By Jeanne Davant
The Westside Avenue Action Plan is going to be a dream come true for Westside businesses along the Manitou-Colorado Avenue corridor. The project envisions a smooth ribbon of pavement with two lanes of traffic, a center turn lane, bike lanes, sidewalks, buried utilities, new lighting and landscaping that will attract more visitors to the blighted area known as No Man’s Land.
But getting there is an ongoing nightmare for many businesses.
Construction on the project started in March and has been in high gear all summer into fall from the Highway 24/Manitou Avenue interchange to Columbia Road. Traffic frequently has been reduced to one lane as crews from Wildcat Construction tore up Manitou Avenue to install new water and sewer lines and storm drains.
All businesses in Manitou Springs have been affected to some extent, but those that have had heavy machinery in front of their doors for weeks on end have suffered significant impacts.
The project’s focus for the next few months is rebuilding the Adams Crossing bridge over Fountain Creek at Colorado Avenue and Columbia Road, while infrastructure work continues to the west. Businesses to the east can expect to see increasing impacts as undergrounding work creeps eastward toward its terminus at 31st Street.
Project managers from El Paso County and Wildcat Construction hope the worst will be over by next Memorial Day, but that’s little comfort for business owners who rely on summer revenue to get them through the rest of this year.
COPING WITH BREAKDOWNS
When construction crews hit a buried gas line just before 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, Farley McDonough, owner of Adam’s Mountain Café at 26 Manitou Ave., shifted into emergency mode.
“We have electricity, so we have some equipment we can use,” McDonough said. “We’re going through the menu and see what we can offer for lunch, but without gas, we won’t have hot water. When the hot water is gone, we’ll have to shut down. If we can’t open for dinner, I’ve got to get on Facebook, our website and voice mail and cancel reservations and let our employees know.”
Buried infrastructure lines that weren’t where they were supposed to be have resulted in several gas and waterline breaks — and more stressful days for McDonough.
“We’ve been without water several times,” McDonough said. “You couldn’t create enough pressure to run the dishwasher, so we had to shut down. One time they had us hooked up to a fire hydrant with a hose. Customers kept parking on the hose, and we had to run out and get the cars to move.”
Because of the unexpected encounters with infrastructure and large boulders, plus weather delays, the contractor frequently has had to work on Saturdays.
“Saturdays are the worst because we bring in all our product on Friday,” McDonough said. “We have the most staff and the most food for the weekend, not knowing whether we can sell it all. On a daily basis, we’re constantly having to make adjustments.”
Overall, McDonough said, her business is down about 20 percent from last summer.
“Until we get two lanes of traffic all the way through, we’re just going to be down,” she said.
NOISE and TRAFFIC
Lodging properties along the project route have been affected by the construction to various degrees.
“This year was equal to last year except for a little dip in August,” said John Hooton, owner of the Timber Lodge at 3627 W. Colorado Ave. Located at the eastern edge of the current construction zone, the lodge saw frequent traffic jams, but no heavy machinery until summer’s end.
“The third week of August, they were literally in front of us,” Hooton said. “We dropped about 50 percent. The next week we were down about 25 percent.”
“We live onsite, and the noise was really intense” starting at 7 a.m. daily, co-owner Cindy Hooton said.
“Our guests were very good-natured about it. Only a couple left in a huff, and even those said they understood it was not our fault, but it was not how they wanted to spend their vacation.”
Susie Brock, owner of the El Colorado Lodge, 23 Manitou Ave., said her experience was very different.
Unlike the Timber Lodge, which books most of its reservations online, the El Colorado Lodge relies to a great extent on walk-in customers.
“We were down $20,000 in net sales from last year in July, which is our busiest month,” Brock said. “Right now we’re down at least 5 percent for the year. We’ve had help from other motels about referring business our way when they’re full, but it’s been hard.”
At least one lodging property benefited from the Westside Avenue project.
The Buffalo Lodge Bicycle Resort, 2 El Paso Blvd., sits at the intersection with Columbia Road, beside a frequently used detour around the construction work.
“We’ve seen between a 7 and 10 percent increase in business,” owner Torie Giffin said.
The Watering Hole bar, which Giffin opened in April, has helped and will provide supplemental income during the slow winter months. She has also planned hayrides around the holidays and special events such as concerts during the offseason.
Giffin is concerned, however, about the impacts of another construction project — installation of a new Colorado Springs Utilities water pipeline beneath El Paso Boulevard that is scheduled to begin in mid-October.
“We’re going to close in January and February,” Giffin said. “We anticipate they’ll be heavy into construction then.”
She’ll use the time to complete remodeling of the lodge’s guest rooms.
LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE
Manitou Springs sales tax reports for July showed an overall increase in taxable sales of almost 8 percent in July and 12 percent for the year to date compared with the same periods last year.
Taxable sales in most sectors of the city’s economy declined somewhat in July, but Manitou’s 26 lodging properties posted a 5.4 percent increase and are up almost 12 percent for the year to date.
One of the healthiest sectors continues to be a category called Other In-City, which includes Manitou’s two retail marijuana stores. Taxable sales in that category increased 14.6 percent in July and are running 16.2 percent ahead of last year.
Leslie Lewis, executive director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, thinks longer hours at the pot shops may be offsetting some of the construction impacts. In April, Manitou’s City Council allowed the two shops to extend their closing time from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Lewis said it’s hard to measure the impact of the Westside Avenue project on Manitou’s downtown businesses because another major construction project is going on simultaneously. Canon and Park avenues have been closed for most of the summer for reconstruction of two bridges.
“That project is taking out one-third of the street parking in town,” Lewis said. “It’s certainly affecting the businesses on Canon Avenue.”
On Colorado Avenue, the biggest disruptions from the Westside Avenue project will take place over the next six months, said Dennis Barron, project manager for El Paso County, but “it will probably be less intrusive than the work in Manitou.”
Giffin said the project team is doing “a stellar job” communicating with businesses and trying to minimize the project’s impact.
Despite the hardships, McDonough said everyone will be happy with the results.
“This end of town has been ignored for so many years,” McDonough said. “This is what happens when you avoid tackling difficult issues. But I know it’s going to be worth it in the end.”