For Manitou Springs businesses and property owners, these seem to be the best of times. Property values have soared during the past few years, and the city’s historic downtown is crowded with shoppers, tourists, restaurant-goers, barflies, flâneurs and strollers from mid-morning to late evening.
Two inconspicuous marijuana retailers close to the eastern boundary of the city do brisk business, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the city’s sales tax revenue.
Thanks to a downtown plan pushed forward a decade ago by then-Manitou Mayor Marcy Morrison, Manitou Avenue was reduced from four lanes to three, sidewalks were widened, power lines went underground, pedestrian safety enhanced and through-traffic considerably slowed.
The once-derelict Pikes Peak Incline has been rebuilt and reimagined as an extreme-training destination, a challenging climb that gains 2,000 feet in a mile. First nationally publicized in a New York Times article several years ago, the Incline is now a major attraction, a free outdoor health club attracting thousands every summer weekend.
But such bustling prosperity brings change — and not all Manitoids are pleased.
“I just hate it,” said one 35-year Manitou resident. “I want to sell my house on Ruxton and move away from downtown. You can’t park; the crowds are awful; the Incline traffic never stops; I worry that my dogs will get out and be run over. I guess I should have bought up higher, but I loved just walking to work in a few minutes. It was such a nice little town, and we had so much fun. I guess those days are gone forever.”
Manitou residents have always prized their independence, the fact that theirs is a self-governing, proudly progressive city.
Many regard Colorado Springs with dismay, glad that they’re not under the thumb of an overwhelmingly conservative city government.
Not so long ago, Manitou was a shabby town without much of an economy. Once-imposing buildings, such as Barker House, the Manitou Spa and the Cliff House at Pikes Peak were vacant or rundown. In 1982, the Cliff House was gutted by a fire and remained boarded up for 16 years.
Long dismissed as the haunt of bikers and hippies, the city seemed content to stagnate. Living was cheap, if not exactly easy, and many residents enjoyed their slow-paced lives.
Change came slowly. Chuck Murphy restored Barker House and the Spa, and the Cliff House was reborn as a 64-room luxury boutique hotel. Homeowners renovated the comfortable Victorian homes perched on Manitou’s hillsides; the business district revived; tourism began to recover from the Great Recession — and then had to cope with flood and fire.
The community came together, rebuilt and re-opened … and then came the perfect storm of prosperity.
Maybe, as Murphy points out, Manitou’s present boom isn’t unprecedented. It’s happened before, he says, in the larger city to the east.
“In the old days in Colorado Springs,” Murphy reminisced recently, “we spent all summer selling to the tourists and the rest of the year selling to each other. Other than tourism, we didn’t really have an economy.”
That’s Manitou today.
With a population estimated at 5,334, Manitou expects 2016 sales tax revenue of $3.8 million, or $712 per resident. That’s a conservative estimate — actual collections may be closer to $4.2 million.
By comparison, the powerfully diversified sales tax base in Colorado Springs brings in about $307 million, or $650 per resident.
Today’s frenetic downtown action in Manitou Springs may not please everybody, especially area residents who echo Yogi Berra’s oft-repeated complaint about his favorite bar: “Nobody goes there anymore — it’s too crowded.”
Residents complain about the tourist throngs lining Manitou Avenue throughout the summer and on festive weekends — but city leaders and businesses know better.
Picturesque poverty had its charms, but perhaps not for city leaders who must constantly repair, renew and rebuild city infrastructure. As Manitou City Administrator Jason Wells wrote in the preface to the 2016 budget last year, “The budget presented to you here is truly a striking indication of the city’s fiscal health heading into 2016.”
That health is partially due to the city’s regional retail marijuana monopoly, but is also a reflection of Manitou’s across–the-board commercial resurgence.
To the disgruntled residents of Ruxton Avenue: Cheer up. Your houses are worth more than you think. Sell and move into a nice little cottage on the Westside of Colorado Springs.
You’ll make money, enjoy life in the slow lane and walk to Old Colorado City. It’s Manitou without the crowds — all of your biker and ex-hippie friends are waiting for you here.