Becca Sickbert has two jobs. She serves as Manitou Springs’ interim economic recovery director and executive director of the Manitou Springs Creative District.
As head of the creative district, Sickbert’s job is to promote and strengthen the Manitou Springs arts community. And as interim economic recovery director, she steps into the economic development role held by her predecessor, Manitou Art Center executive director Natalie Johnson.
Although the two positions are separate, they’re really one and the same, Sickbert said.
“Manitou Springs has a thriving art community — so many creatives, so many designers and innovators — it’s just a really rich place for ideas and new projects to bubble up,” she said. “And I think having artists at the table for those [economic recovery] discussions … is extremely helpful.”
A Boulder native, Sickbert grew up in the Longmont area and attended high school in Texas.
She graduated magna cum laude from William Jewell College in Liberty, Kansas, with a degree in English language and literature, and took graduate-level courses in marketing at UCCS.
Sickbert moved with her husband to the Pikes Peak region in 2004.
Since then, she’s worked in a variety of industries and settings, holding marketing and communications positions at Whole Foods, CodeBaby, elope Inc., Ent Credit Union, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Care and Share and the Business Journal’s sister paper, the Colorado Springs Indy; and serving as a freelance consultant to small businesses and organizations.
Sickbert spoke with the Business Journal about her current assignments, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Manitou and how she and the city are trying to balance economic recovery with public safety.
How is Manitou faring economically, and how are you and the city working to get the economy restarted and keep it going?
The city staff have been incredible partners, and I spend a lot of time coordinating efforts and working in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, the visitor center and Manitou Springs city staff. And we’re all concerned about the businesses. [In a recent business impact survey], the results were pretty stark. The top three concerns for the business community are all related to cash flow, because Manitou Springs — more than maybe most of the other communities in the county — is very dependent on tourist traffic. So as things have slowly started to reopen, the city and the chamber have been instrumental in making sure that we had enough masks and just general PPE to share with our small business owners and certainly with our visitors. The city hopes through the CARES Act to provide 20,000 masks, and the chamber has given away at least 3,000 to visitors that come in. It’s very much a joint effort to try to equip all of the businesses to help keep our visitors and our residents and their employees safe.
Are businesses starting to recover a little bit? It seems like there are lots of people in town.
Yeah, parking spaces and just foot traffic are way up. On the other side of things, what we’re seeing is that hotel bookings are not where they normally are. And that’s kind of a mixed bag — some of our lodging industry members report that July looks pretty good, but August is lagging behind. Others would be happy with a 50 percent occupancy rate or even where they were last year. They’re all complying with what the health recommendations are, of course, so that’s just within the restrictions of what is possible. And I think when you look at the sales tax from June, as I understand it, we’re still down quite a bit. I asked the chamber where they were with visitors. Normally — and I think this is last year — they were looking at welcoming somewhere between 130 and 180 visitors a day. At this point in the summer, this should be the height of the tourist time in Manitou Springs, and they’re welcoming maybe 60 to 70 people a day.
How is the retail sector faring?
It’s sort of case by case, and some of that is dependent on the business owner and what they’re comfortable with. So we have some retailers that haven’t opened up at all. We have some retailers that are working with their outdoor displays, running mini sidewalk sales, and they’ve tried to keep their teams fully employed. And they’ve really been working hard to secure all the loans and grants that they possibly can. The city gave the Chamber of Commerce $200,000 to help with small business relief grants, and I think those checks will be cut as early as [July 17].
Are the local attractions starting to pick up, or are they still taking a pretty big hit?
It really depends on who’s allowed to open at this point. What I found interesting [in responses to a resident survey] is that our residents were reporting that they feel most comfortable outside on trails, and then parks. We hadn’t asked about the Incline directly; what we were looking for was just a temperature gauge on comfort in general, as we were reopening. In some ways I wish that we had, because I would be interested to know what residents think. It seems like that is a really divisive issue, and I’m hearing the same thing from the business community. So there are some businesses that are happy that it’s still closed and others that would love to see it reopened.
Is Manitou still feeling the loss of the cog railway?
I think the cog is central to the conversations that I’ve been a part of about what role do the attractions play in the Manitou Springs economy. And the simple reality is that both the Incline and the cog are huge attractions and put Manitou Springs on the map of visitors who are planning vacations in the region. They reach different people, certainly, but there are certainly cases where you’d see someone climbing the Incline and then people taking the cog railway to meet them at the top and maybe they ride it back down. So those two things are very much linked. They both have massive parking and traffic impacts. But I think what I would say about both is that they are important in bringing traffic and attention to Manitou Springs.
Do you have any reading on how the closure of the Incline has affected Manitou, or is it just more a part of the whole issue?
I think the largest issue is the same thing that everyone is dealing with, and that’s that a global pandemic has rippling and lasting impacts across every sector — whether it’s boosting demand for masks or really limiting demand for, say, indoor bar seating because that’s just not something that we’re OK with doing. So is there, especially during the summer, any impact because people don’t have access? Yes, absolutely. I’ve heard some anecdotal stories. For example, there was a shop owner who welcomed a family from Kansas, and they planned a trip to come out and do the Incline. And when they found out that it was closed, they were absolutely disappointed, and I think they were looking at cutting their vacation short.
How is the city attempting to balance economic recovery and public safety?
I have to applaud their efforts and really looking closely at making sure that they’re supporting both. I would point to their investment in those masks and making sure that they were partnering with the chamber to make that PPE available to small business owners so that the small businesses themselves weren’t trying to hunt down or order masks and it was just one less thing for them to have to worry about as they prepared for the primary shopping season.
The proposal for the library to move into the Manitou Art Center has been getting a lot of attention on social media. A lot of reactions were negative.
There is a misperception that people think they’re losing the library or losing the building, and neither one is true. I love how emotionally invested people are in their local library and the fact that PPLD had said that they’re not looking to stop service. They’re just looking to relocate temporarily, to make sure that they can continue to support the Manitou Springs community. And I think that that could be a beautiful way to keep service going while we look at what comes next.
Another common perception is that revenue from Manitou’s two retail marijuana shops put the city’s budget in a better position than, say, Colorado Springs’. Is that true?
It kind of depends on how you look at it. It’s hopeful, yes, that we have two retail marijuana stores and that they are operating professionally. They are absolutely making sure that people are social distancing and doing their best to balance that economic and public health equation. But what we lack is the kind of diversity that other cities benefit from. For example, we don’t have a pharmacy, we don’t have a hardware store, and we don’t have a grocery store inside the city limit. Those were places that saw a huge uptick in demand and sales and traffic volume, especially during the early days of the pandemic. So yes, it is absolutely valuable that we have retail marijuana as part of our store and sales tax revenue mix, but it’s not enough to supplement those other areas.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
It’s so fulfilling. I absolutely love the Manitou Springs community and it’s an honor to be able to serve them with at least a short-term ability. It’s kind of a luxury to focus on economic recovery because in a smaller community, people do so much, and that chance to collaborate and to build partnerships is something that I find incredibly rewarding.
What are your greatest challenges?
I think one of them is just COVID-related — that it’s hard to track people down when people are trying to address an economic crisis and we’re all trying to stay home as much as possible. It’s just one of the functional challenges of this moment that we’re in. But certainly it makes me appreciate the time that I can spend downtown with my mask on that much more.
I think one of the upsides of this particular crisis is that it breaks down what have been maybe traditional barriers or lines. And what’s important in this moment is being open to new partnerships and collaborations that help the entire region move forward and to see that happening. And to see small business owners sharing information and resources and helping each other navigate these absolutely tricky times is something that inspires me and keeps me going.