December 27, 2013 Updated: December 27, 2013 at 2:40 pm
Leslie Lewis, executive director of iManitou, watched from higher ground Aug. 9 as floodwaters rushed through downtown Manitou Springs.
All she could think about was the 130 small businesses in the tourist town west of Colorado Springs, and she was worried, she said.
Store owners had worked hard to recover from the effects of the Waldo Canyon fire, which effectively extinguished summer tourism in Manitou Springs and the rest of the region after images of the June 2012 inferno were broadcast across the country. Sales tax collections in Manitou Springs were down 7.2 percent and 6.7 percent in July and August of 2012, from those same months in 2011 - the height of tourism season.
Then, it flooded this summer.
"It put Manitou back in the national spotlight," Lewis said.
Sales tax revenue was down 5 percent in August from last year and down 18 percent in September from last year.
Now it will take more than popular town events such as the Emma Crawford Coffin Race to save business, she said, so iManitou is playing serious offense.
For the first time in its three-year history iManitou - a combined Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Council - went after and received two state grants: one for $25,000 and one for $50,000, to be added to iManitou's $150,000 advertising and marketing budget beginning this holiday season and going into 2014.
In September, the board also hired local firm Blakely + Company to help write its 2014 strategic marketing plan.
"We thought we could sit back and people would come," said Marcy Morrison, iManitou board member. "But when you have disasters and people see it on TV - well, have we stepped up our game? The answer is yes."
When the chamber and the EDC merged three years ago, it hired a full time chief operating officer. But as the newly formed organization was settling into its role, the Waldo Canyon fire abruptly ended the tourism season, and in November 2012, iManitou let its COO go for financial reasons. The organization, which is funded by the city, memberships, programs and web and banner sales, scaled back its budget and appointed Morrison interim COO, a position she took for no pay.
The organization officially restructured with Lewis at the helm. She has been championing Manitou Springs' tourism for 18 years as the former director of the Manitou Chamber of Commerce.
"She knows the business community and they know her," Morrison said. "She will give stability to a community that frankly needs stability."
The 2014 marketing campaign centers on family fun and a great place to step back in time, she said. Her strategy is to market Manitou Springs just as much to the region as it does to out-of town tourists. "We'll put a lot of money into the holiday season," Lewis said. "We'll advertise in Denver and Pueblo to get them here for a day trip, Then, in spring, we'll hit it hard."
The iManitou board of directors and business owners are behind her, said Tim Haas, owner of Garden of the Gods Trading Post and Manitou Outpost. No doubt, small businesses have taken some punches over the past two summers, Haas said. But the new 2014 marketing plan includes a social media campaign for events and small businesses.
"We don't want a pity party," Haas said. "We have a wonderful product to offer and we need to market as aggressively as possible keep promoting it."
The new strategy also includes spending about $50,000in grant money during the spring and shoulder season in an attempt to attract visitors year-round and not just in the summer months, Lewis said.
With a staff of two and a dozen volunteers, iManitou also will look to its seven board of directors to be more involved, Lewis said.
"Every community needs to go through and evaluate what they are doing," she said "Sometimes they are forced. In our case, truly because we've gone through so many significant events, we have to be nimble."