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The little town that could 

Manitou Springs rebounds from disastrous times

'Keep Manitou Weird."

The bumper stickers bearing that slogan are almost a cliché. Attached, more often than not, to the bumper of an aging Subaru, they are a badge of honor in the town of 5,245, just west of Colorado Springs. Over the years, Manitou Springs has been known for mountains, hippies, witches and — until recently — decay.

Consider: In 2003, downtown Manitou was marked by crumbling infrastructure, all centered around the Spa Building, which stood like a white ghost, its broken windows looking over a drowsy commercial district. And those who lived in the town in the decades before describe even lower points, when the houses — filled with only the most adventurous bohemian souls — seemed to be sinking gently into their foundations, returning to the earth. The downtown, at that point, looked to be one step above a ghost town.

click to enlarge In the years after the Waldo Canyon Fire, floods devestated Manitou Springs. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • In the years after the Waldo Canyon Fire, floods devestated Manitou Springs.

Manitou managed to reclaim a vibrant spirit thanks to a voter-approved tax increase for downtown revitalization and was on an upswing when, three years ago, the Waldo Canyon Fire threatened to burn it to the ground in the middle of tourism season. It survived, but the years since have been marked by catastrophic floods (also taking place in the summer tourism season) powerful enough to send a house floating down Canon Avenue. At the same time, parking issues and recreational marijuana were creating a rift between residents.

But, like a buoyed underdog at the end of an after-school special, Manitou discovered its strength, overcoming what seemed like insurmountable odds. Residents reached compromises on both pot and parking. The town's sales tax collections for 2014 were 23 percent higher than the year before. By May of this year, collections were 85.8 percent higher than in 2014, with marijuana providing a significant boost. And the city government has undertaken one of the region's largest flood mitigation projects, protecting the town from floods this summer, as well as lining up grants to get even more work done.

click to enlarge Maggie's Farm and Emerald Fields , Manitou's two recreational marijuana stores, have brought in more sales tax than anticipated. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Maggie's Farm and Emerald Fields , Manitou's two recreational marijuana stores, have brought in more sales tax than anticipated.

City leadership also has made time for loftier goals. An ambitious plan to power Manitou's municipal buildings with solar energy was recently completed, and the city is moving forward with an application for Creative District certification, and planning for new hiking and biking trails.

In fact, aside from ongoing flood-control efforts, the top issues in Manitou these days are in stark contrast to the woes of 2003. An influx of tourism has brought further parking and congestion issues, and home values are so high City Council has formed a task force to look at creating more affordable housing.

click to enlarge Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder has led Manitou through trying times. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder has led Manitou through trying times.

"We're kind of a victim of our own success," Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder says.

It's an impressive turnaround, one that seems to rely on two key resources this weird little town has learned to attract and sustain: talent and money.

Coreen Toll and her husband, Shanti, owned and operated the Celebrations New Age Store on West Colorado Avenue for 25 years, before selling it in 2001. They moved to Manitou Springs 18 years ago, wanting to escape "the conservative politics" of Colorado Springs.

Toll became active in Manitou politics around 2009 as a citizen seeking change. Specifically, she wanted the city to perform an energy audit on its five municipal buildings and seek out ways to make them more energy efficient. The sitting City Council was receptive, and an analysis was completed about five years ago. Toll also was involved with the initiative, led by stay-at-home mom Teri Christman, to move Manitou to a single-hauler trash system, with the hope of reducing pollution, noise and road wear. Council signed a contract in 2010 with Bestway Disposal, which agreed to pay the city an annual fee of $48,000 and to provide recycling to nearly all customers.

When former Councilor Ingrid Richter moved out of town in 2011, Snyder approached Toll and asked her to apply to fill the vacancy on Manitou City Council. The job, Toll notes, isn't exactly lucrative. It pays $125 a month — which is supposed to cover printing and travel costs. But, after seeing two initiatives to completion with the city, Toll was hooked. She applied, was appointed and later was elected; she currently serves as mayor pro tem.

click to enlarge Coreen Toll - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Coreen Toll

As a councilor, Toll was able to build upon the energy audit, working with SunShare to buy power from a new solar garden that will service the city's municipal buildings. As far as she knows, that makes Manitou the first city in the nation to power all of its municipal buildings with solar.

