A bustling farmers draws a big crowd and more than 100 vendors on Friday mornings in Woodland Park’s renovated Memorial Park, just a block from busy U.S. Highway 24.
A bustling farmers draws a big crowd and more than 100 vendors on Friday mornings in Woodland Park’s renovated Memorial Park, just a block from busy U.S. Highway 24.

Woodland Park, the scenic mountain town just a short drive up Ute Pass from Colorado Springs, is thriving in many ways — but also faces a host of challenges.

Many of those challenges are unique even for a Colorado mountain town, primarily because U.S. Highway 24 winds smack through the middle of the city.

“We’re not really a destination location,” said Neil Levy, Woodland Park’s mayor since 2014. “People drive through Woodland Park, and one of our issues is how we get people to stay.”

The Woodland Aquatic Center — set to open in October — may help, and the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center attracts visitors both from the Springs and Teller County, as well as out-of-state tourists. But there are few other attractions except for small retail shops and restaurants.

“We know who we are,” said Levy, who along with his wife owns the Swiss Chalet restaurant. “People are driving through Woodland Park because they’re going camping, fishing, hunting, skiing and going to the mountains. So we’re not going to stop everybody.”

Many have come and stayed, however. The population was 7,500 in the 2015 census, said City Manager David Buttery, with about 3,000 more living just outside the city limits.

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“This is a wonderful place to live,” said Buttery, who has called Woodland Park home for 20 years while working for the city. “Some reasons people are moving here are the outdoor environment, the amenities, proximity to Colorado Springs and the good school district.”

It’s an aging population — Levy said the over-60 group should double by 2025 — but Buttery sees new young families attending his church. The high school’s enrollment has shrunk from 1,200 to 750 in the past 10 years, Levy said, but Buttery thinks that trend has ceased and will head the other way.

“I think the town definitely has the potential to prosper,” said Sean Reynolds, operator of Joanie’s Bakery & Delicatessen. “A lot of people are working to change how Woodland Park is viewed.”

Levy said $3 million was spent to renovate Memorial Park and its large pond. The aquatic center will cost another $17 million — paid for through a 20-year bond.

“We’ve saved our pennies,” Levy said. “The pool is something this city has dreamed about for 30 years.”

Aquatic Center Manager Karen Valdez said there will be two pools — one for competitive lap swimming and diving, the other for all ages, featuring a lazy river, vortex pool and slide.

“We have a lot of people here go to the Springs or Manitou to facilities,” Valdez said. “We hope to keep the locals here and attract others for fitness, therapy uses and family time. I think it will be a positive impact for the community.”

‘CITY ABOVE THE CLOUDS’

Officials years ago branded Woodland Park the “City Above the Clouds.” At 2,400 feet higher than Colorado Springs, it has cooler weather and more snow.

Unlike the Springs, the city’s finances are in good shape and stormwater issues have been addressed since the 1990s.

“The stormwater capital fee was established in 1994, and about four years later we were able to do some major drainage projects,” Buttery said. “Our citizens understood we have a stormwater issue up here. We’re on a divide, we’re steep, we get intense storms and we have probably the most stringent detention pond requirements in this region.”

Of the city’s 4.09 percent sales tax, 1.09 percent is passed directly to schools and 1 percent goes for roads, with 2 percent ending up in the general fund.

“In Woodland Park, the people who preceded me were very smart,” Buttery said. “Most of our roads weren’t paved until the mid-’90s, but in 1984 they adopted the 1-cent sales tax to start collecting money so they’d have a good down payment to pave roads. We entered into some debt to pave the roads and paid all that off two years ago. Now the roads are 20 years old so we’re doing some major maintenance.”

Sales tax revenue has been rising, month-over-month and year-over-year, Levy said, for about 48 months. He credits some of that to Walmart’s presence in Woodland Park since 2007. Sales tax revenue jumped nearly 11 percent both in 2007 and 2008, according to numbers provided by Woodland Park Financial Director/Treasurer Mike Farina.

“Walmart is an integral part of our community,” Levy said. “They’ve been very successful, and they support the community in a number of ways, like contributing to the pool and nonprofits.”

Sales tax revenue jumped again when Tractor Supply Company came to town a few years ago, Buttery said, between 5-8 percent for 2014-15. It rose nearly 3.6 percent in 2016 and is up 4.8 percent so far this year.

Some of that sales tax revenue is due to the overall growth in Teller County, which now has 23,000 residents.

“Divide and Florissant have really taken off,” Levy said.

Buttery said Woodland Park is the service center for Teller County, “so we’ll draw a lot of people from Cripple Creek, Victor, Florissant, Lake George and Divide for shopping and other things.”

Natural Grocers may open a 13,735-square-foot store in the near future, as the chain currently is negotiating with the city’s Downtown Development Authority about tax benefits.

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 9.36.12 AMWHERE TO LIVE?

Having more stores benefits residents — but having affordable housing is even more important. Woodland Park is plagued by high-priced real estate and a lack of workforce housing. Levy said the median home price is $325,000.

Trail Ridge, a 168-unit apartment complex near U.S. 24, opened a few years ago and is 98 percent occupied, Levy said. A 24-unit workforce housing project on Highway 67 should be completed by year’s end, and the old Lofthouse Inn is being converted to nine condominiums for low-income residents in a Habitat for Humanity project.

“I’d call it a challenge at this point to house our workforce,” said Woodland Park Planning Director Sally Riley.

Teller County produced an “Affordable Housing Needs Assessment” report in October 2016 that noted 2,922 [31 percent] of the county’s households are cost-burdened and 1,987 [21 percent] are severely cost-burdened. The report showed that Woodland Park has most of the county’s current housing demands — 300 units are needed to catch up. To keep up with projected demand in 2025, Woodland Park must build 441 more units and the county will require a total of 926.

Although Buttery said the city has benefited greatly from Charis Bible College moving to Woodland Park, it’s also heightened the housing crunch.

Buttery added that commuters go both ways between Woodland Park and the Springs.

“As Colorado Springs’ job market grows, we see our growth happening,” Buttery said. “People can realize their mountain dream by living here and working in a metropolitan area. And a lot of people come here to retire; thus, we see our aging population. But now we’re seeing younger people coming here to begin their families, because they can have a small-town environment and work in Colorado Springs.”

That’s pretty rare, even in Colorado, Buttery said.

“If people want to live in Colorado and have access to a major metropolitan area,” he said, “there are only a few communities like us.”

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