Business owners and town tourism officials have believed for some time that Manitou needs shoppers, foodies and art enthusiasts to take in their mountain town beyond the summer tourism season.
Their efforts have been hit-and-miss but no one seemed too riled up, especially whenever the town had a great summer. But this year Manitou businesses got beat up by the economic after-effects of the Waldo Canyon fire, making business owners and tourism officials realize they had to get serious about making a change.
“(The fire) highlighted how vulnerable our city is — that it is so seasonal,” said Tim Haas, iManitou board president and owner of Mountain High Sportswear and Garden of the Gods Trading Post. “That six-week loss is a dramatic part of the year — I’m absolutely a proponent of a year-round destination.”
It will mean rethinking the marketing effort and shifting budget priorities. But iManitou — the combined organization of the town’s former economic development group, its convention and visitors bureau and its chamber — is setting a course to make the changes. Talks are ongoing about hiring a professional marketing firm or making marketing part of existing staff’s duties.
“We want shoppers to be attracted for year-round activities,” said Marcy Morrison, iManitou’s interim COO and former mayor. “That is a major opportunity that years ago we did not look at.”
It’s great to sell the attractions, but Manitou now has 14 art galleries and studios, and it features dozens more local and regional artists in Manitou’s restaurants and coffee houses, said Tracy Miller, owner of Tracy Miller Studio Gallery, who describes her work as art of the West.
“We are poised to be the Santa Fe of Colorado,” Miller said.
Manitou’s artistic work already has landed the historic town in the national news. Last year’s The Chair Project installation, which featured 671 chairs lined up through the center of town, drew reviews and mentions across the country.
“I think cities like Taos, Santa Fe and Jackson, Wyo., are good to look at to help Manitou market its gallery presence,” said Miller, who worked in high-end galleries in Denver for 18 years and opened her own gallery in Manitou a year ago. “They know art tourism is huge and brings a lot of money into the economy.”
The holiday season is a good chance to highlight Manitou Springs’ art offerings, Haas said. The holiday season makes up about 25 percent of the year’s sales.
“The holidays are very important,” Haas said. “We do a local promotional campaign with money from iManitou and money from BID (the Business Improvement District).”
This month, iManitou — which is funded by the city government of Manitou Springs, memberships, programs, and web and banner sales — hit hard times and its board laid off COO Roger Miller citing budget constraints. Morrison, who was appointed to the iManitou board to represent residents’ interests, stepped in as volunteer COO to lead the organization through reorganization.
The lagging economy already was a strain, Morrison said. Then the fire came at the worst time for a town that relies on summer sales. Sales tax collections were down 9.3 percent in June, down 7.2 percent in July and down 6.7 percent in August from the same months last year.
“There is no question there was an effect because of the fire,” said Morrison, also a former county commissioner and state legislator. “June and July were not good months.”
iManitou adjusted its 2012 budget from $482,798 to $424,000. The organization is projecting a $562,200 2013 budget but is waiting to hear back on some grant money, Morrison said.
“At the front of our minds is that we want a solid, well-thought-out budget into the future,” Morrison said.
One of the priorities has to be marketing, Haas says. The organization gets good bang for its buck by advertising in the Colorado Springs Visitors Guide, which is requested by hundreds of thousands of visitors across the country. And the group advertises in Denver-area magazines for summer and holiday seasons.
But Manitou Springs is not the only Colorado town to step up its year-round marketing campaigns. Until the past decade, ski towns virtually shut down during the summer, Haas said. Now they are marketing heavily to attract visitors in their “offseason” — which is exactly when Manitou wants those same tourists, Haas said.
“We have to compete as we always have, that our area is unique and pretty — we still have to do all that,” Haas said.
“The most important thing that our organization can do is not so much to refocus priorities, but to sharpen our priorities, with major emphasis on marketing. We’re trying to shift money to that area,” Hass said.
Manitou Springs, all three square miles of it, has been a tourist destination since the 1870s, when it was an upscale summer spa town. Its website says the town now draws visitors year-round. But January, February and March sales typically range from $2 to $4 million, and from $5 to $7 million in the summer months, which emphasizes the need to build those shoulder months, Haas said.
Why not bank on art, local artists say. Manitou always has been known as an eclectic town that attracts artists. It has moved beyond a main drag filled with souvenir shops selling rubber tomahawks to one filled with art galleries and artists who previously would have located in other well-known Southwest towns, said Julia Wright, owner of FantaFaces and member of Commonwheel Artists Co-op.
“There is a momentum of bringing art galleries of higher quality,” Wright said. “Why go to Taos if I can sell my art here?”
Thirty Colorado artists were invited to participate in the annual Commonwheel Artists Co-op Holiday Market, featuring specially made art for gift-buyers. Wright is hoping that when people shop for smaller pieces of art for holiday gifts, they will be introduced to Manitou’s artists and come back throughout the year.
For example, artist Larry Fox is selling four-inch wooden Christmas tree ornaments at the Holiday Market, some made from wood salvaged from the Waldo Canyon fire, with turquoise edges. It’s similar to his wooden bowl collection.
“It still blows my mind when people say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that Manitou had more than touristy things,” Wright said.
Manitou Springs has the same caliber of artists who show and sell their work in Santa Fe and Taos, she said. But a weekend in Manitou is not as expensive — and that message needs to get out, she said.
“We have all levels of art,” she said. “It’s trying to get us known as cultural art on many levels.”
Tracy Miller says each individual gallery must market itself, but she thinks iManitou would be spending its money wisely marketing the town as an art destination.
“The art galleries, the Art Walk, it just enhances everyone’s experience of coming to Manitou Springs.” CSBJ