Colorado tourism's first family digs in as corporate concessionaires come calling - The Denver Post

Things you hear when you are visiting with Bill Carle Jr. and Barb Day:

“It’s just like dad used to say.”

“Living for a summer — or 20 — at 14,000

Things you hear when you are visiting with Bill Carle Jr. and Barb Day:

“It’s just like dad used to say.”

“Living for a summer — or 20 — at 14,000 feet is a memory that’s never forgotten.”

“So many doughnuts.”

And the most commonly heard phrase: “Oh, I got a good story.”

The stories flow like water, each richer than the next: famous visitors, rescues, close calls, horrible fires that consumed generations of memories.

That’s what happens when you spend a lifetime in the state’s high-altitude shops as part of H.W. Stewart Inc., a family business that has served Colorado tourists for more than a century.

Carle, 61, and his sister Day, 64, are Colorado tourism’s royal family. Since 1893, when their great-grandparents printed souvenir newspapers for cog-railway riders atop Pikes Peak, the family has staffed inns, gift shops and restaurants at the state’s top — and highest — destinations: Breckenridge, Mount Evans, Garden of the Gods, Red Rocks, Manitou Incline, Buffalo Bill’s Grave and Museum, Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Lake.

“We are truly a family business spanning five generations, and our aunts and uncles and numerous cousins and their children from both sides of the family have all had the amazing experience of working in the best places in Colorado, with people from all over the world,” Carle says.

IDAHO SPRINGS, CO - MAY 16: Denise Nellberg, right, organizes a shelf inside the shop at The Echo Park Lodge near Mount Evans on May 16, 2016 in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Bill and Barbara's great grandparents started the concessions at Summit House atop Pikes Peak. Ever since, the Carle family has run many food-and-beverage and retail operations including Red Rocks, Buffalo Bill Museum, gift shops in Manitou Springs and Grand Lake and Mount Evan's Crest House and Echo Lake Lodge. That is a combined 123 consecutive years, and 5 generations, of running tourism businesses. 51 of those years have been at Echo Lake Lodge. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Denise Nellberg, right, organizes a shelf inside the shop at The Echo Park Lodge near Mount Evans on May 16, 2016 in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

It’s not an easy gig, being a concessionaire, especially on top of 14,000-foot mountains. Some tourists are ill-prepared. Late-night rescues of stranded motorists or lost hikers are common. Workers living above a mountaintop curio shop are often the first responders to accidents big and small. Snow in May and July wildfires can slice revenues from a season that lasts only a few months. And then there are the big guys — corporate concessions operators such as Aramark, Xanterra and Delaware North — offering massive incentives that family operators can’t match.

When a contract comes up with a city such as Denver or Colorado Springs or the National Park Service, the heavyweights turn to on-staff proposal writers to craft polished submissions. Carle and his family have to take off work to put together a new plan that often pales in comparison.

“It can be exciting when someone comes in with a new idea, whether it comes to fruition or not. They start their politicking early. We come in tired, and we are pretty emotional about it,” Carle says between bites of a sandwich inside the Echo Lake Lodge, making sure a visitor knows the potato salad was made from scratch that day. “It’s a challenge to compete against a company that has every other contract in the city: at the stadiums and ballparks and convention centers. It’s an auction on a business we have spent our lifetimes building, and there’s no value to that lifetime of work.”

Carle and Day’s great-grandparents Tom and Grace Wilson printed a souvenir newspaper they sold alongside wildflowers and cookies at the top of Pikes Peak. Their grandparents Orrie and Helen Stewart ran the peak’s historic Summit House diner and gift shop. Their father, Bill, was a tour bus driver when he met their mom, Barbara, one of Helen and Orrie’s three daughters.

Bill, likely wanting to be closer to Barbara, took a temporary job managing the Summit House. He worked there from 1948 to 1992, teaching his kids how to churn out as many as 5,000 fresh doughnuts a day. In 1992, after 99 years atop Pikes Peak, the family lost the Summit House concessions contract when Colorado Springs awarded the bid to Aramark.

“They knock us out every time,” Carle says.

IDAHO SPRINGS, CO - MAY 16: Memorabilia is seen throughout the Echo Park Lodge near Mount Evans on May 16, 2016 in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Bill and Barbara's great grandparents started the concessions at Summit House atop Pikes Peak. Ever since, the Carle family has run many food-and-beverage and retail operations including Red Rocks, Buffalo Bill Museum, gift shops in Manitou Springs and Grand Lake and Mount Evan's Crest House and Echo Lake Lodge. That is a combined 123 consecutive years, and 5 generations, of running tourism businesses. 51 of those years have been at Echo Lake Lodge. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Memorabilia is seen throughout the Echo Park Lodge near Mount Evans on May 16, 2016 in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Family businesses such as theirs are a fading presence in America’s tourism landscape. Those families were behind the growth of places such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, pioneering the first chapter in what would become one of the country’s most vital industries.

“There are very few of us left as the big boys have consolidated their holdings and are probably in a better position to make broader economies of scale,” says Scott Webermeier, a third-generation concessionaire whose family built the gift shop, restaurant, stables and tourist destination known as National Park Village at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. “We all think pretty highly of each other for having been in the pioneering stage of developing tourism around our national parks.”

Carle and his family bought National Park Village from the Webermeiers in 1986. The building burned to the ground in 1992, and Carle forged the first-ever joint venture between a private company and the park service to run what is now called the Rocky Mountain Gateway and Fall River Visitor Center.

