When Kristin Lee decided to open up her shop specializing in environmentally friendly, fair trade and local goods, there was only one place she wanted to do it — Manitou Springs.
Sure, the little town at the foot of Pike’s Peak is artsy and earthy — some might even say crunchy. It’s just the sort of place where a shop like Lee’s GreenSoul would fit in.
But don’t discount Manitou on account of its free-spirited reputation. It’s a thriving retail center with heavy traffic and a lot of appeal. City officials announced last week that retail space there is now 100 percent occupied.
That’s a stark contrast to the 11.4 percent average vacancy rate in the rest of Colorado Springs, which ranges from 3.1 percent on the west side of town to more than 21 percent on the east side, according to Sierra Commercial Real Estate.
GreenSoul is among several new businesses in downtown Manitou Springs. Others include Wish, Naturally’s Market and Café and the Quacker Gift Shop.
And many small business owners also want to be in Manitou, said Susan Wolbrueck, a volunteer with the newly-formed iManitou, the now-consolidated Chamber of Commerce, Visitors Bureau and Office of Economic Development.
Wolbrueck said retail rentals that become available are snapped up quickly. Even downtown real estate goes within the blink of an eye, she said.
She said one downtown building sold the first day it was on the market and for the full asking price just a couple weeks ago.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Wolbrueck said, “especially when you stop and think about the revitalization that happened here.”
Manitou has been in good shape for a long time when it comes to retail occupancy. The Business Journal reported last fall that the town’s unofficial occupancy rate was at 95 percent with buildings being rented before they were even vacant.
But it could have just as easily gone the other way, said former Manitou Mayor Marcy Morrison.
Not long after she was elected in 2001, a travel magazine reported that the little town was “charming, but a bit shabby,” Morrison said.
“If things continued to progress that way, they wouldn’t be calling us shabby long,” Morrison said. “They would be saying to bypass Manitou.”
And even though the town enjoyed surges of summer tourists and had its share of local visitors, Morrison said there were a few things that revealed the struggles that could have been ahead.
The sidewalks were cracked and narrow and uneven. Most of the shops carried souvenirs and T-shirts and there wasn’t a lot along the main drag for year-round Manitou residents, she said.
When Dave Symonds, acting president of iManitou, came to the area in 2003 from Wisconsin to buy the Craftwood Inn he didn’t think much of the town.
“My whole take on it was just that’s where my restaurant is,” Symonds said. “The town wasn’t much of a draw for me. The downtown area looked a little hippy-ish and I thought it was good I wasn’t relying on tourism to Manitou.”
“We realized we could not just sit back and do nothing,” Morrison said. “We knew we were on the cusp of doing something really great … or we would not succeed at all.”
The city passed a measure to increase sales tax in order to pay for road and sidewalk improvements, bury power lines and slow traffic through the main corridor so visitors would see there were reasons to stop. Meanwhile, Morrison went to work trying to get state and federal dollars to supplement the costs.
“The money was never easy to come up with,” she said.
The projects were phased out over five years and all had to be completed during the winter months to clear the way for tourists in the summer. But shortages of sales tax revenue in the down economy stretched the timeline, Morrison said.
“It’s really been a long slog,” said Manitou Springs Mayor Mark Snyder. “You hate tearing up your streets and your sidewalks. It really can be trying.”
He said he applauds the business owners and the people in the town who tolerated and worked through the dusty times.
Now, most of the projects are finished. There is only one section of roadway on the west end of town between Ruxton and Tubby’s Turnaround convenience store that awaits improvement.
“We are excited about this,” Morrison said. “It was risky. The downtown business owners had to tax themselves, the people in Manitou had to tax themselves. We’ve all taken a chance and so far it is working.”
With improvements to the town, new businesses have come to settle. There are now more restaurant options and a bigger variety of shops.
“We have a book store and a kitchen store, a wine emporium and a wine bar, clothing boutiques,” Wolbrueck said. “We’ve diversified our offerings. I mean, you can still find a rubber tomahawk if that’s what you want or a sun catcher, but it’s not just T-shirt shops anymore.”
Dining options have also expanded. The Heart of Jerusalem, Coquette Creperie, Naturally’s Market and Café along with the revitalized Cliff House are just a few among the new and expanded restaurants in town, Wolbrueck said.
The consolidation of the chamber, office of economic development and visitors bureau is one of the latest changes to come to Manitou.
The organization is now conducting a national search for an executive director.
iManitou’s mission will be not only continuing to market the town’s newfound strengths, but also to provide parking solutions for the masses that will be flocking to it.
Parking in downtown Manitou Springs is extremely difficult to find, especially in the summer and always hard on the weekends, Symonds said.
“Parking is the single greatest barrier to economic development here,” he said.