An economist's post-flood advice 

Local View

Come October, we expect a quiet to descend as tourists find their way west to chase the changing leaves and snow. But this year, the quiet hasn't brought the relief many of us normally experience.

Instead, some of us who work for local businesses, or depend on people who do, have felt a certain dread. It's already been too quiet for too long — a bad year for tourism, especially in Manitou Springs.

The sales tax numbers that get reported to the state lag a few months behind, but Marcy Morrison, the chief operating officer of iManitou (more commonly called the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce) says she's heard from business owners on her board of directors already. July was OK, but the floods of August and September took a toll.

Locals have tried to help, and not just by shoveling mud out of the city center. On a recent weekend, a Manitou-wide block party meant to bring economic support, as well as a measure of spiritual recovery, jammed the streets.

But is shopping local enough to save small businesses from an ongoing struggle with Mother Nature?

"I've thought about this a lot," says economist Tom Binnings, senior partner with Colorado Springs-based Summit Economics, LLC.

Binnings, who's originally from New Orleans and watched family members experience Hurricane Katrina, points out that there is a boost to the economy following disasters. "The net [economic] impact tends to be positive," he says. At the recent Southern Colorado Economic Forum it was reported that more than 1,000 jobs were created in the rebuilding following the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

But unfortunately, locals working new construction jobs won't be spending the same money, the same ways, as summer tourists would. So Binnings says more of us should bring Manitou into our consciousness by spending additional time and money in the town. He adds that a unified marketing message of "Let's support Manitou Springs" is needed.

That said, Binnings really advocates for broader solutions. And a couple of them are probably not what you would expect.

For one thing, says the economist, "We need to get the stormwater bill rolling." One task force has put the regional tab at nearly $900 million overall, and some of that relates to a decade-long threat of flooding to the Ute Pass area. Locals will likely be asked to support some kind of tax or fee in 2014.

Meanwhile, other improvements or expansions must continue despite much of our attention (and money) being diverted to areas where the crisis is most direct. He uses the stretch of West Colorado Avenue from 31st Street to Manitou, known as No Man's Land, as an example: Renewal of this area, with more property and sales tax revenues, could be an important mechanism for Manitou to be less dependent on tourism dollars.

And then there's "the topic nobody wants to talk about," Binnings says. He suggests the sale of recreational marijuana would be beneficial to Manitou. It's not that he wants to see 10 shops open in the historic downtown district. But, he asks, "What if we open one establishment close to Highway 24 with easy access in and out?"

After Prohibition, liquor stores in many states were owned by state government. Binnings sees economic potential in the city of Manitou Springs owning a store and contracting out all operations. "Bankroll it for the future," he says.

It's hard to blame tourists for avoiding places like Manitou when each rainstorm seems to bring the howling of flood sirens and frightening TV images. But if that is simple to understand, it's part of a more complicated equation with which locals are left to grapple.

Binnings calls it a problem of "behavioral economics," wherein "the psychological impacts are even worse than the economic impact." As residents and business owners assess their future based on the insurance and aid they have available, they have to determine: Where does the opportunity for greatest happiness lie?

"This is a stressful event, not only due to the loss but the future uncertainty," Binnings says. "It becomes a test of resiliency."

Seems if we really want to help our friends pass that test, we have to go beyond the occasional digging and dining.



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