From a distance, it's difficult to distinguish a festival from a disaster.
Consider the scene this past Valentine's Day in Manitou Springs. Lines of unmoving vehicles on U.S. Highway 24 and Colorado Avenue leading into town. Cars abandoned on the town's sidewalks or parked illegally in private lots. Residents staring out their windows at passing hordes of people shouting unintelligibly and waving shiny objects.
For a few hours, these alcohol-and-gumbo-plied tourists, happily celebrating Manitou's Mardi Gras-inspired Carnivale Parade, likely doubled or even tripled the 5,000-plus population of Manitou Springs.
Carnivale and October's Emma Crawford Coffin Races, are Manitou's biggest festivals, Mayor Marc Snyder says. They're events that help brand and showcase the town. Some residents love them, while others, says Snyder, are "willing to grin and bear it. But they don't have unlimited patience."
In other words, a couple of big festivals is one thing — a bunch of them is quite another. Interestingly, it isn't just residents who tire of nonstop partying. Several years ago, Tim Haas, co-owner of four Manitou retail stores, including the Garden of the Gods Trading Post, rented out Soda Springs Park for as many Fridays and Saturdays in summer as he could.
He had done the math and found that by paying to rent the park — and blocking any festivals that might otherwise take place there — he'd turn a bigger profit. That's because while restaurant and bar owners are often helped by festivals, parades and other special events, retailers tend to be hurt by them. Special events block off regular road access to storefronts and drive away typical shoppers.
The issue isn't unique to Manitou. In fact, Colorado Springs has long faced the same challenge.
"Overwhelmingly," says Laurel Prud'homme, spokesperson for the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership, "what happens is when there is an event that closes the street, the majority of the time it is a negative for the businesses."
As a representative of the downtown business community, the Partnership takes feedback from business owners and shares it with the city during event-permitting processes. Prud'homme says businesses are helped if the city waits to block off a street until right before an event; if the event is held outside of peak shopping hours; and if the event only blocks off a small stretch of road. It's also better for business when the events are held in areas with large numbers of restaurants, instead of retail shops.
Generally, Prud'homme has pushed the city to limit events held downtown. The old standbys like the Festival of Lights and the Veterans Day Parade are fine, but, she says, "There [is] a period of weeks there where there seems to be a street closure every single week."
According to city special events staff, most festivals and special events are held in America the Beautiful Park, Memorial Park, Acacia Park/downtown and Bancroft Park/Old Colorado City. That's despite efforts to incentivize other areas and parks through a tiered pricing structure.
The city has tried to be choosy about events — it looks for unique offerings, tries to keep the same road from closing too often, and doesn't offer financial support (in the form of road and police support) to all applicants. But that doesn't appear to be discouraging event planners. In 2012, there were 56 citywide events and 13 festivals in the Springs. In 2014, there were 73 citywide events and 24 festivals.
For Luke Travins, that growth has been a positive. The co-owner of Flatiron's American Bar and Grill, Ritz Grill, MacKenzie's Chop House, SouthSide Johnny's and Jose Muldoon's — many of which are located in downtown Colorado Springs — says his restaurants boom during events. But, much like Prud'homme, Travins says he thinks there is a balance to be struck.
"I'm definitely sensitive to the fact that these events appear to help restaurants and bars more than they do retail," he says.
Leslie Lewis, director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, Visitors Bureau, and Office of Economic Development, says her organization has been picky in recent years about which festivals it sponsors. But, she says, Manitou businesses have historically been very friendly to festivals and events.
And retailers, she says, often believe that getting new people into Manitou is beneficial even if they don't buy anything right away. If people like the town, the theory is that they'll come back and shop at a later date.
"It gives [businesses] some exposure," Lewis explains.
Even Haas — who figures he loses about 30 percent of his business during large events — likes to think that's true. He says he actually appreciates many of Manitou's traditional celebrations. He'd never want to end the Coffin Races or Carnivale, or even the 9Health Fair. He just doesn't think the town needs to party all the time.
"Like anything," he says, "too much of a good thing causes challenges."