Additionally, Councilor Toll has deftly navigated the controversies over recreational marijuana dispensaries and parking.

She helped author a local ballot measure in 2013 that asked citizens to allow the city to collect additional sales tax on recreational marijuana dispensaries. Voters approved a 5- to 10-percent sales tax (currently, it's 5 percent) on the dispensaries, which was expected to raise $122,000 a year. The actual amount Manitou has collected has been much higher, although Manitou leaders do not believe the exact amount can be disclosed due to tax laws ["Pot of gold," News, July 15].

Parking issues have long plagued Manitou and created divisions. Businesses want the town to seem welcoming, while residents are fed up with congestion and tourists parking in their driveways. Ultimately, after much public discussion, Manitou decided on a three-pronged solution: meters, residential parking permits for neighborhoods that want them, and a free shuttle that takes summer tourists through downtown and up to the popular Manitou Incline from a rented parking lot.

Toll is a liaison to the Parking Authority Board, which contracted with Standard Parking two years ago to install kiosks in downtown Manitou. Standard agreed to install them at its own cost, as well as undertake the parking enforcement and collect the fees. In exchange, Standard is paid $40,860 a month, which comes from the parking fees. That payment includes monthly installments to purchase the kiosks by mid-2018. In 2014, the city still was able to retain revenues from parking that exceeded $450,000.

The first two years of the shuttle's operation, meanwhile, were paid for by a grant from the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments. Since then, the city's general fund, Barr Trail parking lot revenues and the Urban Renewal Authority Board have paid for it.

Toll says parking is still a serious issue and more will need to be done. (Incline hikers, in particular, have led to major parking snafus that irritate both merchants and residents.) She believes solutions lie in personal discussions with locals and offers an example.

Over the winter, she says, some downtown merchants were upset about a parking enforcement officer they felt was too aggressive. Toll facilitated a meeting, and Standard Parking agreed to reassign the officer to Colorado Springs and hire a well-known local in his stead.

"We actually got an email [recently] about how kind one of our parking officers was to a tourist," Toll says. "So that's a big change."

Another big change is on Manitou's horizon: Snyder, an exceptionally popular mayor, is nearing his term limit after six years of service.

Toll will be among those campaigning in the upcoming November election to replace him.

Though Snyder and Toll are close, the outgoing mayor isn't yet ready to offer an endorsement, saying he believes doing so might have a "chilling effect."

"I hope we get an incredible field of qualified candidates for all five of our openings," he says, referring to City Council as well.

That's reflective of the general attitude in Manitou city government — reluctance to do anything that might leave someone feeling excluded.

City Administrator Jason Wells emphasizes that many citizens in the community offer help on a variety of projects.

"A bunch of people are willing to put serious energy and time into things," he says.

Take Natalie Johnson, executive director of the Manitou Arts Center. She first heard about the state's Creative District program three years ago. Teams build creative districts with help from the state, in a process that involves strategic planning and exploring funding sources for further growth.

click to enlarge Natalie Johnson is working to establish a Creative District. - COURTESY NATALIE JOHNSON
  • Courtesy Natalie Johnson
  • Natalie Johnson is working to establish a Creative District.

Johnson thought Manitou was ripe for such a designation, and about two years ago, she met with city leaders to discuss the plan.

"It was 'whatever you need we're 100 percent behind it,'" Johnson says.

Now she's one year into the two-year process, and the support hasn't waned. She says she has no trouble meeting with city staffers when she needs to. On average, 30 people show up to her steering committee meetings, and about 40 people are involved. Those citizen volunteers help her with the heavy lifting, whether it's representing their candidate District at meetings for other art organizations or interviewing local artists.

"In this small community, you can get stuff done and it doesn't feel like running your head into a wall again and again," Johnson says.

She's aware that other communities seeking the same designation lack the support she gets.

"When we're talking to other communities that are trying to do this, they struggle to have even five people in the room," she says.

Not only is participation high with the Creative District application, but the effort has branched out with the creation of a city Affordable Housing Task Force, whose board features many of the same members. The two are a logical pairing: Manitoids recognize that bringing more creative industries to town means Manitou will need to ensure artists and creative workers can afford to live there.

