CAÑON CITY – As a part-time job last summer, Walt McBride drove the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park trolley back and forth across the gorge.
That ended abruptly on June 11 when a sudden wildfire erupted and raged across the park, torching everything except the bridge, but including the trolley.
“I’ve been coming up here for 60 years,” said the 72-year-old McBride. “Working for the last two.”
But McBride was one of the 200 or so employees who lost their jobs after the fire. On Friday, Jan. 31, McBride joined two dozen community, tourism, political and business leaders for the groundbreaking for a new multi-purpose building at the park.
“Next week, weather permitting, the building starts going up and the black trees start coming down,” said Mike Bandera, Royal Gorge general manager. “It’ll be a quick transformation.”
Fire not only affected flora and fauna, but also the region’s economy.
During the summer, typically 50 percent of the 3,000 daily summer visitors to the park said they spent the previous night in Colorado Springs hotels, Bandera said. The park shares its tourists with Colorado Springs, which explains why Royal Gorge is a member of the bigger city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It’s a very important market to us,” Bandera said. “The No. 1 attraction we share is Pikes Peak. Rafting is No. 2.”
Some 16 percent of Royal Gorge visitors are Colorado Springs residents, he said. The park has conducted 26,000 exit surveys over the past 13 years and also relies on the Longwood Study, a statewide marketing impact research project.
“This area has suffered greatly because of our closure,” Bandera said. “We figure we have got $35 million to $40 million impact on the Royal Gorge region” with 310,000 to 320,000 visitors yearly.
“When they come to visit Pikes Peak and Pikes Peak country, a lot of times they’ll come down here to extend their stays in Colorado and in our region,” said Peggy Gare, in charge of marketing for the park. “We’ve partnered with the city of Colorado Springs and with the visitors bureau for 40-50 years.”
The fire constituted a total loss to the attraction, said Travelers Insurance Adjuster Wade Ledbetter. He estimated the rebuilding at $30 million or more.
“They’re trying to consolidate operations into multi-use buildings,” Ledbetter said. Before the fire, the park had separate buildings for the tram, restaurant and gift shops. Plans now call for one new building to have many uses.
This week, the park hired a helicopter to spread 23,000 pounds of grass seed. Shortly after that, the park will begin mulching the burned piñon juniper trees.
“During the spring, early summer, we’ll see the results of that,” Bandera said. “The transformation will take place.Seven months from now, the new park will be born,” reflecting the “resiliency of the region, the spirit of Colorado, God’s splendor and man’s ingenuity.”
“You are the stakeholders,” Harry Hargrave, president of the Royal Gorge Company of Colorado said to the crowd attending the groundbreaking. “I see bankers, employees, leaders of the community. This is a partnership.”
“It certainly is a huge, internationally-known attraction that is a very large draw for people coming to the region,” said Chelsy Murphy, director of communications for the Colorado Springs CVB.
Murphy said the CVB promotes Royal Gorge, adding, “We are very much looking forward to the reopening of the attraction later this summer.”
The CVB will also promote the opening to its leisure and business travelers, as well as tours.
“We’re also pleased to see that the bridge is opening in some capacity in the spring for travelers who would like to experience the attraction in some capacity before its full opening,” Murphy said.
Cañon City Mayor Tony Greer read a proclamation from Gov. John Hickenlooper, proclaiming Jan. 31 as the 85th anniversary of the Royal Gorge park.
“The bridge represents the resilience that the people of Colorado maintain,” Greer said, adding that more than 26 million visitors have visited the park since it was built in 1929.