Manitou Springs, still reeling from the Waldo Canyon fire and with eyes on next year’s tourism season, is at a crossroads.
While last summer’s fire — the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history — never reached Manitou, it nevertheless dealt a hefty economic blow. The city must now decide how best to market itself to woo back tourists, while also wrestling with parking issues that could deter visitors.
Manitou’s sales tax revenue is forecast to end 2012 down 4.5 percent from last year, the biggest decline since at least 2000. Sales have recovered in recent months, but not enough to offset declines during the peak tourist season that the city depends on for much of its customer traffic, Mayor Marc Snyder said.
“That sales tax is down only 4.5 percent is pretty remarkable considering that the fire kept tourists away during some of our key summer months. We are pretty much but not quite back to where we were before the fire,” Snyder said. “The coming tourist season (in 2013) will be really important for us.”
Manitou had thrived in recent years after spending $9 million redeveloping its downtown area by making it more pedestrian-friendly, a project expected to be complete next month. Retail sales jumped 27 percent since the eight-year project began to a record $54.8 million last year.
The city and its businesses move into next year amid some big changes. The agency that acts as a chamber of commerce, visitor’s bureau and economic development council, called iManitou, laid off its chief operating officer in November and will decide early next year whether to hire a replacement. City officials, meanwhile, plan to begin charging for parking in the downtown area and along Ruxton Avenue in May as part of a larger plan to solve chronic parking problems stemming in part from the growing popularity of the Manitou Incline hiking trail.
“We clearly are at a crossroads. It has been a challenging year. We will need to remind people that Manitou is open for business, so marketing before next season will be critical,” said Tim Haas, chairman of iManitou and president of TAT Enterprises, which operates the Garden of the Gods Trading Post and four other Manitou businesses. “Parking is the biggest challenge this community faces. We’ve managed to attract so many people with our downtown revitalization that we are at capacity (for parking) for much of the summer season.”
Haas wants iManitou to use the bulk of its budget to boost the group’s marketing efforts to attract more visitors during the spring and fall months, extending the city’s tourism season to increase sales during slow months for retailers and restaurants. Rather than hiring a new chief operating officer, he wants board members to take a more active role in the organization, which resulted from a 2010 merger of the city’s chamber, visitors bureau and economic development council. Most of the group’s budget comes from the city’s tax on hotel rooms.
A budget shortfall prompted iManitou to eliminate the paid position, now filled temporarily by board member and former mayor Marcy Morrison until board members decide how to fill or restructure the job. The group had planned on generating additional revenue from Web advertising, event sponsorships and new memberships to fund the salary for the chief operating officer, but that didn’t happen amid a sluggish local economy and the fire’s aftermath, said Leslie Lewis, the longtime executive director of both the chamber and visitors bureau.
Morrison wants to expand iManitou’s social media marketing as well as advertising in traditional media to boost spring and fall visitor numbers. She said Manitou has been successful in creating “a small town feel that doesn’t feel suburban.”
“We are a small-business enclave surrounded by open space,” Morrison said. “We don’t have room for or encourage big-box retailers and we don’t have a shopping mall. We have been successful in recent years in attracting visitors from out of state and all sides of the Colorado Springs area who have never been to Manitou before.”
A key to bringing visitors back to Manitou will be solving the city’s chronic parking issues, Snyder said. A three-part plan includes charging for parking along Manitou and Ruxton avenues, giving residents of nearby neighborhoods permits for on-street parking in front of their homes and resuming a free shuttle from free lots to downtown and the end of Ruxton Avenue. The city’s parking problems are most acute on Ruxton, where passengers on the Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway compete for parking with hikers on the incline and Barr Trail.
Snyder said solving the city’s parking issues is critical for Manitou since the incline is expected to be legally open to the public by next summer; the former tourist railway line that closed in the early 1990s has become a popular hiking trail attracting hundreds of hikers daily in recent years even though they must trespass on private property to use it. The city hasn’t determined how much it will charge for on-street parking, but drivers likely will have to pay at kiosks spread throughout downtown and along Ruxton Avenue, he said.
The first effort to solve the city’s parking issues began this month when the cog railway began offering parking to hikers for a $5 fee as a way to ease the parking bottleneck along Ruxton Avenue, said Spencer Wren, the railway’s general manager. He said the railway plans to begin charging anyone using its parking lots, including passengers, once it installs an automated collection system in March. Parking for hikers likely will be restricted to off-peak times when it is not needed for cog railway passengers, he said.
“I see cog customers inching through town looking for parking because they want to stop, shop and get a bite to eat. Sometimes they just give up and leave,” Wren said. “I see that as a lost opportunity. Without doing something about parking, downtown will stagnate because we are the saturation point right now.”
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