Manitou Springs is reaping the benefits of outdoor activity

Filed under: Focus |

In every state, there is a quirky, off-center and unconventional city, where many of the nonconformists reside. Florida’s off-the-wall area might be Key West. San Francisco could be to California what Eugene is to Oregon – a mixed bag of people and attitudes. Colorado? Some might say Boulder fits the state’s oddball niche; others might argue a couple of the mountain towns, such as Durango or Aspen, top the one-of-a-kind-city list. However, one city due west of the traditionally conventional Colorado Springs area may come out ahead as Colorado’s most eccentric, at least in terms of the business of outdoors.

Regardless of the cross-city competition for kinky, Manitou Springs has to be No. 1 in the state and nation for the most frequently held bizarre outdoor events. Where else would one find a coffin race, a Homer Duck Day or a fruitcake toss? (Actually, the originator of the fruitcake toss moved back to Minnesota, where he also is initiating the post-holiday event, but Manitou was first.)

Leslie Lewis, the executive director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, said no other state in the union claims an Emma Crawford Memorial Coffin Race.

The annual October four-member-team coffin races draw people from six to eight hours away, from Kansas to Texas, Lewis said. Other visitors, who “stumble on the race by accident,” return every year, she said.

May visitors just might return next year to experience a second annual Homer Duck Day. Manitou’s Cliff House, a fine dining restaurant, sponsored the first Homer Duck Day a few weeks ago. Homer became famous in town when the duck’s neighbors took her owner to court because of Homer’s daytime quacking. Homer won, and, although she is now in duck heaven where there must be endless ponds and plentiful bugs, her legacy lives on through a day set aside for rubber duck races, a blueberry pancake eating contest and a Homer the duck walking and talking contest.

Manitou people always come up with a reason to party, whether the object of celebration is a duck or a fruitcake.

Manitou’s irreverence for a holiday tradition is observed through the annual January fruitcake toss, an event that usually garners national media attention.

Some would call Manitou’s long-standing Pikes Peak Marathon a run specifically for fruitcakes, considering the grueling terrain and demanding stretch to the top. However, every August, lanky, well-muscled and distinguished local and national runners line the streets of Manitou early in the morning to compete at one of the most challenging marathon races in the world.

Regardless of the party’s theme, from duck races to sporting events to a wine tasting, Manitou counts on Colorado’s 360-plus days of sunshine, since all of the events take place outdoors. The most recent outdoor event was the Manitou Springs chamber-sponsored second annual Colorado Wine Festival, featuring 20 of the state’s wineries and entertainment and food booths. Wine lovers sipped the best of Colorado’s vines in Manitou’s Soda Springs Park. Kicking off the event on Friday night was a chamber-hosted Cog Railway ride to the top of Pikes Peak, where travelers saluted Colorado’s cider industry. Lewis is determined to find a way to host the highest-altitude wine tasting at the top of Pikes Peak, but the liability issues are hindering her progress.

Rounding out June’s activities during the last weekend is the Clay Fest, sponsored by local potters. In July, an annual old-fashioned homemade ice cream social, including a pie-baking contest, is a popular event at Soda Springs Park. That same venue is home to a July Buffalo Barbecue and summer-long concerts.

Hordes of visitors flock to Manitou in August during Labor Day weekend for the three-day Commonwheel Arts Festival. During the weekend prior to the arts festival, Bud Ford, owner of the Dulcimer Shop in Manitou, hosts a Mountain Music Festival. Ford also sponsors other events throughout the year, including a celebration of the arts and music, which is simultaneous with Old Colorado City’s Territory Days, and a bi-annual holistic arts and metaphysical fair.

If that’s not enough, the owner of Blue Skies Inn, a Manitou bed and breakfast, sponsored another first in May when she hosted a Bubbles over Colorado Festival, which hallmarked nationally known soap bubble blowers.

A Colorado blue sky contributes to the amount of people who come to the events. “We do take a chance with all of our outdoor activities,” Lewis said. “But it’s Colorado, so we never know; it could be snowing in June and sunny and gorgeous in February. Hoping for a sunny February and March, the chamber also hosts an outdoor Gumbo cook-off in coordination with Mardi Gras.

Do all these wild and crazy events create a sense of dread or bring in revenue to Manitou’s business community?

Lewis said the majority of business owners support the activities, and a variety of events brings different results to individual business owners. “The lodging industry in Manitou has taken a hit because of the numerous hotels that have been built in Colorado Springs,” Lewis said. However, many Colorado city dwellers looking for an escape come to Manitou to stay in a bed and breakfast, shop, dine and peruse the art galleries. Lewis said the Pikes Peak Marathon also brings in overnight guests and restaurant goers.

The summer is high season for tourism in Manitou, and visitors are not necessarily attracted to the area because of the events. The business of outdoor shopping is enough to bring in them in, but events bring in others who become hooked on the town’s charisma, returning for more.

To keep abreast of tourism and the allure that brings them in, Manitou is phasing in a citywide face-lift. In May, the city seal-coated and re-striped the streets and created a three-lane thoroughfare, deleting the four lanes, to accommodate delivery trucks. The trucks now have designated parking areas in the middle of the lanes, which eases the flow of traffic and prevents the cars from being blocked, Lewis said.

To enhance a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, Manitou’s five-year face-lift project includes wider sidewalks, additional trees and a new Shoshone Park plaza, where visitors and residents can access one of Manitou’s nine currently running natural mineral springs. “The mineral springs are not a draw, but people who visit the area enjoy them as a sideline,” Lewis said. The naturally carbonated springs make great lemonade, Lewis said.

Shoshone Park is home to one of those mineral springs, and Shoshone project developer Chuck England donated the spring to the Mineral Springs Foundation. A planned walkway with an easement around the springs will connect to the nearby creek, allowing public access. England plans to build lofts and shops in the plaza.

Known for its diversity among residents, from those who live in the high-end district of Cedar Heights to those who reside in remodeled 19-century Victorians, from artists to attorneys, the people and the business owners are grounded; yet, as colorful as the spectacular gold and rust colors that dot the hillsides in late September.

Bud Ford is a former two-term mayor of Manitou and the owner of the Dulcimer Shop. Ford said that when he opened his store in 1973, a three-story building had just sold for $18,000. In Addition to soaring property values, Ford has witnessed a few changes, but he said the small-town values and “quirkiness” remain. “Where else can a business owner like me, who has a penchant for Ty-Dye and Hawaiian T-shirts, become mayor?” Ford said Manitou’s events are a big plus, drawing “extra people who circulate through the city.”

Linda Reed is the owner of Osborne Gifts, a jewelry and gift shop in Manitou. Osborn Gifts has held its ground in the community for 58 years. Her sister-in-law’s fat
her, Ozzie Osborne, was the original owner, and Reed purchased the shop 22 years ago. Reed said the different events sponsored by various town folk and organizations appeal to a “broad scope of people.” And she said the events occasionally bring in Colorado Springs people, who are less likely to come to Manitou for a day trip. “Most of the people I see on a regular basis (day trips) are from the Denver area and Pueblo,” Reed said.

Manitou gets its share of worldwide visitors as well. The business of outdoors in Manitou reflects not only the town’s contrasting activities but also an undeniable charm that attracts a hodgepodge of visitors and residents. The verdict is in the eyes of the beholder. Colorado’s Key West? Manitou is certainly in the running.

- Editorial@csbj.com

Manitou Springs has to be No. 1 in the state and nation for the most frequently held bizarre outdoor events. Where else would one find a coffin race, a Homer Duck Day or a fruitcake toss?