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Losses pile up as Wind Cave elevator closure enters fifth month

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Explorers probe a portion of Wind Cave. The cave's elevator has been shut down since June, resulting in revenue and visitation declines for Wind Cave National Park.

There may be only one silver lining to the elevator problems that have prevented Wind Cave tours since June.

When visitors learn they cannot see the cave, their anger reveals just how much they care about the attraction.

“People are very passionate about their national parks, and the front desk staff is on the receiving end of a lot of that passion,” said Tom Farrell, chief of interpretation for Wind Cave National Park. “We did what we could to try to get the word out, but people were very disappointed they couldn’t see the cave.”

The elevator that brings people down into the cave was shut down June 29 and remains closed, now going on five months. Last week, Farrell said the park’s elevator service company, Thyssenkrupp, said it was having trouble getting parts and that delivery was still two weeks out.

The Journal left messages with Thyssenkrupp asking why the fix for the elevator is taking so long. A communications specialist for the company responded with a one-sentence statement via email: “Thyssenkrupp is currently working to remediate the elevator issues at Wind Cave National Park, and will return the elevators back to service when all necessary work has been completed.”

While the park waits, it loses visitors and revenue.

Last year from July through October, 77,158 people paid a total of $660,393 for cave tours at the park. This July through October, because of the elevator problems, both of those numbers were zero.

Farrell said the park will have to absorb the revenue losses. That means the park will do fewer projects, such as building, repairing and maintaining structures, roads and fences.

According to Farrell, Thyssenkrupp had determined prior to the June shutdown that the elevator needed a new “music box” — a part that Farrell said tells a computer where the elevator cab is located in the shaft. While the procurement of that part was in progress, Farrell said, Thyssenkrup discovered the elevator also needed new rope grippers, which Farrell said stop the elevator cab when it’s going too fast.

Because the fixes for the elevator are considered upgrades rather than merely repairs, Farrell said the fixes are not covered by the park's elevator service contract. The music box will cost $102,544, Farrell said, and the rope brake will cost $66,590, for a total of $169,134. That money will come from a repair fund held by the Washington, D.C., office of the National Park Service.

Because the rope-gripper problem created an unsafe situation, Farrell said, the park had to shut down the elevator. Park officials considered conducting cave tours through an alternate walk-in entrance but ultimately decided against it, because the route includes an immediate descent of 155 stairs.

“In the middle of the summer, we just didn’t think we could do something like that in terms of the amount of visitation that would be coming in,” Farrell said. “And if we had a medical emergency down there, we’d have to haul people up 155 stairs.”

So, park officials did the best they could to make up for the cave closure, by offering extra surface tours and ranger talks, and by roving the highways and trails to engage with visitors.

Meanwhile, the elevator 30 miles away at Jewel Cave National Monument was shut down on Aug. 2 because of problems with the door system and cables. Thyssenkrupp also services that elevator and has since fixed it, but not before the cave closed to tours on Oct. 1 for a planned construction project that will rehabilitate concrete walkways, stairs, decking and other infrastructure in the cave. The cost of the repairs was covered under the monument's elevator service contract.

While the Jewel Cave elevator was shut down for most of August and all of September, cave tours were offered via an alternate walk-in entrance, but that entrance had capacity for only six tours per day with a maximum of 20 people per tour. About 3,000 people took those tours, while the park added surface programs, ranger-guided talks and walks, and premiered a new visitor film.

Michelle Wheatley, superintendent of Jewel Cave National Monument, estimates that the monument lost 43,000 visitors and $238,440 in revenue while the elevator was closed. Like at Wind Cave, Wheatley said the revenue loss at Jewel Cave means a backlog of maintenance projects will be further postponed.

Wheatley said it was unusual for the elevators at Wind Cave and Jewel Cave to be inoperable at the same time.

“I believe it was a fluke, and we hope it’s a fluke for sure,” Wheatley said.

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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