Visiting with the state tourism people

La Junta welcomed the representatives of the Colorado Tourism Office (Taren Mulch, Visitor Services Director), Cathy Ritter (Director of Colorado Tourism Office) and Doug Price (CEL Colorado Springs Colorado Visitors Bureau) to a meeting on Friday morning at the Koshare Kiva. Taren Mulch said, “We are looking for the most efficient way to get services to this part of the state.”  At first, they thought La Junta already had a visitors’ center, but soon learned we do not have one and are thinking of a Multi-Media Center, presented by Mayor Jeffri Pruyn with the reasons for considering such a structure on the grounds presently owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe in exchange for using it as a local train station.

“The multi-media building would solve a lot of problems,” said Pruyn. “Right now there’s no place for people to wait for the bus, or get transportation when they arrive by either bus or train. There are rental cars available from the KOA, but that’s some distance from downtown.”

The considerations for a structure of this type, with easy access, were the function as a bus depot as well as a train station and a well-located center where visitors could use restrooms, get a cup of coffee, and see displays of local attractions. The tourism office people said we might want to concentrate more on welcoming visitors coming from the highway and have a more personal contact with tourists. Economic Development Director Nieb suggested a more personal touch with the visitors center. "It should shout La Junta!"

The main idea is to show people how much there is to do and how many places they can go, using La Junta as a central location. We are familiar with the dinosaur tracks accessible on the Comanche National Grasslands, Bent’s Old Fort (open and staffed every day of the year), the Otero Museum (a man-sized view of the past of the era with spacious outbuildings), live theater at the Picketwire, a beautiful and useful  City Park - but they are not immediately visible from the downtown area. Comanche National Grassland Director Michelle Stevens mentioned the possibility of a cast of a real dinosaur track in the visitor Center. Artifacts from Bent’s Old Fort were suggested by Rick Wallner, Program Director of Bent’s Old Fort, as conversation starters visitors could view, touch, feel at a visitors center and have explained by the volunteers.

Doug Price of the Colorado Springs Visitors Bureau mentioned the shuttles used at Estes Park to convey visitors from a parking area to the historic old town section of the town. The offer of the Koshare Museum as a Visitors Center was brought up, but the group seemed to feel a downtown location was an overwhelming consideration. The number one reason people stop at a Visitors Center? The restrooms and a place to rest for a little.

“I want a destination, things to sell, big posters showing everything, a place that makes money and gets people excited,” said Nieb.

“A center can be curated around objects,” said Mulch; “they are a jumping off point, a launching pad that expresses what is different and particular about a place.”

“We have those,” said Stevens. “The dinosaur trackway - 75 percent of the visitors don’t know it’s there!”

“In the basement of this very building are about $50 million in art objects,” said Jeremy Manyik, curator of the Koshare Museum. “This museum’s art collection is second only to the Anschutz Collection.”

Urban Development Chairperson Nancy Bennett, City Manager Rick Klein and Economic Development Director Cynthia Nieb discussed the upgrading of the Downtown Area, starting with the building just acquired by the City of La Junta in the 200 block of Colorado Ave. and the rehabilitation of the Plaza Building, now in the planning stage but with a continuing plan of financing. Bennett is also president of the Southeast Colorado Creative Partnership, which is the sponsoring nonprofit for the Plaza project. We should see the first physical work at the Plaza this fall.

City Manager Rick Klein was asked to comment on the Southwest Chief crisis. In contrast with the Trains Magazine reporter whose report was that Amtrak would not waver from insisting on positive train control, Klein left the recent meeting in Raton with a feeling of optimism that the funds to continue with the TIGER work will be released. “These are the most successful TIGER grants in the entire country,” said Klein. “People all over Northern New Mexico gave all they could. Maxwell, a town with 250 people, gave $1,000. They have no other way to get to doctor appointments or be in touch with the cities.”  The railroad is our contact with the world, Klein continued, “In the dining car, you can be sitting with anyone, even people from France or England.”

He believes Amtrak will really work with the locals on a plan, but also believes Richard Anderson, present head of Amtrak, has a conflict of interest because of his retirement plan with the airline. He pointed to the recent vote in the Senate to amend the transportation bill, 95-6, which had support from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. “We will see the same support when the House comes back in session.”

Director of Tourism and Events Pam Denahy pointed out that our senators, Gardner and Bennett, are totally on board, and also the congressmen, with the possible exception of Ken Buck.

Bringing the discussion back to greeting visitors, the Denver delegation pointed out the importance of having a visitor center that can be approached from either direction. Also important are ample parking, outdoor space, multiple restrooms and picnic tables. The international attraction of the Old West at Bent’s Old Fort cannot be ignored, especially for Asian and Western European visitors - even Australians. A number of visitors are following the Santa Fe Trail.

Many new programs, including being designated an Opportunity Zone, will be working in the favor of further development in La Junta. The lodging tax is leading the way. “Where is it leading us?” asked Denahy.”We need a good plan with measurable goals.”