Before he begins each workday, Al Harper stops for breakfast at Oscars Cafe. Between sips of lemonade and bites of scrambled eggs, Harper inevitably will end up in a conversation with another diner.
Well talk about an idea theyve got or something theyd like to do, Harper said.
Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, is a man of ideas. And hes always up for pursuing a new one, especially if it relates to trains.
As he enters his 13th year as the trains owner, Harper has a long list of future plans for Durangos tourism icon, and, despite the challenge of the current economy, it only keeps growing.
From real estate to trains
Before he entered the world of trains, Harper worked in real estate in Miami. While there, a group approached him wanting to start a train. That train failed, but in the process, Harper bought the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and fell in love with it. Over the years, he started his own company, American Heritage Railways, and bought two other railroads, in North Carolina and in Texas. Besides running trains, Harper also owns a company that works with major film-production companies to reproduce their stories through events on the train such as the Polar Express and the Lone Ranger.
A spring of ideas
Harpers biggest and longest-standing plan is Railroad Square. The $84 million project would include a 220-room hotel, a 22,000-square-foot conference center and 30,000 square feet of retail and office space. Harper already has invested $3 million into the project and received approval from the Colorado Department of Transportation and the city of Durango, but a lack of financing has put everything on hold.
The economy has made it difficult to do that big of a deal, he said.
The sketches of the building, which would take over the railroad parking lot, lean against the wall in Harpers office.
In the meantime, Harper has focused his efforts on 12 acres of land south of the glider park that will become a pumpkin patch and North Pole destination. The site is under construction and should be ready for the first Charlie Brown Pumpkin Patch Express train in October, Harper said. In its final stages, he said he envisions raising small herds of buffalo and reindeer on the land.
Though his attempt to buy the Strater Hotel fell through in March, the business side of Harpers mind is still set on owning a hotel.
Im bound and determined were going to get some hotel rooms. It may be in a month, a year or maybe three years, he said. We bring in 170,000 visitors. We should be able to capitalize to some degree on the rooms we fill.
Higher up on Harpers dream scale is Colorado Close Encounters, where he would bring mountain lions and bears into a human-made habitat where train riders could stop to get a look at the animals.
Allowing visitors to see wildlife up close is the best thing you can do for conservation of wildlife, he said.
An April article in TheDurango Herald about an idea to designate parts of the San Juan Mountains as a geopark sent Harpers wheels spinning on another venture. Riders can see every geologic era as they ride the train, Harper said, so he wants to create a geologic tour handout that people can follow as they ride up to Silverton.
Other ambitions in the works:
b Purchasing an 8-acre historic homestead that lies at the entrance to the Weminuche Wilderness,
b Soliciting screenwriters to produce a script for a movie plot idea he has created.
Im a dreamer
His reasons for seeking out new opportunities with the train are part idealistic and part realistic.
Im a dreamer, and Im a salesman, Harper said.
Over his 13 years with the railroad, hes learned what it takes to keep customers filling his seats.
To be relevant, you always have to have things new and different, he said. (The railroad) is all history, so a lot is how I present it.
Though its hard to pinpoint exactly what impact the train has on local hotel stays, at the Strater, its a significant amount, said owner Rod Barker.
Its clear he has a passion for the train, and were all benefactors of that, Barker said.
The train is one of the areas biggest draws for tourists from other states and other countries, said John Cohen, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office.
Theres an incredible awareness of the train domestically, regionally and nationally, Cohen said. What Europeans and Japanese tourists like about Durango is our Americana, our history. Part of it is cowboys and Native American culture, but the other part is the train.