Lyda Hill’s Christmas gift: her Visitor Center

       Lyda Hill, who dreamed up and then built the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center in 1994, is giving it away like a Christmas gift.
       The property owner/ philanthropist will put the facility in the hands of the Garden of the Gods Foundation - an entity she had created in tandem with the center to receive money from it and to disburse funds for park preservation.

During the annual Earth Day event at the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center in 2005, the Sweetwater Indian Dancers invited everyone to join them in a circle dance.
Westside Pioneer file photo

Lyda Hill

       “It was time to plan for the future of the foundation, so this summer the [foundation] board discussed it,” Hill said during an e-mail/phone interview. “The gift worked into my business plan for this year. Since the Perkins family had made the original gift [of the Garden to the city in 1915] at Christmas, it was obvious that I should follow the 'tradition.'”
       According to Bonnie Frum, the center's director of operations, Hill's hand-off will result in “no changes” in the way the business runs. The foundation will continue to give a percent of the center's retail earnings to the city for the park - a total of $1.7 million since that plan took effect in 1996.
       “We're excited about it,” Frum said. “Lyda's putting things in place so the center can continue into the future. So if Lyda's not there, it's not going to end.”
       Hill has never taken money from the center's earnings for herself, pointed out Nancy Lewis, the foundation president.
       The 17,395-square-foot Visitor Center is at 1805 N. 30th St., facing the Garden's Gateway Rocks and Kissing Camels rock formations. The building includes two gift shops, a theater, a cafeteria, various exhibits, and a deck overlooking the Gateway rocks and Pikes Peak. Connecting to the center's parking lot is a tunnel under 30th Street that connects with park trails.
       Previously, City Parks had operated a smaller visitor center elsewhere in the Garden in an old house. Around 1990, the city began looking to build a better facility, but was constrained by the stipulation in the Perkins gift about new construction in the park. That's when Hill, concerned about Garden upkeep, suggested her 7.41-acre property across the street. Her plan was to build a for-profit center on it for $3.5 million, keep it in her hands and in return ask only that the city give its gift shops sole concessionary rights for the Garden.
       The money that went to the foundation started at $75,000 in 1996 and, under Hill's stated plan, the amount goes up 3 percent every year.
       “Most museums have an endowment to support them,” Hill said. “Our setup is the opposite with the visitor center supporting the foundation.”
       In addition, the foundation website shows that it receives 30 percent of its total from outside contributions.
       Uses for foundation money over the years have included trail maintenance, brush-thinning, erosion control and educational programming. The nonprofit's board of trustees works with City Parks to help identify needs. With the tight city budget in recent years the foundation of late has even been helping pay the salary of the city employee who serves as park interpreter.
       The board of trustees currently has eight members, according to its website. These include Hill (who will stay on the board) as well as the president of the Friends of Garden of the Gods (FOGG) volunteer group (John Demmon) and two past directors of Colorado Springs Parks (Lewis and Paul Butcher).

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