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Colorado Springs Braces for Cycling Crowds—and Tourism Rebound—After Wildfire

Grace Hood

It has been almost two months since the country saw the devastating pictures of the Mountain Shadows subdivision burning outside of Colorado Springs. Those images drove down lodging numbers 13.3 percent in July according to a recent Rocky Mountain Lodging Report. Today as the seven-day USA Pro Cycling Challenge rolls through Waldo Canyon into town officials hope a new image will emerge.

“It’s very hard to have something like that happen. But during the height of our season it obviously affected travel,” says Chelsy Murphy with the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. Following the Waldo Canyon Fire, the Bureau launched a $200,000 multi-platform advertising campaign to advertise the city’s attractions and hotel deals.

Today city officialsare expecting to welcome as many as 50,000 spectators to see the race’s only circuit finish—three loops through downtown. And TV watchers in about 200 countries will get to follow cyclists as they go through Garden of the Gods and Colorado Springs. While aerial shots will likely reveal scorched sections near Highway 24, organizers hope another image will stick.

“We want to create a perception,” says Amy Triandiflou with Vladimir Jones, an agency managing local marketing for today’s stage. “One that’s a reality for us, but for the rest of the world it may not be; that this is a gorgeous thriving community. We have natural landscape that comes right up to our city center, and it’s an amazing place to visit.”

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Fewer tourists means less business at Josh and John's Ice Cream, which is seeing lower sales this summer.

Reversing the Wildfire Image

Garden of the Gods in western Colorado Springs is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. But following the Waldo Canyon Fire, many people thought the park had been scorched by the fire.

That’s according to Director of Operations Bonnie Frum, who says the Visitor’s Center answered hundreds of calls after the wildfire hit national headlines. But even after reassuring tourists that conditions were favorable, the park still saw a 40 percent decline in visitations the first week after the fire.

“We were down, there’s no question,” she says. “The next week it was a little better. And the next week a little better. And this last week, our key indicator was the best we’ve had since the fires. So it’s getting better all the time.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, the visitor’s center and park were busy with tourists like Akiva and Lynn Males from Pennsylvania. Akiva says they booked their multi-city tour of Colorado months before the Waldo Canyon Fire. After confirming their hotel was still standing, they decided to keep the Colorado Springs leg of their trip.

“The amazing thing is as we’re visiting now, we don’t see any signs so far of that fire. We kind of had expected to see scorched land and forests everywhere. But we haven’t noticed any residual effects of that yet,” he says.

A 'Soft' Summer for Businesses

While business is starting to pick up at Garden of the Gods, it’s still a relatively soft summer for non-tourist establishments like Old Town Bike Shop. Owner John Crandall says this year started out strong thanks to a warm spring. But things slowed down after the Waldo Canyon Fire.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
David Guynntests the gears of a road bike at Old Town Bike Shop.

“Business impact, I’m sure it’s had some impact, certainly initially some negative impact,” he says. “In the long run sadly, we may sell some bikes to people who lost bicycles or their houses. Of course no one wants to make money that way.”

While a boost to business is a positive, Crandall is also looking forward to the excitement and energy the USA Pro Cycling Challenge will bring to town. It’s a change that that will also be welcome at Josh and John’s Ice Cream.

Fewer tourists have translated into lower ice cream sales this summer, according to co-owner Lindsay Keller, who has personal connection to the fire. Her mom lost her home.

She says today is about more than just the bottom line.

“I think it’s just been kind of a strange summer in Colorado,” she says. “So the fact that we have this to look forward is invigorating, and it’s a good way to start fall.”

Back in Garden of the Gods, tourist Akiva Males says the passage of time could be the most effective factor to rebuilding the city’s image.

“The problem is it’s really hard to change a perception,” he says. “All those dramatic images were out there. I think it will just take time. People going, vacationing, spending time, coming back, spreading the word, saying the state is still functioning.”

Akiva’s wife, Lynn, adds: “It’s going to pass. People get tired of a story very fast. And if they want to go, they want to go.”

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