On the morning of Aug. 10, trapped in my Westside neighborhood by street closures associated with the Colorado Classic bike race, I decided to walk the dogs down to Colorado Avenue, mingle with the crowds and watch the racers go by.
At 9:45 a.m., Old Colorado City was deserted. No cars were parked on the street, no traffic disrupted the morning calm — it was just me, the dogs and a handful of other spectators.
Colorado Avenue has been a commercial thoroughfare since the 1859, when Colorado City was founded. It was and still is essential to every business owner, every customer, every visitor and every employee. Horses, mules, oxen, streetcars, passenger cars, trucks and even a famous team of elk have served Old Colorado City over the years. It occurred to me, chatting with folks along the Ave, that this might have been the first traffic-free Thursday morning in more than 150 years. It was as if the wheels of commerce had come to a grinding halt — and indeed they had.
At 6 p.m., after the street had finally opened, we met friends for a drink at Tapateria, a popular restaurant in the heart of OCC.
“It was a disaster,” owner Jay Gust said of business that day. “We had three tables for lunch, and look! This is one of our busiest days of the week, and summer is our busiest time.”
Only a handful of cars were parked on the avenue, almost none on the side streets. Although the rain had long since stopped, the sidewalks were deserted.
“I estimate that we lost about $3,000 in business,” said Gust.
It was the same story throughout OCC, a national historic district with one of the largest concentrations of locally owned businesses in the city. Many are disproportionately dependent upon the summer visitor trade. You can’t make up for a weekday shutdown in August by staying open later in February.
The race created traffic jams on Interstate 25 and throughout the city.
For many residents, visitors and businesses, it was a gigantic goat rope, an epic fail.
Council President Richard Skorman feels your pain — and he has some of his own. He owns four adjacent businesses on Tejon Street — a bookstore, a wine bar, a toy store and a restaurant.
“I can’t tell you how many angry calls and emails I’ve gotten,” he said. “Main street merchants were very severely affected. We usually do about 10 times as much business. Thursday, we just stood around.”
Don’t blame Skorman for the mess. Blame the 2016 city council, which allocated $500,000 in revenue from the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax to support the event.
That, in retrospect, may be a consequence of inaccurate assumptions about economics, city branding and Millennial preferences. We want favorable national publicity, we want to spend LART money attracting visitors, we want to cater to the tastes of Millennials and we want economic impact. So, remembering the fun and visibility that the USA Pro Challenge brought here in 2011, 2012 and 2014, city council took the bait.
The problem: Past experience suggests world-class stage races aren’t sustainable in Colorado. Red Zinger, Coors Classic and the Pro Challenge all folded, brought down by Economics 101: “How do you monetize a sports event that people can watch for free?” Answer: You get someone else to pay for it. Millionaires, advertisers or taxpayers — until the well runs dry.
Its corollary: “How can you prove that a one-time televised event has a $500,000 economic impact?”
You can’t. As a prominent local economist once told me, “Every economic action has an economic impact. The problem is measuring it.”
Yet in this case the economic impact is negative and measurable, and city officials can fix it. They may not be able to compensate us for lost time, inconvenience and wasted hours spent in traffic, but they can make amends to businesses.
Why not give restaurants and retailers in OCC and downtown a two- or three-week sales tax holiday? Skorman would have to recuse himself from the vote (and no, it’s emphatically not his idea!), but I don’t think Mayor John Suthers or Skorman’s eight colleagues have any similar conflicts of interest.
Honorable mayor, honorable city councilors: You spent half a million in tax funds intended to support and promote the visitor industry on an event that caused substantial economic damage.
Your bad, so fix it!