It’s been about 14 months since Millie Carlton and a team of investors opened Swan House Manor, an all-inclusive wedding and events center. The 22,000-square-foot “southern mansion,” as she calls it, fills an unlikely location in a former church at Palmer Park and Powers boulevards.
“When I was looking for property, I looked all over,” she said. “I found this online and made a call to the commercial real estate broker and said ‘I have to see it today.’”
Carlton purchased the 7-acre property in April 2014 and hosted the venue’s first wedding a month later. Business has been on the rise ever since, she said.
“It’s our price point … They’ll get a wedding or event that they won’t get anyplace in town with our [level of] service and quality. Maybe we’re not yet an ideal location,” she said. “But it’s a work in progress. My goal, within five years, is to have the premier destination place for weddings … for all of Colorado. I’d like to rival the botanical gardens in Denver. I want this to be the place to come for photos, graduation pictures, weddings, corporate events — whatever.”
‘Do what you’re good at’
Carlton’s had an entrepreneurial bent most her life. Nearly 20 years ago, she invented and manufactured scented Sheet Mates with a prominent New York scent maker. The product, fabric softeners that are the size of the mattress, was placed between bed sheets and the mattress to make beds smell good.
She’d signed a $2 million deal with a big box chain to distribute her wares throughout the western U.S. The store filed for bankruptcy, she said, before Sheet Mates ever went to mass market.
Carlton also worked for an investment firm in Oregon.
“The investor would say, ‘I want this amount spent.’ And a pilot would come to us and say his wife is bored and needs a project. So I’d build her an ice cream parlor. I would find the property, break ground, build it, buy the ice cream, hire the staff and give her the keys. I took four projects a year for the investment company.”
Carlton said it was 13 years ago, while living in Colorado, that her daughter surprised her with her engagement. Her daughter’s fiancé was about to be deployed and Carlton looked for an all-inclusive venue, but was unhappy with the lack of options.
She was working on a commercial interior design project and when it was finished, a business partner asked what was next. Carlton shared her frustrations.
“He said, ‘OK put together a business plan.’ I did that and we ended up building The Occasion in Black Forest.”
That partner took a hit during the recession and had to pull out of the project, she said. The venue has since been sold and operates as The Pinery at Black Forest today.
Carlton said she felt lost following the sale of The Occasion and, while speaking with her son at Christmas two years ago, found some clarity.
“I told him I didn’t know what to do. I’m whining and he said, ‘Why don’t you just do what you’re good at?’
Carlton said she examined her old business plan, studied industry numbers and concluded a wedding venue was still viable in the region.
“Especially one that’s all-inclusive,” she said. “I got some investors and started this a year and two months ago.”
Masters of the corridor
According to Carlton, an all-inclusive wedding with 100 people would cost $12,500. Among other amenities, the price includes use of Swan House Manor’s in-house chef and master of ceremonies. Wedding cakes are also included and provided by Boonzaaijer’s Dutch Bakery in Colorado Springs.
“We’re more run by ownership than employees,” Carlton said. “When you’re a small business and the owner, it means you do it all. We scrub the floors and set the tables.”
Weddings make up about half the venue’s business, while quinceañeras also fill a substantial part of their events calendar.
“We have a good balance, but quinceañeras are our highest money-maker,” she said. “More dollars go into those than weddings. They average $25,000 to $30,000.”
In order to take advantage of expanding business opportunities, the site is undergoing building and renovations throughout this summer and into next. That includes the construction of a gazebo, focusing on gardens and surrounding landscaping, as well as the building of a 600 to 900-person, barn-style pavilion, which is expected to be finished by next summer.
Carlton, while standing across the street from a vacated K-Mart, said the Powers Corridor south of Palmer Park Boulevard is in need of a renaissance, and she hopes her business can provide a launching point.
“Nothing in nature is stagnant. It’s either growing or decaying,” she said. “Once it decays, it has to regrow. That cycle is constant in business.
“The Powers Corridor is such an asset to us,” she said, adding Swan House Manor has agreements with the Holiday Inn Express at the First & Main Town Center for wedding guests, as well as food and beverage deals with Tucano’s Brazilian Grill and Rock Bottom Brewery.
“We’ve established some really great relationships. And we’re only a few miles from the airport. … We’ll master this side of town. Just watch and see what happens in five years,” she said.
“I can’t tell you why. I don’t have any statistics. I don’t have any facts. It’s my gut intuition. And I work pretty well on that. It will be awesome to see this [area] grow. Five years from now, you won’t even recognize it.”
Location: 5515 Palmer Park Blvd.
Contact: 358-2068; swanhousemanor.com