Positive signs abound in Woodland Park

Small businesses like these lining U.S. Hiighway 24 have weathered years of economic uncertainty, but the economy in Teller County’s largest city is on the rise, and those local businesses may soon be competing with national retailers that once again are considering development in Woodland Park.

Small businesses like these lining U.S. Highway 24 have weathered years of economic uncertainty, but the economy in Teller County’s largest city is on the rise, and those local businesses may soon be competing with national retailers that once again are considering development in Woodland Park.

WOODLAND PARK — The City Above the Clouds is open for business.

According to Brian Fleer, executive director of its Office of Economic and Downtown Development, the Teller County city of about 7,000 has weathered a “catastrophic” national economic downturn, and the rebound is palpable.

“The good news is, we’ve come out of the recession. We’ve had some lingering effects, but slowly and surely it’s getting better,” Fleer said. “We’re very much in a brick-and-mortar period. We’re promoting an aggressive construction cycle right now, and a lot of that is to support our sales tax.”

Fleer said development took a big hit in the city for the latter half of the last decade. Some smaller businesses left, never to return, while national chains with an eye on Woodland Park scouted elsewhere or suspended expansion plans until the economy improved.

“We’ll see a number of [national chains] come in here,” Fleer predicted of the next few years. “They do a very good job of assessing the market. You rarely see nationals go down.”

Fleer said Lowe’s was one national chain courting the city in 2007, but nothing materialized because of the local economy. He added, however, that space still exists to support a retail park of big-box national chains near the established Wal-Mart Supercenter on the south end of town.

Fleer said developable space includes 20 acres currently housing the Saddle Club, which is for sale.

“Some commercial properties went back to primary lenders through foreclosure or receivership,” he said. “Most have sold back to investors. There are a handful of commercial properties left that are owned by banks or lenders. That’s a good sign of economic recovery.”

‘Grounded optimism’

Park State Bank and Trust Vice President Brad Spivey said the recession weeded out the weaker links, which, in turn, has allowed more stable investors to step in.

“The economy has improved dramatically from three or four years ago,” Spivey said. “The excesses have been purged and we have a healthier, grounded optimism that we’ll be able to sustain growth.”

 “From 2012 to 2013 we saw an 8 percent increase. We’re projecting, maybe not as aggressive, but an increase year over year for next three to five years.” 

– Brian Fleer

Spivey said Woodland Park’s recession reflected the nation as a whole, but that the rebound may come about more slowly in Teller County compared to Colorado Springs and Denver.

“Home prices have recovered,” Spivey said of the residential real estate in the city. “Commercial real estate has not recovered yet, but it has stabilized. Commercial real estate in Woodland Park is much slower to turn over. It takes longer for resale when a property is bought on foreclosure or short sale. 

“Foreclosures spiked with the national average,” he added. “But Teller County during the last quarter of 2013 was pretty much back to pre-crisis levels. It’s the same with unemployment. Unemployment was in the double digits here in 2009. At the end of the fourth quarter [in 2013], it was about 8 percent. But this recovery has taken five years.” 

Spivey said it would likely take several more years for commercial real estate to reach pre-recession levels, but new and upcoming commercial development is playing a role in the recovery. He added, however, that because those developments require new construction, those businesses won’t contribute to the resale or rental market or directly result in an increase in square-footage market pricing for existing structures.

Spivey said the recovery will continue to be “slow and modest” barring any additional shocks to the economy, and that Park State Bank has seen an increase in small-business loans beginning last summer.

“There was a noticeable pickup in 2013, especially late last year and this year,” he said. “There’s more confidence in investments in real estate and businesses and that’s reflected in our loans.”

Overall, Spivey said, the city is business-friendly. Now it’s a matter of finding the right investors for the community.

“Woodland Park is very small business-friendly,” he said. “If you have a bonafide model or business plan and have management that seems capable, [the city] is very encouraging and helpful to new businesses coming to the area.”

A balancing act

Fleer said Woodland Park suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, balancing the rural quaintness of a bedroom community, with 70 percent of residents working outside the city, against the side-effects of development and tourism.

“Some struggle with the term ‘destination community,’ ” Fleer said. “We’re not a traditional tourism community. There are some who think we should be or could be, and others who are happy that we’re not. People are functionally happy living here and raising children here and without being a tourist economy. [But] in some aspects we are. We attract people here for various reasons, and we have a dozen or so special events that attract 2,000 or more people.”

Those include the Symphony Above the Clouds Fourth of July celebration, as well as the city’s Oktoberfest, Cruise Above the Clouds car show and the Vino and Notes wine festival. The area should also see an influx of visitors during the USA Pro Challenge cycling race in August as Woodland Park will host the beginning of the globally televised race’s fifth stage, which ends at Breckenridge.

Fleer said the city is focused on promoting more events that draw out-of-towners. 

“I’ve been pushing for an Off-Highway Vehicle and ATV expo which highlights the local industry,” he explained, adding there are around five vendors of ATVs and OHVs in Woodland Park. “We’re literally across the ridge from Trail 717, which is several hundred miles of U.S. Forest Service motorized trail. It’s probably the highest-used trail in the state.

