritage Center failed during 2005. But last November, voters replaced Libby with Dan Baader.
While skeptical about the center, Baader wants it to succeed.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “There’s $5 million of city funds in it, and God knows how we’ll ever get it back. I don’t know why they built it where they did. It’s not seeing a lot of traffic.”
Citing low visitor numbers, Baader said that the center might need to rethink its core strategies.
“Museums need to change their exhibits,” he said. “As it is, you go there once, you see it — and why would you want to go back?”
Baader was noncommittal about whether the city would continue to direct historic preservation funding to underwrite the center’s yearly budget.
“It’s funded for 2008,” he said, “but after that we’ll see.”