Mountain towns that feature multiple attractions, offer an historic feel and border a mid-size city are hard to find. In short, there are few places like Manitou Springs.
Retailers are all too aware of that, and so are their landlords.
While shopping center owners in Colorado Springs have cursed their balance sheets over the past few years, Manitou landlords have weathered the economic downturn quite well.
A drive through Manitou’s downtown district reveals few, if any, vacant store fronts. And once a space opens, it’s often snatched up within a few weeks.
With its mineral-water fountains, turn-of-the-century architecture and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, Manitou is a popular place to open shop.
So popular, in fact, that when they have to find a tenant, most landlords simply hang a sign in the front window.
And for those few commercial real estate brokers who can land a building owner, filling retail space has become a pretty easy gig.
“There were seven retail vacancies in Manitou during the first quarter of 2009,” said Mike Foos, a commercial broker with Red Rock Realty. “By the end of the year, all but one had been leased.
“This year? We had two vacancies in town during the first quarter, and both were rented by May.”
Rachel Buller, a residential real estate agent who owns a building in the 900 block of Manitou Avenue, said vacancies are simply rare in Manitou.
“I’ve had the same tenants since 1996,” she said.
After the national and local economies sank into recession in 2008, retail vacancies in Colorado Springs skyrocketed, even on the heavily traveled and newly built Powers Boulevard corridor.
According to Turner Commercial Research, Colorado Springs’ lowest retail vacancy rate of the decade was seen in 2006, when only 6.4 percent of space went unfilled. Vacancies began rising in 2007 and by the second quarter of this year reached 11.5 percent.
Manitou, on the other hand, boasts an unofficial occupancy rate of higher than 95 percent today.
Lease rates average $15 a square foot. That can be considerably lower than some high-traffic areas in Colorado Springs, where retail rents are as high as $25 per square foot. But Manitou hasn’t seen the wild swings in rents experienced by some landlords in the Springs.
“Space has not commanded as much in Manitou because of its seasonality,” said Chuck Armstrong of Weichert Realtors Pikes Peak Group. “But there are lot more people from Colorado Springs who are looking at Manitou as a cutesy shopping area as opposed to a tourist destination. The local business is getting better.”
It’s actually difficult to obtain an exact occupancy figure for Manitou retail space because so many landlords make their own deals. But everyone agrees empty storefronts are few and far between.
“I think there might be one in the Manitou Spa building,” Buller said.
That space has been empty for about three weeks. Foos began negotiations with a new tenant about a week after it became available and could announce a deal at any moment.
Manitou, of course, isn’t recession-proof. But it certainly has its advantages, some natural, others man-made.
For starters, it helps to be located at the base of Pikes Peak, situated in a valley surrounded by stunning views of the Rockies, with a snow-melt runoff creek and a handful of tourist attractions.
While most shopping centers count on a movie theater and a big-name department store to draw customers, Manitou hosts festivals. Something is happening in Manitou nearly every weekend, from wine and beer festivals to art and music events.
And somehow, Manitou fits the bill for a wide variety of groups, ranging from the weird to the athletic. Following the winter holidays, the town hosts a fruit-cake toss, and each Halloween, teams compete in coffin races. Manitou has its fitness fanatics, too.
Last week, the town hosted its inaugural “Assault on Pikes Peak,” in which bicyclists started in the downtown area and rode up to the summit of the peak. And then there’s the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, which draws thousands from all over the world.
“We had people from all 50 states and 60 countries represented at the latest race,” said City Councilman Matt Carpenter.
Back in 2004, as the nation was coming out of another, milder recession, city leaders recognized a need to revitalize the downtown area. A project to widen sidewalks and slow down vehicle traffic began that year. Block by block, the area transformed into a pedestrian haven.
“Unlike Academy or Powers Boulevards, this area is nice and compact,” Carpenter said. “People can stroll around, grab some ice cream, and the kids can go to the arcade while mom and pop shop.”
Last year, business people and town leaders considered taking a look at the city’s parking problem. Its two main downtown lots were filled by people with parking permits. Much to the chagrin of the folks who carried those permits, the city turned the lots into public parking.
“We have now actually doubled the number of cars going into those lots, and when you look at the jumps in our sales tax revenue, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that more places to park leads to more people staying and visiting,” Carpenter said. “As far as I’m concerned, parking and traffic is a good problem to have — as opposed to no traffic and empty lots.”
Foos, who grew up in the town, said Manitou has been able to cater to shoppers and tourists while retaining its appeal to locals.
“Living here, the slowdown in traffic has created a hardship for the residents, but at the same time it’s safer for pedestrians and people have slowed down to a pace where they can look into the windows,” Foos said.