The Royal Grudge Bridge

Bill Fehr has big plans for the Royal Gorge Bridge--including a $749,600 rent increase.

"Lucille sued the rest of the family over the ownership of the bridge," Jenks recalls. "There was quite a battle. I think she has a strong emotional attachment to it."

Jerry Smith disputes that account. But, he adds, Jenks's recollection of Lupe's affection for the site is accurate. "She just loves it," he says. "She's put a lot of time and money into it, and she comes to visit at least a couple times a year. She thinks it's neat, I guess."

The city agrees, and for seventy years the Royal Gorge Bridge Company has had a rock-solid lock on the tourist concession, an arrangement the Texans have managed to keep in place through the use of extraordinarily long-term deals. The first was struck between Piper and Canon City. In exchange for actually building the bridge, Piper was given a twenty-year lease to run the attraction and collect whatever fees he charged tourists to visit the site. Initially he paid the city $1,000 a year for the rights. (During the Depression, when business plummeted, the city agreed to accept only half that fee. But the Royal Gorge Bridge Company continued to pay Canon City only $500 a year through 1956, when the Texas enterprise agreed to pay the city a percentage of its revenue instead.)

Piper's first lease came with an option to renew, and another twenty-year deal was struck in 1947. Since then, the relationship between the Murchisons and Canon City has rarely been seriously tested. In 1967, after a contentious bidding war among a half-dozen companies eager to acquire the tourist concession, the Murchisons won yet another twenty-year contract. That deal, which has been re-signed several times since, is due to expire in October 2001. It is a date in which Bill Fehr has become very interested.

Late last year, soon after Fehr had purchased the old UP rail line, Canon City officials received a letter from him and his attorney saying, in essence, "We sure would like a shot at operating that bridge," recalls city administrator Rabe. "So I suggested he send in a proposal."

Fehr says he was happy to oblige. He whipped up a letter outlining his plans for the bridge and shot it over to city council, who looked at it and said, uh, never mind. "We weren't actually accepting proposals," Rabe explains. "The Murchisons have asked for an extension [of the last twenty-year deal]. As a gentleman, you sit and negotiate, and you don't talk to someone else when you're doing it."

He adds: "They have a seventy-year track record, and that merits a look at an extension."

Fehr was furious. "Why don't they put this out to bid?" he sputters. "That's what everyone else does. I would think they would welcome another bid." In fact, Fehr says, he has promised to increase revenue to the city and still put all his profits back into the site.

When Fehr hadn't heard back from Canon City by late January, he went to Plan B.

"I wouldn't exactly call it blackmail," says Rabe. "That wouldn't be nice."
Exactly, says Fehr. Think of it as a long-overdue rent increase.
Three months ago, Fehr informed Lucille Murchison that the right-of-ways over his rail line were going to cost a little more than they had in the past. Instead of $400 annually, he decided, the new price would be $750,000 per year. Fehr says it's a fair price; Rabe's not so sure.

"I think he's trying to raise the price so much that it wouldn't be feasible for the Murchisons to operate the bridge any longer," he hypothesizes. "Mr. Fehr is a very intelligent business man. He's calculated out what he wants done, and he's confident this is the way to do it."

In early April, the city council laid down its own hand. It hired the high-powered Denver law firm of Holme, Roberts and Owen to begin planning condemnation of the air rights now held by Fehr--a move Fehr says he is prepared to fight. "If you sue my client," Fehr's lawyer wrote four weeks ago to the city council, "you will involve the city in a lengthy and expensive litigation. The $100,000 you have budgeted for this will not scratch the surface. And that's if you win."

For most of the time they have operated the Royal Gorge Bridge, the Murchisons hired locals to run the bridge and the surrounding attractions. The people were extraordinarily loyal, many staying with the company for decades before retiring. Jenks, for instance, started working for the Royal Gorge Bridge Company in 1949, when he was fifteen, leafletting cars and homes when the company was campaigning to regain the contract to operate the bridge.

Jenks didn't stop working for the company until 1985, three years after Lupe Murchison hired the Jenkinses and LARC. "I felt that after nine years of being president, I knew how to run the place," Jenks says. "They disagreed."

To the Jenkinses, of course, the change has worked wonders for the park--and, by extension, for the residents of Canon City, who reap the rewards each year at tax time. "Business at the gorge has increased every single year," Michael Jenkins says proudly. "We have more activities, more products."

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