District Museum May Take Control of City Welcome Center and Historic Rail Car

Cripple Creek Attorney Outlines Legal Restrictions

Rick Langenberg


The city of Cripple Creek hosted one of its more engaging and well-attended workshops last week dealing with a hot subject that stirred much interest in recent weeks: Letting the Cripple Creek District Museum take control of the old Welcome Center and historic rail car.


A number of former leaders and high profile civic representatives made it clear that this attraction, located right next to the District Museum downtown, needs to get revived. They described the old rail car as a great tourist attraction that has encountered much neglect, and believe the museum would be the perfect entity to revive it.


In fact, some say this attraction should have never left their reign.


Following a detailed discussion, the city council agreed to reach a final deal with the museum by having representatives from both sides craft an agreement.


City leaders had no problem with the pro-museum plan. They admitted this site, once a formidable attraction and gathering spot for visitors, has not been used effectively by the city.


“It has not been utilized,” said Mayor Pro Tem Melissa Trenary. She referred to the previous pact between the city and museum as a “necessity donation” and part of a community  need. “I think the museum can do a lot of things there.”


Long-time community leader Donna Brazill agreed. “This is such an asset for the community. The restrooms there are needed. Why is there even a question? The museum has done a fabulous job.”


She cited the museum’s recent track record in highlighting the district’s past as second to none, and believes they are the proper entity to bring it back to life.


Other community leaders and former council members also jumped on the bandwagon for returning this asset to the museum, part of  original efforts once proposed by a previous museum director.  It was suggested by some civic leaders that the museum never pushed efforts to retain ownership of the rail car because it feared losing its funding from the city.


No so fast, argued key city officials.


In fact, definite legal hurdles exist in turning over city property, and some  questions persisted over a former agreement made by a previous historic preservation director.  City attorney Erin Smith advised the council that state constitution rules exist regarding the issue of donating property by a local government entity. She was referring to reported action taken by former historic preservation (HP) director Brian Levine, who actually was the original director of the HP department when limited stakes gaming got underway.


Based on statements made by museum director Bill Burcaw, Levine basically informed the museum board in the 1990s that the rail car was being donated to the museum by the city, following a purchase agreement.


Smith questioned the validity of this arrangement. Several council members agreed and noted that this occurred in the early days of gaming, when no set regulations were followed pertaining to the exchange of city property to a private entity, such as the museum.


Smith stated that no problems would exist, if the city could prove that this reported donation occurred  because it fulfilled the push for achieving a “valid public purpose.” Or another option the attorney mentioned dealt with having the museum take on the role of maintaining the adjacent restrooms, added onto the facility by the city, as a special service.


Opinions Vary on Crafting a Final City/District Museum Agreement


Opinions widely varied during last week’s discussion regarding the next course of action for the museum and for the city in bringing this issue to a conclusion.


City Administrator Frank Salvato requested some  kind of lease or administrative agreement that clears up the situation.  He said he is urging the same kind of steps with other nonprofits, such as the Two Mile High Club.


The administrator said he is not trying to create more hurdles, but just wants to document actions taken previously by the city


Most council members favored having the museum take control of the rail car, saying the city lacked the staff to regularly monitor the welcome center.  Councilman Bruce Brown made it clear that the leaders aren’t trying to impose more hurdles or to stir up bad blood between the city and museum.


But he didn’t want to take action, based on  little documentation or hearsay evidence.  He hinted the previous actions taken by the former historic preservation action were made outside of the legal authority of that office.


Burcaw noted that this occurred in the early days of gaming, when “everything was new back then.” That said, the  museum president argued that the rail car belonged to the District Museum. “It needs to come back to the museum,” said the District Museum president.


In an earlier email sent to community leaders, the museum president outlined the history of the rail car transaction.  “In 1995, Museum Director Erik Swanson requested $5,000 from the city of Cripple Creek’s Historic Preservation Department for the purchase of the car. That request was approved and the railcar was installed on museum property . The museum spent time and money restoring the car, and in 1997 the grand opening was celebrated. At some point in the early 2000s, the city decided to take over the welcome center with its paid staff, rather than museum volunteers. At that time, the museum did not put up much of a fight because they feared losing funding from the city’s HP fund. Over the years as the city continued to operate the center, ownership of the land and the railcar seemed to fade. It is our hope that with a new city administrator and a new city council, all property will be returned to the Cripple Creek District Museum.”


Burcaw at last week’s workshop expressed some reservations about stipulations that required the museum group to maintain the restrooms, and instead, proposed an equal trade, with the District Museum donating another piece of property.


Councilman Tom Litherland, meanwhile, sought to have an actual appraisal done on the rail car.


Another idea throw out dealt with having the museum maintain the welcome center, rail car and restrooms under a trial period, and then converting them to their ownership, if it works out.


However, some worried that this could make the pact too confusing.


Both the city and museum supporters agreed on the concept of returning the rail car to the museum’s reign, saying this would enhance the historic flavor of their properties.  But how to make this happen still divided both sides slightly.


Finally, at the mayor request and with the time clock ticking to end the work session, a suggestion was made to set up a follow-up meeting between representatives of the city and museum.  Then, the issue would be brought back to the council in a regular meeting for a final agreement.