It's a beautiful day in Manitou Springs. Birds are chirping. Trees are blooming. Cash registers are cha-chinging.
Sales tax collections in this charming hamlet were up 66 percent last year compared to 2014, and, as of March of this year, they were up another 63.4 percent over 2015. A huge part of that increase is from marijuana sales — Manitou has the only two recreational shops in the Colorado Springs area — but restaurants and motels also have seen big increases. The town's finance director, Rebecca Davis, says she doesn't like making predictions too early, but thus far she says 2016 sales are "better than my projections."
It's hard to believe that less than four years ago, Manitou Springs came dangerously close to being destroyed in a raging inferno. The 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire was followed quickly by epic floods that drove some businesses from town and put locals on edge. The town is still dealing with multiple flood mitigation projects, but with several large projects complete, most people are breathing easier.
Mayor Nicole Nicoletta says she remembers when conversations about floods dominated City Council meetings. Now, she says, she mainly hears residents talking about congestion due to the opening of the Incline trail and a booming tourism industry, as well as complaints about homeless camps in the hills and caves surrounding the town. In other words, the problem is no longer that nature is driving people out of the town. The problem is that Manitou is perhaps drawing too many people.
"People want to be here," Nicoletta says. "People love being here ... somebody actually wrote a couple months ago, I think it was a letter to the editor, that Manitou is a victim of its own success. To a degree, it's very true."
Nicoletta says Manitou is attempting to deal with the problems. It's passed enforceable rules and regulations for using the Incline, including a 6 a.m. start time. And the city has two free shuttles and a free parking lot aimed at relieving congestion and parking issues. Additionally, Nicoletta says the Incline Management Oversight Committee continues to look for long-term solutions to crowding.
As for the homeless issues, Nicoletta says the city has been trying to work with individual property owners to clean up trashed areas in the woods and post "no trespassing" signs. Citizens, she says, have helped by cleaning up a lot of garbage on their own.
"There's just an extreme — that is no exaggeration — extreme amount of garbage left in the woods," she says.
Leslie Lewis, Manitou's Chamber director, adds that panhandling and public pot-smoking by transients are ongoing issues for local businesses.
"Not everyone appreciates that their children are learning the smell of marijuana at 5," Lewis says.
Lewis feels encouraged that the city is planning to have two police officers patrol downtown on foot from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily to deter those who might light up openly or harass tourists. Businesses also often post signs in their windows urging people not to give to panhandlers. Still, Lewis says, it appears that the number of transients in Manitou is growing.
Nicoletta says she's been told that many transients — often quite young — connect via social media, sharing the location of prime camping spots and caves. She says she knows some are looking for a way off the streets, but others appear to view their situation as "hip" — a counterculture that includes travel and hanging out with friends.
Both Lewis and Nicoletta say that while the groups can be a nuisance, their biggest concern is that their campfires could get out of control in the hills surrounding Manitou, repeating a scenario that the town is just starting to forget.