NEW How Garden of the Gods was saved
By BILL VOGRIN THE GAZETTE
March 10, 2007
It was a small ad, seeking a company to build a visitors center, amphitheater, riding stables, gift shops and more inside the Garden of the Gods.
The response was not what the Colorado Springs Parks Department had hoped for. Potential concessionaires mostly ignored the ad.
Not the public.
The 1987 ad ignited a firestorm among environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts and American Indians outraged that more of the Garden would be desecrated by manmade tourist attractions.
For years, the park had been under siege from developers with plans to build roads and houses and condos on all sides. The ad, placed in the Wall Street Journal, became the focal point of fears that the Garden was just another subdivision waiting to happen.
The furor led to years long, communitywide debate over the Garden and, ultimately, huge changes in the way the towering red rocks are viewed, managed and protected.
The impact continues to be felt 20 years later, thanks in large part to Lyda Hill, longtime businesswoman and philanthropist, who solved the visitor center issue in an unprecedented way that still pays dividends $1.2 million to date for the fragile and nationally known city park.
Former city parks director Nancy Lewis recalls being shocked by the backlash from the ad.
It didnt take me long to realize it was a mistake, said Lewis, who retired in 1994.
It unleashed very grave and great concern from the community about the future of the Garden. Lewis said.
Richard Beidleman, a retired Colorado College biology professor who had helped get the Garden designated a National Natural Landmark in 1972, said the reaction was fierce because the threat was so great.
There was an attempt to put a road connecting Interstate 25 and U.S. Highway 24 through, Beidleman said. A developer wanted to build condos on one end. Others wanted high-density housing. It was one controversy after another.
The parks department quickly backed off, but it didnt quit thinking about how to replace the parks decrepit visitors center a former home on a ridge in the park that the city bought in 1974 for $80,000.
A series of public meetings about the 1,368-acre Garden followed, focusing on how best to preserve it and accommodate its 2 million annual visitors every year.
Val Veirs, a CC physics professor, recalls the heated debate. At the time, he led the Springs Area Beautiful Association, which battled to preserve city parks and open spaces.
We fought multiple fires near the Garden of the Gods, Veirs said. This one really brought out the environmentalists.
It was critical, he said, because of the high stakes.
Environmental battles can only be lost once, he said. You may have to fight them over and over. But you lose the Garden of the Gods once, and its lost.
Committees were formed. Debates held. Seven years of discussions finally led to a community consensus. In August 1994, the City Council adopted a master plan to guide the use of the park.
It was dramatic.
The crude, ridge-top visitors center was demolished.
Whenever it rained, we had to put tarps over the books we sold, said Bonnie Frum, who worked in the old center. It was supposed to be temporary. But we ended up there 17 years.
Also razed were the High Point gift shop on Ridge Road on the parks south side and the Chuckwagon Pavilion. The 83-year-old Hidden Inn gift shop was demolished in 1998.
The road between the Gateway Rocks was removed and traffic around the main loop was converted to one-way, with bike paths, curbs and gutters, and new parking.
Trails were restored and others closed. Erosion control and revegetation work was done. Sidewalks and picnic areas were built.
Mountain-bike areas were created and restrictions were placed on rock climbers to limit damage to the sandstone formations.
But most significant was the citys decision to enter into a unique public-private partnership with Hill, a developer whose family built the Garden of the Gods Club, developed Kissing Camels Estates and Golf Club, and owns Seven Falls and Hill Development Co.
Hill was a big fan of the Garden who had noticed its deterioration during her annual summer visits from her home in Dallas.
I was hiking in the Garden and noticed the trails were in terrible shape, Hill said. The place was a mess.
It was getting 2 million visitors a year, but the city didnt have any money to protect it.
Then she saw the 1987 ad for a visitors center and looked into the idea.
Hill proposed to build a visitors center outside the park at its eastern entrance on 30th Street in exchange for concession rights in the park.
She also agreed to give back profits each year, starting at $75,000 and increasing 3 percent each year regardless of the centers income, to enhance the park.
It is a for-profit business that functions as a nonprofit, Hill said. All profits go to the Garden of the Gods Foundation, which exists to support the park.
It was an untested concept in 1994, and many criticized her, accusing her of trying to profit from the city and the Garden.
Hill said her intentions were not profit but preservation.
Eventually, after emotional public hearings and court battles, she spent more than $3.5 million to create the state-of-the-art Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center, a state-of-the-art facility.
Many visitors simply use its modern bathrooms and take in its panoramic views of the park and Pikes Peak beyond.
Others browse its gift shops, eat in the cafe and enjoy its dioramas, educational displays and the 10-minute movie Hill commissioned to explain, with dramatic 3-D effects, just How Did Those Red Rocks Get There?
Lewis, the former parks director, became president of Hills Garden of the Gods Foundation, which distributes grants to the city for projects in the park.
Weve been able to return the park to what it should be, a national landmark, Lewis said. Its been a great restoration effort.
The visitors center is no longer new, but it remains a key attraction in the citys tourism industry.
It is open year-round and offers a variety of free nature programs, guided walks and even historic plays, relying on 100 volunteers to supplement 35 to 65 paid staffers.
Our mission is to provide education to the public and a continuous stream of revenue to the park, said Frum, whos now director of operations.
As for initial fears that Hill would milk the city for profits, Frum laughs.
Lyda Hill isnt getting rich off this center, Frum said. She is pouring money back into the park and the center. This year, were getting a new movie screen, projectors and enhanced sound system.
And were pouring money into the park.
She said the visitors center is not a profit center at all.
This is Lydas heart place, Frum said.
This is where her heart is. Its about preserving the park. Its her legacy. I know people were nervous that it was too good to be true.
But it is true.