Editor’s note: The Business Journal’s three-part series on the Regional Tourism Act projects, financing and similar attractions around the nation, concludes next week with the downtown multi-use stadium and UCCS health and wellness center.
For years, the Air Force Academy ranked among the major tourist attractions for Colorado Springs — with claims that more than 700,000 people visited the Academy every year, going to football games, hiking on the 18,000-acre grounds in the mountains and visiting the famed Cadet Chapel.
But that all changed with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Like every other military post in the country, the Academy added new guard towers and required identification checks and, sometimes, automobile searches. The number of tourists dropped precipitously, reaching lows of 200,000 a year.
Currently, the Academy has no real tourist plan — no paid bus tours like at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and no paid walking tours like at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Instead, visitors are greeted with intimidating guard stations complete with armed security.
But there’s hope for AFA supporters and those who want to know more about the service academy on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. It comes with the Regional Tourism Act, as a new AFA visitors center is one of four projects being submitted by Colorado Springs to the state for partial funding from the tourism legislation. If approved, it could change everything.
The City for Champions project would give the AFA up to $3 million of the needed $15 million for the Gateway at Falcon Stadium project. Altogether, the city is requesting $82.1 million from the state for the four projects, while the rest of the $218 million for an Olympic museum, multi-use stadium and a UCCS health and wellness center must come from a combination of public and private funds.
The proposed visitors center would actually change the security boundaries for the AFA, moving guard gates behind the major tourist attractions at the Academy and granting wider, more welcoming access, says David Cannon, AFA director of communications. Visitors will not have to go through a tedious security check before visiting the chapel, Falcon Stadium, the Cadet Field House, the Honor Court, Arnold Hall, Eisenhower Golf Course or the Association of Graduates building.
“We had first considered putting the visitors center at Northgate Boulevard and I-25, outside the gates,” Cannon said. “But that would require purchasing land — and we can’t see that happening under the current budget environment. There’s just no way Congress will approve that. So we came up with this approach instead.”
The visitors center would be adjacent to the football stadium, and the first stop for Academy visitors.
“It’s going to be part of renovations to Falcon Stadium,” Cannon said. “And it will have a restaurant, an athletic hall of fame, a 250-seat theater and a gift shop. We’re thinking it’s going to be very impressive.”
The proposed new visitors center would actually change the security boundaries for the AFA, moving guard gates behind the major tourist attractions.
But Cannon emphasizes that it can’t happen without the state money. The rest would come from AFA alumni and supporters.
“We need the state money to jump-start the project,” he said. “There’s no way we can do this without the RTA grant.”
But the AFA approach won’t be like its rivals at Army and Navy, he said. “We will not charge one penny to visit the Academy,” Cannon said.
Charging admission is where the academy’s vision for its visitors center parts company from the other service academies. West Point Tours, an independent private contractor, is responsible for bus tours onto the USMA. No one can walk into the 16,000-acre facility alongside the Hudson River.
Annually, about 121,000 individuals and many groups pay $10 a head to visit West Point. The tours take them around West Point, which has been open since 1802. It’s a national historic site and about 350,000 more show up just to tour the facility, which doesn’t cost anything, said Dave Brzywczy, USMA spokesman.
Cadet and residential areas are off limits to the tours, but the bus stops at several other spots around the post, Brzywczy said. The visitors center also serves as the first stop for people interested in learning more about how to apply to West Point, he said.
Because of its location southeast of Baltimore and east of Washington, D.C., the Naval Academy gets more visitors than either the AFA or West Point. More than 1.5 million people visit Annapolis every year, says Marsha Soffer, assistant manager of the USNA visitors center.
“We’re right downtown,” she said. “And we’re much more compact than the other two academies — only 338 acres. It’s very walkable.”
There are guided walking tours, which cost $10 for adults, onto the Naval Academy. School groups visiting the nation’s capital frequently make the trip to Annapolis, she said.
“We have a lot of field trips, because of our location,” she said. “People go to Arlington and then they come here. I’m not sure you’ll have that in Colorado Springs.”
The USNA hires 50 tour guides, and tours are available every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, she said. In winter months, they’ll do about four tours a day. In the summer, they average 14 tours daily.
“We have a lot of history buffs,” she said. “We have four signers of the Declaration of Independence who lived here. People come for that reason — their houses are still standing. George Washington resigned from the Continental Army here. So if you come to Annapolis for the history, you also come to the Naval Academy. We get the other tourists too.”
Attracting more of the Pikes Peak region’s visitors is what the Air Force Academy is hoping for, Cannon said.
“If we can get 10 to 15 percent of the people who are just driving by on Interstate 25, then we’ll consider it a success,” he said.
But to see the latest vision become reality, it’s going to take more money. Cannon acknowledges the challenge ahead.
“We’re going to have to rely on charitable, private donations,” he said. “We know this. Congress might provide some infrastructure, upkeep and maintenance, but the original expense will be ours to meet.”