Visitor center idea forming for Red Rock Canyon Open Space

       The 2004 master plan for Red Rock Canyon Open Space suggested a visitor center as a possible “compatible use” for the park area that fronts along Highway 24 east of Ridge Road.

Graphics from a Red Rock Canyon Open Space visitor center concept plan: Outside the entrance to the proposed building.
Courtesy of Tim Leigh and G.E. Johnson

       Eight years later, City Councilmember Tim Leigh is working to make it an actual use.
       The center's main attraction would be a naturally styled, low-energy, 1,600-square-foot building made of local materials that would provide interpretive offerings and ultimately fund itself - possibly even the park in its entirety - with a gift shop, in the style of the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center.
       Leigh does not perceive the construction project (estimated cost: up to $2.5 million) as a city budget item, but rather as a “public-private” venture for which he is willing to lead a fundraising campaign.
       City approval would be needed, and a public process would be part of that. “I'd like to have this up and running within five years,” he said. “It would be a shame if it took that long, but I'm realistic enough to know that a lot of political process is involved, and there are a lot of stakeholders… I plan to talk to as many people as want to hear the message.”

Graphics from a Red Rock Canyon Open Space visitor center concept plan: Where the center would be located (off an interior road that connects with Ridge Road).
Courtesy of Tim Leigh and G.E. Johnson

       According to Leigh, the idea for a center arose when he and Mayor Steve Bach came to Red Rock Canyon through the main entrance off Ridge Road a few months ago and the mayor saw that the only structures to greet open space users there - outside of a large parking lot and some signage - were a couple of porta-potties. “He was pretty disgusted,” Leigh said, “and he asked if I'd take the lead on it.”
       A nine-page conceptual plan for the “Red Rock Canyon Welcome Center” was prepared by Leigh with long-time Colorado Springs construction company G.E. Johnson. The plan suggests a facility located slightly northeast of the current main parking lot, just across from the bicycling Free Ride area and accessible from an existing interior road off Ridge. On the north side of the complex would be Highway 24.
       Around the building would be a small parking lot, entry plaza, interpretive gardens and ampitheater with a fire pit. The center's bathrooms, Leigh noted, would have water, be accessible to people outside the building and remain open all the time. “That's a no-brainer,” he said.

Graphics from a Red Rock Canyon Open Space visitor center concept plan: Inside the proposed building.
Courtesy of Tim Leigh and G.E. Johnson

       The visitor center proposal is the second major suggestion for the property in a month. Also under consideration is a plan to refill the upper of two ponds near the Red Rock pavilion (see story, Page 6); Leigh said that if all works out as he'd like, the earnings from the visitor center may even pay to keep the pond filled.
       The Leigh-Johnson plan includes a potential layout, floor plan, construction and material-use strategies and artist's sketches of how the interior and exterior might look. Leigh explained that the planning to date “has been a cooperative effort between the councilor [himself] and G.E. Johnson's staff and was prepared at no cost to the city. The project has been a joint venture including hours of brainstorming, with a vision that the final product would be most viable on the site and most easily embraced by the community.”
       The building alone would improve the city's aspect along Highway 24, Leigh believes. “This would provide an interesting welcome center for folks coming in from the west,” he said. “Right now they're welcomed by junkyards and fences. We haven't created an environment that's inviting to people.”
       For the city councilmember, the idea also fits his overall vision of planning for a future that can't assume city funds will always exist to maintain popular parks and open spaces such as Red Rock Canyon - thus, ways must be found to make them self-sustaining. Natural amenities are “among the great community assets we have,” he said. “This [the proposed welcome center] plays to our strengths.”
       Although seeing the Red Rock center as being “much, much smaller,” Leigh would like to model its business plan after the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center, which was created with private funds about 15 years ago and is now owned by a foundation. Earnings from the center's gift shops pay for its operations and, since 1996, have also contributed about $1.7 million toward the park's upkeep.

Graphics from a Red Rock Canyon Open Space visitor center concept plan: A drawing of the center is inset into a current photo of the area (looking north) to give an idea where it would be located. An open-space interior road runs in front of the building, while Highway 24 is behind it.
Courtesy of Tim Leigh and G.E. Johnson

       The Red Rock center concept plan was shown to Colorado Springs Parks about two weeks ago. Parks planner Chris Lieber shared the news with attendees at a public meeting Aug. 1. (The meeting was part of a continuing public process to update the Red Rock master plan to add the neighboring, recently purchased Section 16 and White Acres open spaces.)
       City Parks has not had time to take a position one way or the other on the visitor center plan, Lieber said at that meeting, but commented that he expects the idea will spark “a big conversation” within the community.
       Here are excerpts from the text in the G.E. Johnson plan:
       “The new welcome center is designed to reflect the surrounding environment… Vertical elements on the building suggest the natural features of the canyon walls, while the horizontal elements remind us of the history and manmade aspects of Red Rock Canyon. The design is also inspired by the lines and materials found on the historic Bock House, a significant part of the park's history.
       “Locally sourced raw materials will be incorporated into the welcome center to pay homage to the inherent natural beauty of the canyon. Rammed earth walls and the local pink sandstone will be used at the building's exterior to mirror the surrounding exposed layers of sedimentary rock…
       “Throughout the building design, elements of sustainability and environmental stewardship have been considered. These include items such as day-lighting, passive heating and cooling, energy conservation, water efficiency and renewable materials.”

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