In addition to the Housing Task Force, Snyder says the town recently put a moratorium on short-term, Airbnb-style rentals because they may not be suitable for bucolic neighborhoods and because they tend to bring in more money than traditional long-term rentals, further eroding the affordable housing stock. Snyder says he's not usually a fan of moratoriums, but the situation was creating problems and needed to be dealt with while a longer-term solution was worked out. The Planning Commission and staff plan to come to Council in the next few weeks with a plan for short-term rentals.

On the flip side, Council also gave motel and hotel owners a year to comply with a new city law that limits their ability to rent long-term. Snyder says older motels can't compete with chains that offer deals, amenities and standardized rooms. Many mom-and-pop motels have turned to long-term rentals as an alternative. But Snyder says the situation wasn't safe — often whole families were crammed into a small room. Thus, Council looked for a compromise.

Under the new law, up to 20 percent of rooms in a motel can be rented long-term, but owners will have to bring them up to code, offering kitchen sinks and stovetops, and a reasonable amount of space per inhabitant.

"We're trying to allow some of these properties to get into compliance with our code," Snyder says.

Aside from cooperation and community spirit, Manitou, which has a $6.6 million general fund budget, has proven adept at harvesting money from other sources. That's good, because the recent flood control project in Williams Canyon alone had a $6 million price tag — meaning it would have been impossible without grants, which covered approximately 85 percent of the cost.

Manitou has concentrated on more than repairs. Shelley Cobau, Manitou's flood recovery manager, came to the city with experience in government administration. She says city leaders have given her permission to set project goals and fund them.

"I've worked for many public agencies, and this is the best city council and the best mayor I've ever worked with in 30 years," she says. "They're well-informed; they're open to staff ideas; and they've given us the leeway that we need to seek these funds — and as a result we've been successful."

Cobau largely has sought federal and state funds, as well as assistance in planning and applying for grants. She's done well, with various federal and state liaisons helping navigate the grant process. In 2014, Manitou applied for Community Development Block Grants Disaster Relief Round 1. It received $580,000 in funding for projects such as a $78,000 wall to protect the foundation under City Hall, which sits on Fountain Creek. The National Resources Conservation Service also just approved over $500,000 in grants to Manitou for flood mitigation and repair projects. The Department of Local Affairs gave Manitou $643,300 to hire five employees to help with flood projects for two years, as well as a modular office for them to use (the city match is $51,000).

Recently, CDBG Disaster Relief Round 2 approved $4.9 million more in funds for Manitou, which will allow it to replace a raw water treatment pipeline that's been damaged, install a new culvert at Serpentine Road (which has experienced major flood damage in the past), put in a new culvert under Manitou Avenue at El Monte Place, replace an aging and undersized water line in the Peak View Subdivision for better fire protection, and complete a project in Williams Canyon that will protect the heart of downtown from flooding.

click to enlarge The town has been proactive in fixing areas prone to flooding like Williams Canyon with the help of grants. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • The town has been proactive in fixing areas prone to flooding like Williams Canyon with the help of grants.

The recent presidential disaster declaration for this year's spring rains means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay up to 75 percent of the project costs for repairs to damaged property in the town. The damage is estimated to be at least $2.1 million, but could be more than $20 million, depending upon the cost of fixing a leaking culvert that leads out of Williams Canyon. Other projects include repairs to busted retaining walls and replacement of damaged bridges. ["Flood of money," News, July 22]

FEMA also has helped repair damage from earlier floods that led to a disaster declaration. Deputy Finance Director Nicole Ortega says Manitou has already completed 22 projects to repair flood damages totaling close to $1.2 million. FEMA will foot as much as $877,000 of that bill.

"These agencies have been really generous to the city of Manitou Springs," Cobau says. "We really appreciate the help we get."

Most of Cobau's position was funded for two years by a $100,000 grant from the Office of Emergency Management. (Manitou is filing for an extension, because the grant expires in December.) A $131,000 grant from the Energy/Mineral Impact Assistance Fund also paid for planner Karen Berchtold's position for two years.

Cobau notes that isn't an exhaustive list of the grants — there are many from a variety of sources. She also points out it would be a mistake to think all the money is simply free. Manitou has stretched its budget to provide matches for many of the grants, and staff has dedicated countless hours to ensure each grant process is followed.

Flooding isn't the only challenge Manitou has overcome. In recent years, it's also managed to offload many of its expenses.

