By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
Now he'd like to play with his new toy. "This could be a gold mine," he says. "It makes me drool."
Michael Jenkins has been in the attractions business for his entire adult life. He started at Six Flags Over Texas, where he was in charge of personnel and shows. When the founder of that amusement park decided to leave, Jenkins left, too. But more and more people began calling him for expert advice on how to run their attractions, and so, about twenty years ago he founded his own company, Leisure and Recreational Concepts--LARC. Today, he says, LARC is involved in more than 900 projects worldwide.
One of those dates back to 1984, when Jenkins was contacted by a representative of a wealthy Texas oil family named Murchison to run a concession they were leasing from a small city in south-central Colorado. Ever since then, LARC has run the day-to-day operations of the Royal Gorge Bridge for the Murchisons. Jenkins likes to think that LARC has brought a little professionalism to the place.
"Early on, the Murchisons hired a man to operate it who knew very little about the industry," Jenkins recalls. "He would take a trip to Yellowstone National Park every year, and if the workers there had blue uniforms, he would dress the workers at the Royal Gorge in blue; if they had brown uniforms, the Royal Gorge workers wore brown. I'm not being critical," he says, "but for years, people thought it was part of the National Park Service."
Today the Royal Gorge Bridge is overseen personally by Jenkins's wife, Wendy, who flies in every couple of weeks from LARC's Dallas headquarters to ensure that operations are running smoothly. Which, until last year, they were. Bill Fehr, Wendy says, is not just an interloper. Besides, such a person, one who stumbles on good fortune, doesn't really deserve it.
"We've spent quite a bit of time building that park," she says. "And we feel it's unfair for someone who probably didn't know what he was getting when he bought it to hold us hostage or put a gun to our heads."
Canon City officials feel the same way. Earlier this month, the city council voted to look into how the city could take away Fehr's new and unexpected real-estate holdings through the process of condemnation. "It would be for 'the good of the people,'" explains administrator Rabe.
"I'm apparently the devil in disguise," Fehr says, feigning hurt. Much of the animosity directed toward him by locals seems to be simply the fear of the unknown. "I'm the outsider," he acknowledges.
Yet what also seems to be making people uncomfortable are issues raised by Fehr's presence that, until now, swam quietly beneath the surface of the state's most popular privately run tourist attraction. For example: Is a gorge festooned by a large bridge, guarded by a gaudy gate on one side and leading to a faux Olde Western theater and miniature railroad on the other really an attractive attraction? Fehr says that when he visits the place, which costs an adult $9, he can't help but feel like the bystander who has noticed that the emperor is buck naked.
"I can't figure out where you get value from this place," he says. "I mean, it's a tourist trap. Has anybody but me noticed how ugly things have gotten here?"
More alarming to locals than Fehr's taste in roadside tourism, however, is that his sudden presence threatens to upset the delicate, sometimes perplexing--but always profitable--balance that has existed for five decades between the citizens of Canon City, their spectacular gorge, the popular tourist site that has come to define it and the wealthy, reclusive Texas oil widow who controls the bridge.
Bill Fehr--Scourge of Canon City, Pillager of the Western Tradition, and Highway (actually, Bridge) Robber and Carpetbagger of the Worst Sort--is getting agitated.
"Look!" he screams, slamming his SUV to a sudden halt. "Look at that! What are they trying to sell with this sign? The purple and black! What are they saying? Those are colors you see in a horror flick." He snorts through his nose as the car begins rolling forward again.
The sign of his ire is Royal Gorge Bridge's trademark advertisement that begins popping up along major routes almost as soon as eastbound drivers cross into Colorado from Kansas. It is of the vague atmospheric style, depicting a silhouette of what appears to be a bridge looming over what might be a chasm. Fehr is disgusted.
"You're trying to send a message from the outside about what's on the inside," he explains. "But does that sign tell you anything about the canyon? And what do those colors mean? I don't get it. Look at Las Vegas. They spend $10 million a year on this stuff and it works. But what does this sign say to you? To me, it says one thing: Ugly. And that's the problem.
"Look at this," he yells, pointing to another sign that flies by on the road that winds from Route 50 to the gorge, at least until Fehr again screeches to a halt. He reads off the billboard in a flat monotone: "'The real thing.' I mean, whaaaat? Ugly, ugly. This is the Grand Canyon of Colorado. We deserve better.