Pikes Peak Summit Complex still worthy of higher cost

On the first night of June, about 100 people gathered at Ivywild School to hear a public update on the status of plans for a new Pikes Peak Summit Complex. Most of the group already knew about the architectural design, the environmentally sensitive concepts, the mixture of aggressive innovations and modest details.

They also knew the cost of a new Summit House with elevated walkways and stunning lookout points had doubled from the first estimates, turning a $25 million projection into almost a $50 million reality.

The first cost analysis had seemed easily workable. The revised figure, pushed higher because of construction costs and standards for building to the highest sustainability and efficiency standards, meant a new financial equation as well as a feasibility study asking whether a fundraising campaign could succeed.

The news was all positive, helped by Mayor John Suthers delivering the message. He broke it down like this: at least $10 million (perhaps up to $15 million) from the Pikes Peak Highway's existing general fund, $15 million more in bonded debt based on Pikes Peak reserve funds, up to $15 million from a combined public-private fundraising effort, and the rest from an increase to the city's Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax (LART).

"Increasing the LART," Suthers said, "would let our visitors share in the cost."

That might cause a little queasiness for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, which patiently has awaited its turn to get more LART revenue for promoting the region's tourism industry. The CVB has done everything imaginable to justify upping the LART tax from two to four cents on a dollar for rooms and attractions, one to two cents on a dollar for car rentals. That's still far less than almost any other city's tourism tax.

[pullquote-1] Here's what we should hope: Those other three portions of the Summit Complex money package, especially the fundraising campaign that has the green light after in-depth research, will cover the cost and make the LART less (or not) needed. Another idea might be a small, permanent LART increase for CVB purposes, and at the same time another bump for a short period up to five years with that money going to the Pikes Peak project.

Why bother with a new Summit House? Lots of reasons. The current facility is outdated, as I reconfirmed on a visit this month. It has no windows and the bathrooms are prehistoric. It doesn't provide anything resembling an educational benefit. And it's more than 50 years old, so you can guess how sustainable it is.

This project is about giving America's Mountain a worthy experience for more than 500,000 people who ride the Cog, drive or hike to the summit each year.

Colorado Springs, we're told, already has about 6 million visitors a year, a number that undoubtedly will rise in years to come. Throughout the West, major tourism destinations that thrive on drive-up visitors are faring better than ever. Perhaps we can do more to convince those 6-million-and-growing visitors to see our attractions, but that statistic by itself is a huge starting point.

By comparison, check out these 2016 visitor totals for famous attractions in the West: Grand Canyon, 5.9 million; Yosemite National Park, 5 million; Rocky Mountain National Park, 4.5 million; Yellowstone National Park, 4.3 million; Mount Rushmore, 3.5 million; Bryce Canyon National Park, 2.37 million. Just to show the difference between lower-profile places, the Great Sand Dunes National Park recorded 388,000 visitors last year, and Mesa Verde National Park had 583,000.

With more and more families and groups traveling in the West, it's imperative for Colorado Springs to position ourselves for the future. That means a Summit Complex both dynamic and inspiring, just as the revamped Garden of the Gods Visitor Center has a big impact. Don't forget others, such as that Terror-Dactyl at Cave of the Winds, the modernized Broadmoor Seven Falls and, of course, the coming U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame as well as a new Air Force Academy Visitor Center.

But the Pikes Peak Summit Complex can provide the, yes, mountaintop moment. If everything falls into place as it should, we'll see a groundbreaking next year and grand opening by 2020 or 2021.

Put them all together, and it's obvious Colorado Springs is on the right track. And believe me, the price will be worth it.