In January 2013, Manitou agreed to let Pikes Peak Library District take over the operation of its sole library. PPLD now pays the facility's utilities bill, maintains its collections, pursues grants on its behalf and provides a full range of services, including access to the entire PPLD system. Manitou citizens voted in 2012 to approve the deal to join PPLD, and to pay a 4-mill property tax to do so. The switch saved Manitou $192,663 annually.

Likewise, in April 2013, Manitou outsourced its emergency dispatch to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office for a yearly fee of $50,000. In 2012, Manitou paid $185,000 to provide the service itself.

But if there was a single move that altered the course of Manitou for the better it was probably the passage of a tax that took downtown Manitou from drab to fab.

Back in 2004, the city issued $1.8 million in sales and use tax revenue bonds, approved by the voters. That was used as a match toward federal and state grants, producing around $6.7 million in total funds for the redesign of downtown Manitou Avenue, and practical and aesthetic improvements to the surrounding streetscape. Voters approved a temporary .3 percent increase in sales and use tax to pay for the bonds through 2020.

The improvement to the streets paid off, with private developers pitching in to renew the old downtown. Perhaps most notably, in the 2000s developer Chuck Murphy renovated and reopened the Spa Building in central downtown. A joint effort to open the Manitou Incline in 2013 to legal hiking has also paid dividends, says Leslie Lewis, Director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau.

click to enlarge SunWater Spa opens in August and could attract winter visitors. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • SunWater Spa opens in August and could attract winter visitors.

"The Incline definitely attracts a lot of attention to Manitou, whether the Incliners are the ones that are coming back into town and dining [or not]," she says. "I don't think they tend to shop, but they're putting a lot of pictures out there."

The social media attention, she says, contributes to the chamber's marketing efforts. And those efforts have gotten a boost from grants in recent years. Last year, for instance, she says the chamber received $75,000 worth of grants, nearly doubling its marketing budget.

Lewis points out that the local economy also benefits because Council is willing to work with businesses.Take the soon-to-be-opened SunWater Spa, which will offer solar-heated soaking pools that are partially filled with Manitou's spring water. In order to allow SunWater to use the natural spring water, Council went to painstaking lengths to ensure it wasn't violating water law or draining the natural springs. But Lewis notes that because Council was willing to follow through, it will soon have a one-of-a-kind business that's likely to draw visitors in the off season.

Just to the east of Manitou, Colorado Springs has more than 80 times the population of Manitou Springs and encounters many of the same problems.

On the bright side for Colorado Springs, home prices have rebounded from the recession even faster than they have in Manitou. In 2005, the per-recession median sales price for a home in the Springs was $212,100. In 2015, it's $240,000. In Manitou, the median price in 2005 was $255,000. This year, it's $235,500. El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker says the slower rebound in Manitou is likely impacted by floods.

But in other areas, Colorado Springs is still playing catch-up from an economic slump, natural disasters and political controversy. Tourism is returning to the Springs, but the city isn't overwhelmed. Paying for stormwater and flood control projects remain key problems after a county ballot initiative to fund them failed in 2014. Resentment still churns in many circles over City Council's decision to ban recreational marijuana without a vote of the people.

And, if a single issue tops city government's priority list, it's probably potholes. Mayor John Suthers, in fact, plans to ask city voters in November to approve a .62 percent sales tax increase for road repairs and maintenance.

While Colorado Springs may be able to take some pointers from Manitou, it's hard to imagine such a large city could adopt the same road map. Just as Manitou lacks many of the resources and economies of scale available in Colorado Springs, big cities lack the nimbleness of a small community.

Grants don't go as far. Outsourcing to a larger government isn't always feasible. Direct citizen involvement can be a clunky process.

Manitou, by the way, is hardly under the impression it has suddenly become a utopia, free of problems. The city is in the process of further refining its strategy. It has a DOLA planning grant for $298,000 that's paying for development of a master plan and a hazard mitigation plan. Of course, it's already gathering input from residents.

"I think a small community like this...your local government can be more open to citizen ideas and staff ideas, and it's not quite the bureaucracy that you would see in a city the size of Colorado Springs, for instance," Lewis says. "I definitely think Manitou has done a great job of being very open to new ideas."

Still, if Colorado Springs can take away a few profitable lessons from little Manitou's renaissance, it may be these: Know what kind of place you are, embrace your strengths, and grab every resource available.

  • Manitou Springs rebounds from disastrous times

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