“[Trail riding] is a multi-million dollar industry in our backyard. There’s some controversy. Some people aren’t in love with it, and the U.S. Forest Service may not be in love with it, but it’s here and we embrace it. It’s like living on the beach and being a surfer.”

Fleer added that a large portion of the Woodland Park economy is fueled by those passing through the city on the way to Summit County ski resorts in the winter and any of the state’s hundreds of campsites and outdoor recreation areas in the summer.

“With the economy getting better, we expect more tourism-related activity in the mountains,” Fleer said. “Highway 24 is one of three major east-west corridors in the state. … We want to set ourselves up as a staging ground for that. We want people to get out of the Springs and come to Woodland Park to stay here or get supplies here and then move west.”

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Fleer said there are an average of 27,000-30,000 vehicle trips up and down Ute Pass per day with a significant increase in traffic during the summer months, when as many as 50,000 vehicles travel through or end up in Woodland Park via U.S. 24. Those outside dollars and the resulting sales tax revenue are major drivers of the city’s economy, he said, adding retail figures are “in good shape,” generating $142 million annually in retail sales including $50 million from groceries. 

“After seeing our sales tax bottom out in 2009, we saw a strong recovery in 2010, and another improvement overall in 2011,” Woodland Park’s 2014 budget reads. “Despite the Waldo Canyon Fire, 2012 finished stronger than 2011 and was our best year ever. At the end of August 2013 we are 8.06 percent ahead of 2012 and appear to be heading towards a record-breaking year.”

Fleer said a food sales tax is one reason the city’s tax numbers are as high as they are. 

According to a 2014 forecast provided by the Office of Economic and Downtown Development, sales tax revenues have climbed from just over $3 million in 2004 to nearly $5 million in 2013. Revenues continued to grow year after year despite a summer of wildfires in 2012 preventing access to the city as well as flooding sporadically closing Highway 24 last year.

“On the revenue side, we have a very robust economy because of sales tax,” Fleer said. “From 2012 to 2013 we saw an 8 percent increase. We’re projecting, maybe not as aggressive, but an increase year over year for the next three to five years.”

A portion of that projected sales tax increase will be due to gradual growth as the city approaches a build-out population of approximately 12,000. That growth will be expedited due to the 2014 opening of Charis Bible College on the southwest side of the city. 

Approximately 650 students have enrolled for this academic year, Fleer said, and over two phases, the college is expected to invest $54 million in the campus. 

“Next January, they expect an enrollment of 850 students,” Fleer said. “Their target in 10 years is 3,000 students. If they only had 1,500 students, that would be a huge impact.” 

Fleer said residential development in Woodland Park is falling behind the demand, and Charis, with its unconventional student demographic of middle-aged students, may further strain the affordable housing market. 

“Right now we have zero vacancy in rental housing,” Fleer said. “Everything that is rentable is rented.”

The Trail Ridge apartment development west of Safeway, currently under construction, may alleviate some of that need, Fleer said. He added the 168 units should be available sometime in September.

‘Not a poor community’

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for Woodland Park in 2012 was nearly $62,000, which is $3,000 more than the state average. Fleer said that spending power creates fertile ground for investments.

“We are not a poor community,” he said. “The area median income … is one of the highest in the region. You see a lot of new vehicles [in Woodland Park]. There are lots of retirees. It’s an aging demographic with retired military and Department of Defense [personnel]. They buy goods and services.”

According to the forecast, the city is maximizing its potential by applying for a Colorado Main Street designation, a Department of Local Affairs program that will “support economic development marketing, [historic preservation], and organization to key community stakeholders.”

The city is also pursuing a Creative District certification through Colorado Creative Industries, a program related to a bill signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2011. The law’s purpose is to “attract artists and creative entrepreneurs to the community” and “revitalize and beautify communities,” according to the Colorado Creative Industries website.

Fleer said there should be continued focus on maintaining Woodland Park’s locally owned small businesses.

“We’re trying to grow that industry,” he said. “That’s economics 101: Grow what you have in your backyard.” 

Fleer said, by charter, the city is not allowed to offer incentives, but a loophole to encourage development lies in the Downtown Development Authority’s ability to offer tax increment financing (TIF).

“If we do a … project, the property tax derived on that project goes back to the DDA and the DDA, under a TIF agreement, can allocate some of that property tax back to the development entity,” Fleer said, adding, “[The TIF] is an important tool and made [the Trail Ridge apartments] happen.” nCSBJ

Woodland Park’s progress

Recent commercial developments

Family Dollar

O’Reilly Auto Parts

Woodland Park Country Lodge

Catamount Powersports

Woodland Hardware and Rental

Tractor Supply Company (Expected opening: August 2014)

Residential projects under development:

Trail Ridge at Woodland Park Apartments

Eagle Pines Wildernest Subdivision [Lake Addition]

Las Casas Townhomes

Sundance at Shining Mountain Townhomes