Here’s a suggestion: Head south on Interstate 25, get off at Bijou Street, go south on Cascade Avenue and eventually head west on Colorado Avenue to Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs. Where will you stop? What will attract your attention? What seems welcoming and fun, and what seems not worth the trouble?
As a Manitou-loving Colorado Springs native who grew up in the North End, subsequently lived near downtown and has lived on the Westside for 18 years, I know scores of places to hang out. I also know that some of my favorite destinations are far more difficult to access than they were years ago, and almost all of them are in or around Manitou.
Driving west on Colorado Avenue on a recent weekday afternoon, I could have stopped at 503W, at Benny’s, at Cerberus Brewing Company or at the N3 Taproom. They’re cool, urban and accessible, with plenty of parking available — no barriers. In OCC, it was the same story, thanks to abundant on-street parking and available lots north and south of Colorado. I passed by Thunder & Buttons, Mother Muff’s, the Colorado City Creamery, 45 Degrees Gallery and a dozen other faves and kept going.
Just before Ridge Road, the seemingly permanent construction on Colorado Avenue had westbound traffic stopped dead, as trucks meandered in and out of the worksite. The street cleared just before Adams Mountain Café, another favorite that features abundant parking and, when the construction is finished, easy access.
As I had expected, downtown Manitou Springs was maddeningly congested. The lots looked to be full and there were no available spaces on Colorado Avenue. I passed the Townhouse Sports Grill, the Royal Tavern and the arcade, and wanted to stop, but it was just too much trouble. As Yogi Berra once said of a favorite bar, “Nobody goes there anymore — it’s too crowded!”
So I headed down Highway 24, jumped off at 31st and went to Thunder & Buttons, where I rendezvoused with my spouse. After an early meal, we strolled down the avenue to the Colorado City Creamery for ice cream, visited one of Karen’s favorite boutiques and went home.
Not so many years ago, we would have been just as likely to do a similar circuit in Manitou, but now OCC has a distinct competitive advantage.
Unlike Manitou, OCC can be accessed by multiple routes, including Uintah, 21st Street, 26th Street, 31st Street, Highway 24 and Colorado Avenue. Since the historic commercial district is bordered by more conventional shopping centers, featuring Starbucks, Safeway, Walgreens and several national fast-food chains, there’s a degree of shopper spillover from these areas. Compared to Manitou, with its confusing parking kiosks, high parking fees and aggressive enforcement, OCC is simple, easy and inexpensive.
What made Manitou so wonderful during the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s was its small-town feel and the cheerful synchrony between residents, business owners and visitors. In those halcyon pre-Incline days, I used to train for the Pikes Peak Ascent by trotting slowly up the Barr Trail to French Creek (or, if I felt adventurous, all the way to Barr Camp), accompanied by my unleashed and reasonably well-behaved Chesapeake. We’d park at the free and lightly used parking lot at the trailhead and encounter relatively few folks on the trail. In literally hundreds of training runs (I ran the ascent nine times, the marathon once), we never had a bad experience.
But then came the deluge — the transmogrification of the Incline from local secret to national playground, soaring property values and rents and too many potential visitors struggling to experience Manitou.
In Colorado, beautiful small towns don’t remain quiet and unspoiled. Recall that Colorado Springs was a city of 50,000 in 1960, while Aspen, Telluride and Breckenridge were unpopulated backwaters.
It may be that Manitou is in a period of transition, balanced between its mythic past and its unknown future. Even if the cog has vanished forever, the city’s visitor economy will depend upon better access to downtown and expanded opportunities along the Colorado Avenue corridor. The city’s geographic constraints will make such transportation improvements expensive and controversial, but the city doesn’t have much choice.
And Manitoids know how to make things happen. A city that euchred Colorado Springs and El Paso County out of millions in retail marijuana tax revenue doesn’t lack creativity — and besides, I want to play ancient games at the arcade, eat at the Townhouse and down a shot at the Royal Tavern.
So save me a parking place — please!