The Fall River Visitor Center, which opened May 26, 2000, and is run by Carle’s brother George, set a precedent for the National Park Service.

“Never before had a national park visitor center been built cost-free to taxpayers on land outside park boundaries,” said Kyle Patterson, spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain National Park.

IDAHO SPRINGS, CO - MAY 16: The Echo Park Lodge sells all kinds of touristic items inside the lodge near Mount Evans on May 16, 2016 in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Bill and Barbara's great grandparents started the concessions at Summit House atop Pikes Peak. Ever since, the Carle family has run many food-and-beverage and retail operations including Red Rocks, Buffalo Bill Museum, gift shops in Manitou Springs and Grand Lake and Mount Evan's Crest House and Echo Lake Lodge. That is a combined 123 consecutive years, and 5 generations, of running tourism businesses. 51 of those years have been at Echo Lake Lodge. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
The Echo Park Lodge sells all kinds of touristic items inside the lodge near Mount Evans.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The seeds of that visitor center were sown in the 1960s, when the park service noticed more visitors at the park’s Fall River entrance. The agency also saw the need for a facility to educate the growing number of visitors who flood the park in fall to listen to the elk bugle.

The park and fundraising groups worked for decades to finance the project, but the work stalled when the National Park Village buildings burned in 1992. The public-private partnership got going when Carle family member Shirley Scrogin donated $1 million to fund the construction of the new facility. It took eight controversy-addled years and an act of Congress to build the $1.8 million visitor center.

“The partnership would also enable the park to influence the design and appearance of Carle’s tourist complex at its Fall River gateway, ensuring it blended in with the natural surroundings. More importantly, by building offsite, in an already-developed zone, park staff would limit negative impacts to wildlife and natural resources within park boundaries,” Patterson said. “The park has enjoyed a strong and mutually beneficial partnership and relationship with Bill’s brother George since the visitor center opened.”

Carle says the Fall River Visitor Center is a hedge against the hungry corporate giants. The partnership with the Park Service — unlike agreements with the cities for operations on public land — isn’t something they can lose to the big guys.

But it’s not like Carle, or Webermeier for that matter, are angry with Xanterra, Delaware North or Aramark. It’s the evolution of the concessionaires, just like every business. If it’s lucrative, corporations come calling.

“I think those guys are very good stewards and they meet today’s expectations,” Webermeier says. “They are capable of doing a really great job, just a little differently than we used to do it.”

Still, Carle feels like the flavor of a place can be lost when an old timber lodge on a mountaintop or a storied concert venue falls into the hands of a global, publicly traded operation.

“I call it the love, and I call it the funk. We’ve been at it for a few generations, and you just learn things that a big company might not know. You learn what people want. You learn about the family from Missouri that makes the little cedar boxes we’ve sold for 60 years,” Carle says. “You learn it isn’t always about the money. It’s about taking care of people.”

Carle notes how Delaware North has demanded the National Park Service pay $51 million for trademarks on iconic lodges and locales inside Yosemite National Park that the concessionaire accumulated over two decades as an operator.

“What chance does a family business have when these guys can do things like that? It’s an elephant dance, and we are not even collateral damage when we get squashed,” he says.

Today, the Carle and Day families are running the Ozarks Amphitheater in Missouri. The operation draws on their experiences at Red Rocks, where Carle started working at age 9 and Day at 11. Their family ran the venue from 1963 until 2002,  when Aramark took over the Denver-owned venue and its new multimillion-dollar visitor center. Carle and Day remember holding seats for their family and co-workers when the Beatles played in 1964.

In Missouri, they are bringing movie nights and hosting local performers to fill the venue between national touring acts, taking a page from the Red Rocks playbook.

“Making memories,” Carle says. “That’s what we do.”

IDAHO SPRINGS, CO - MAY 16: Homemade pies baked by Barbara Day are a specialty at Echo Park Lodge near Mount Evans on May 16, 2016 in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Bill and Barbara's great grandparents started the concessions at Summit House atop Pikes Peak. Ever since, the Carle family has run many food-and-beverage and retail operations including Red Rocks, Buffalo Bill Museum, gift shops in Manitou Springs and Grand Lake and Mount Evan's Crest House and Echo Lake Lodge. That is a combined 123 consecutive years, and 5 generations, of running tourism businesses. 51 of those years have been at Echo Lake Lodge. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Homemade pies baked by Barbara Day are a specialty at Echo Park Lodge near Mount Evans on May 16, 2016 in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Dustin Day, Barb’s 30-year-old son, remembers when he was 10 and his uncle Bill came upstairs at the Echo Lake Lodge, where the family lived, and found him watching television. It was July 4. The place was hopping.

“Bill says, ‘What the heck are you doing? It’s time for you to work,’ ” Dustin says. “He parked me at the first table right over there, and I rolled silverware for the rest of the day.”

He’s been working for the family ever since.

“Some of the big companies, they see these stores as GPS coordinates on a map or on a spreadsheet,” says Dustin, who runs the rustic octagonal Echo Lake Lodge’s restaurant. “These places — Red Rocks, Buffalo Bills, Pikes Peak, Mount Evans — are our homes. They are more than just numbers and more than just buildings. We have put our hearts and souls into these places.”

Contact Michael Rasser

Michael E. Rasser
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