Fort Garland Museum (Facebook.com)

Southern Colorado’s small museums worry COVID-19’s bad summer turns into a dire 2021

Rural regional cultural centers and museums usually live right on the edge or profitability in good years. During COVID-19, however, there’s widespread fear about making it to the end of the year and worrying about 2021.

Pueblo Heritage Museum which features the history of Pueblo and Southeast Colorado from Pueblo Saddles, to the 1921 is just trying to get back on their feet after being closed from March until June 1st.

“Our revenues were down 90 percent for the last several months,” said Spencer Little, Museum Coordinator. “It hasn’t been easy,” he added.

Little estimates the museum is operating at half capacity. He said they are trying everything to increase revenue, like half price admissions. Despite this marketing incentive, traffic has been moderate, Little said.

While many of their events have been canceled as a result of the pandemic, Little said they have had success taking their history on the road.

“We’re doing small group walking tours of Union Avenue, and that’s kind of our big fundraising effort right now to gain lost revenue,” he said. “People seem really eager to have some opportunity to go out. And I think it’s the fact that our walking tour is outside that people are eager to do that. I think people are still hesitant to come into an enclosed space.”

Little attributes some of the newfound success to the rural position of the museum.

“I think people are trying to get to Southern Colorado to space themselves, ” he said.

Nevertheless, Little said the closures and cancelations have had — and will continue to have — a lasting financial impact on the museum.

While Little remains optimistic that the museum will emerge from this financial turmoil, he worries competition from urban areas may detract from the museum’s current success.

“I am curious if, once those urban centers begin to open up more, we’ll see a precipitous drop in the visitors coming to Southern Colorado,” he said. “If people that live in our community aren’t engaging in the opportunities here, I do think that it might drop off come end of summer/early fall.”

The Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center, just 90 minutes down the road from Pueblo, has seen visitors return but not the levels of past years.  Since their June 15th reopening, the museum has seen steady traffic — about two-thirds of what they would normally expect — according to the museum’s director, Eric Carpio. Carpio credits the success of the reopening to the vast size of the museum property.

“In some ways, visiting a place like Fort Garland, seems I think to the public, a lot safer than, maybe, a smaller museum that might be in a downtown area where you’ve got, maybe, a small house museum with three or four rooms in the same enclosed space,” said Carpio.

He said the museum has had to cancel larger events planned for the summer, which will impact the museum financially.

“Even if we get back to normal daily traffic, the reduction in events is going to impact us for a while,” he said.

The Colorado Springs Ghost Town Museum is seeing COVID-19 impact tourist’s willingness to travel, after reopening on May 1st. Kathy Harris, the museum’s co-owner, said they have seen one-third less traffic in June of this year compared to last.

“We attract a pretty large senior population — traveling seniors — and if they’re traveling, then obviously they’re not concerned [about COVID-19]. But if they’re not traveling, that has an impact,” said Harris.

While closed, Harris said they lost their spring-break-fueled month of March. While March is normally their third most lucrative month, she added they are fortunate not to lose a summer month, like July. She remains optimistic that the museum will survive the pandemic.

“We’re those rainy day people — we always plan for a rainy day, so we’ll be fine,” said Harris.

Unlike bigger venues, the museum hosts only smaller events and will not be greatly affected by social-distancing and large event cancellations, but Harris keeps a pragmatic approach to summer tourism.

“We’re really taking it just a day at a time,” she said.

COVID-19 causes other problems for rural cultural centers in areas where cases increased after reopening.

The San Luis Valley Museum in Alamosa has remained closed throughout the pandemic and is now trying to salvage what it can as cases rise in Alamosa County.

“We were planning on reopening, but the COVID cases here in Alamosa are still rising,” said Museum Director, Steve Corn. “Us and Rio Grande County are little red dots down here in Southern Colorado if you look at one of those [COVID] maps.”

While the San Luis Valley Museum lost about 10 percent of its revenue from the gift shop closure and a lack of ticket sales, Corn said they are mostly funded for the year by the Alamosa Lodging Tax (from 2019) and the Alamosa County Marketing District.

“We’ve probably got it better than some other places. But the biggest concern I have is next year’s funding, because nobody stayed at any hotels,” Corn added.

With the opening of Great Sand Dunes National Park, the hotels have been at 80 % capacity, according to Corn.

“I don’t think that makes up for March, April and May, though,” he said. “I guess the future of funding is a question for everybody that’s in this business.”

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