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Dark Skies impacts the local economy:

Certification of the two towns has increased economic activity in Valley by at least $100,000 in 2018

What are the impacts of Dark Skies on the community here in the Valley? That question has defined the rapid growth and popularity of the local chapter of the Dark Skies organization since the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff became certified by the International Dark Sky organization several years ago. But what measure, if any, should be used to define the impact of the Dark Skies certification?

The Dark Skies organization became controversial when it tried to start a long process with the county to make Custer County a certified Dark Skies Reserve, mimicking the process it had used to certify the two towns. That process consisted of donating and installing hoods on lights so the light from bulbs was focused on the ground rather than the sky.

Proposed clarification of existing light pollution laws to the Custer County ordinances was met with resistance as it was feared that defining light pollution levels would make the existing law enforceable, compared to the then existing law that was hard to enforce because of vague language. Fears of “change a light bulb, go to jail,” quickly led to hundreds of people showing up to voice opposition to the law clarification. Some commentators went so far as to make the light pollution a case of property rights, that property owners had the right to pollute the common sky above their properties, regardless of the impact to neighbors or the common view shared by Valley residents.

That backlash of the proposed ordinance clarification continued when the new Custer County logo was unveiled at the Custer County Commissioners meeting in late July. The logo, that focused on the Dark skies of the Valley, was not welcomed by County Commissioners Tom Flower and Bill Canda who stated that Dark Skies was a fringe group that should not take center stage of a logo that represented all of Custer County. According to the two commissioners, a focus on hunting, hiking, scenery, and history was much more reflective of daily life in the Valley. Canda concluded his portion of the meeting by stating that the Valley needed to be a team, and the logo was not represntative of team.

A Photo of the Dark Skies of Westcliffe Captured by Mike Pach of 3 Peaks Photo Tours that has benefited economically from the Dark Skies Certification through photo tours of the area. 

An interview with Jim Bradburn, the president of the Dark Skies organization, showed data collected from the Smokey Jack Observatory for 2018. The data was a collection of privately reserved Star Parties that are hosted by local “star guides” who volunteer their time to use the observatory to show visitors the points of interest in the night sky.
What the data showed from March 11 to September 10, 445 people attended the parties, with 264 coming from out of town specifically to see the Dark Skies certified towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff.
The data also shows the number of days guests stayed, if they rented lodging, and estimates how much they spent on lodging.*
The results?

$20,760 in local spending generated on the private star parties in the last six months. All from unpaid volunteer efforts of Star guides at the observatory.
This data collection shows only what can be tracked, what is more interesting is the countless other people that have been recorded coming to the Valley because of the Dark Skies certification. In simple terms, $20,760 is the minimum economic activity generated by Dark Skies.
What is the actual contribution to the local economy? It is impossible to say with certainty, but there are some indicators.

Lodging owners state a large uptick in people coming down to see the Milky Way thanks to the marketing of Dark Skies. Mike Pach’s Dark Skies photo workshops have generated $38,000 in local photographer spending. And several homes have been purchased after a visit to the Valley to see what all the fuss over the Dark Skies was.

So the range of economic activity generated is a minimum of $20,760. Excluding real estate transactions, the number is well over $100,000 this past summer, with real estate, the numbers probably gets closer to $1 million.

Of course the economic measure of Dark Skies cannot be the only grounds on its impact, as the controversy also includes the line between a property owners rights, and the rights of a community to not suffer light pollution.
But with confidence, Dark Skies can say that the organic marketing that came with the Dark Skies certification of the two towns, also has increased economic activity by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Jordan Hedberg

*Estimate is based on 264 people that came solely for Dark Skies from out of town and days spent in the Valley. Each day expenses were estimated at an average of $50, and