AFA tourism project isn’t just political pawn

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When you’ve come from another part of the country, you never forget your first visit to the Air Force Academy.

You see the Cadet Chapel from a distance as you exit off Interstate 25. You drive amid the peaceful pines, make a stop to check out Falcon Stadium, then reach the inner campus and the cadet area.

It really does have an impact on almost any stranger, as it did for me in 1977. I wanted to know everything possible about the place, having spent a few weeks at West Point as a teenager. My uncle, an Army colonel, was serving as comptroller there at the U.S. Military Academy. By the end of that visit, I was ready to skip high school and become a West Point plebe.

That didn’t happen, but I’ve made it back to both West Point and Annapolis on many occasions since living in Colorado, covering or watching Air Force football games against Army and Navy. Also, seeing the chapels and other special places in person.

Of course, Annapolis and West Point are oozing with history, with timelines measured in centuries, compared to the Air Force Academy’s decades. But the two older institutions also have excellent visitor centers, where anyone can learn about that history, then walk easily to most of the public-accessible buildings.

In fact, you can park your car in downtown Annapolis, or in quaint Highland Falls adjacent to West Point, and make your visits on foot.

That’s simply not the case here, because the Air Force Academy is much more of a fortress. The Barry Goldwater AFA Visitor Center was built in 1986, nice but remotely located on the northwest edge of campus. Before that, there was a small center near the South Gate, but though convenient to I-25, it wasn’t deemed worth saving.

These days, except for football games, visitors can only access the full academy at the North Gate. It’s nearly 20 miles from central Colorado Springs to the visitor center. Then there’s a hiking trail to the Cadet Chapel and cadet area, but it’s too strenuous for most tourists. Some parking is available closer to the chapel, but it can fill up in the summer. And when either foul weather or military alerts come into play, going to the visitor center is either ill-advised or impossible.

That’s a long and winding road to the purpose of this column — talking about the inclusion of a new AFA visitor facility in Colorado Springs’ plans for seeking state tax funds to help build new tourist attractions.

Most of the focus — and fuss — has centered on a baseball and multi-use stadium, alongside an ambitious Olympic museum, just a few blocks southwest of the downtown nucleus.

But the idea of providing a new, more visible, appealing and accessible lure for visitors has been developing in recent years.

Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, now in his final days as AFA superintendent, has pushed the concept in numerous conversations. Gould and others know that hundreds of thousands of motorists drive past the academy — and Colorado Springs — every year without stopping (or knowing what they’re missing).

In these times of military budget cuts, a visitor center would never be considered for funding by the Pentagon. The current AFA facility was built for just $4.5 million, all from donations and grants. But this is a $20 million project, intended to lure many more travelers off I-25 — even if this wasn’t an expected stop.

You can be sure, too, private funding sources would become available if the city’s entire Regional Tourism Act proposal wins state approval.

Some skeptics are pooh-poohing the visitor center, most likely because they have lived near the academy for years. To area natives, the special aura simply doesn’t exist. But for masses from across America, young and old, that mystique has to be as fascinating and magnetic as ever.

Granted, across the country you might not find many who could instantly associate the Air Force Academy with Colorado Springs. But millions of tourists drive to and through Colorado every year. Give them a good enough reason, and they might stop a while — even come back again.

That’s one of the arguments for what they’re calling the Air Force Academy Gateway at Falcon Stadium Visitor Center.

It would be just outside that AFA North Gate, so access wouldn’t be an issue, just seconds off I-25.

And all this explains why you won’t find any skepticism here. Rest assured, this nation still has countless patriotic adults and impressionable young teens who might stop, check out a service academy for the first time — and never forget.

Just as this long-ago kid from Arkansas never has forgotten.