Cripple Creek City Leaders Halt Retail Sales at Prime Tourism, Welcoming Hub

New Council Lands First Political Punch Against Heritage Center

Rick Langenberg

In a move that wasn’t unexpected and considered part of a new changing lineup among the Cripple  Creek’s head leadership panel, all retail sales at the local Heritage Center, located off Hwy. 67, have ended and are completely banned.

This decision, rendered at the close of last week’s regular council meeting, was a byproduct of the recent recall election that removed two council members, Mark Green and Charles Solomone. Both leaders favored a previous plan to okay a small retail area for items not offered by local businesses, and didn’t see this as competing with area shops.

But a group of small business operators and former council members thought otherwise and organized an ouster campaign largely over this issue. The newly-elected council members, Bruce Brown and Jared Bowman, supported the concerns echoed by many business operators and citizens in a political-charged meeting last summer, when the Heritage Center retail plan was approved.

However, that use has now officially received the axe.

In addition, the council last week briefly toyed with the idea of developing a new business model for the Heritage Center, which began in 2007, aimed at charging visitor fees and doing more special events, such as using the facility as a venue for weddings.

The council, though, backed away from this latter proposition, following a detailed analysis by Cripple Creek Finance Director Paul Harris. But after a brief discussion on this overall issue, City Attorney Erin Smith recommended that the council consider a motion to cease all retail sales at the Heritage Center. This was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Tom Litherland casting the dissenting tally.

Once again, the Cripple Creek Heritage Center, developed nearly two decades going following an intensive heritage tourism campaign, took center stage. The center, which serves as a welcoming hub for visitors, has developed its definite share of strong supporters and critics.

During last week’s meeting, Councilman Bruce Brown, who served as mayor for 10-plus years, kicked off the  discussion by conceding that the retail area at the Heritage Center was really what this recent recall election was about.  He said many people opposed having a city facility in competition with local merchants.

As for suggestions for other revenue sources for the Heritage Center, Brown threw out the idea of charging visitors “$4 a head,” admission fee, a charge that wouldn’t be applicable to Cripple Creek residents. He also cited the importance of exploring the possibility of using the facility more for venues for weddings and special events and doing more marketing for other

In any case, he strongly opposed the use of the center as a retail, gift shop, of any form. “We should not be selling merchandise there,” said Brown.

His views against the retail use of the center were strongly approved by all council members, except for Litherland. Litherland, who actually joined Green and Solomone in supporting the idea of developing a small retail spot to keep visitors in town longer, said he favored keeping the status quo. “I known you disagree with me on this, but I am in favor of keeping it the way it is,” said Litherland, who last week presided over this role as mayor pro tem for the last time.

“I don’t think the city  needs to be competing with the businesses,” said Councilwoman Melissa “Missy” Trenary, who last week was appointed as the new mayor pro tem for 2023. She also questioned whether the Heritage Center served as a museum-like site.

Both Mayor Milford Ashworth and new council member Jared Bowman agreed, and noted that any item sold at the Heritage Center was taking away from a sale at a local shop.

The city officials didn’t have any problems with reversing course, and ceasing sales at the Heritage Center. Finance Director Paul Harris reported that the revenue the facility generated from the summer of 2022, when a small sales area was started at the Heritage Center, amounted to less than $2,000.

Don’t Charge Visitors

But when it came to charging potential visitors, both Harris and City Administrator Frank Salvato put their foot down, and cited this as bad move and one that could even jeopardize their future funding from historic preservation sources.

“That would be self-defeating,” said Harris.

He described the Heritage Center as a welcome center, and part of the monies Cripple Creek received from the gaming taxes, approved as part of the original vote to okay limited stakes gaming. He explained that the city received a portion of historic preservation funds from these taxes, which usually amount to close to $1 million a year.  Harris said a good portion of these dollars fund the Heritage Center operations and other city-run museums such as the Outlaw and Lawmen Jail Museum.

Salvato also spoke strongly against charging any type of admission and believes there has been some confusion regarding how the facility operation is funded. From a personal standpoint, he said the Heritage Center became an opening focal point for how he got interested in Cripple Creek. “It is a great center,” said the administrator.

Following these explanations, the council declined to push for charging any type of admission fee.

However, it’s no secret that a few members of the council are quite critical of Cripple Creek Heritage Center project and weren’t crazy about how much money was used to develop the facility initially. At the time, much controversy arose over the amount of city funds used, with some believing that the city should have relied more on grant funds.

Former Mayor Ed Libby, one of the main driving forces behind the development of the Heritage Center, was voted out of office, shortly after the facility opened. This led to a new council, including Brown, that had different views regarding the Heritage Center. As a result, some bad blood always persisted between proponents and critics of the project.

Since its completion, the facility has been well received by tourists and it ranks as the only area  museum fully open on a year-round basis. It also has received raving reviews form tourism officials in the Pikes Peak region.

But heritage tourism has always ranked as a touchy subject in Cripple Creek.