For the past few years, Manitou Springs has been in the midst of some extreme spring cleaning. And it ain't over yet.
With tens of millions more in projects anticipated, the signs of change are already obvious. A simple drive down Manitou Avenue reveals that Schryver Park's main attraction — a stagnant pool of sludge under big shade trees — will be made into a moving stream. South of the park, the Manitou Pool just cut chlorine with the addition of an environmentally friendly Ozonator. And just east of that, the Creekwalk trail has been extended and repaved.
Go west and you'll spot new condos, Memorial Park's artsy "Manizoo" sandbox and Soda Springs Park's complete overhaul. The Cliff House is expanding, and the grand, old Spa Building has been reborn.
Even the main road itself is different. Much of Manitou Avenue has new sidewalks and crosswalks, and power lines have been buried. At the ever-busy intersection of Ruxton and Manitou avenues, a nearly finished roundabout keeps the traffic moving.
You'd think Manitou had money.
What the ... ?
When Eric Drummond was elected mayor in 2007, Manitou Springs was, uh, having trouble prioritizing.
The 2008 city budget was about $200,000 short of meeting department requests — the total 2009 general fund budget is just $4.5 million. Cuts were unavoidable, but Drummond protected what he saw as precious: funding for basic services, money for matching grants, and a little nest egg.
It helped that the recession didn't really hit Manitou until late 2008. The delay bought the city enough time to make some adjustments and start building a reserve that Drummond envisions growing to more than $300,000. Of course ...
"We've had to balance that desire with reality," Drummond says.
The reality is this: Manitou Springs now has about $70,000 in reserves (funds that could be tapped in an emergency) with three top-level staff positions sitting empty, and a budget strapped to sales tax produced in the summer tourism season. So far, January and February tax collections are slightly above projections, but summer vacationers will tell Manitou whether its elected leaders should make some hires — a city administrator, head of public works and code enforcement officer — or slash expenditures. In the meantime, interims are running the show, and staff is spreading out the extra work.
All of which begs the question: Who the hell is paying for all this construction?
As it turns out, just about anybody and everybody other than the city's general fund. That strategy has allowed Manitou to build new infrastructure and get greener even during the recession.
Perhaps there's another question to ask as well: Why? Why spend what little money and staff time you have investing in capital projects, when all the surrounding communities are spending their shrinking budgets on services?
The answer may be that over the long term, it's just smart.
"We have laid the foundation to where our little town will do as well as it can possibly do," Drummond says. "And we can build on it as soon as the business cycle starts to go up."
The king of cheap
Manitou taxpayers are paying a special, voter-approved sales tax to cover downtown improvements, expected to be finished next year. But they haven't paid much, if anything, for other big projects.
Outside grants covered most work at Soda Springs Park, with nonprofits like Concrete Couch helping out. Other special funds and private money have helped Fountain Creek, which not only looks prettier, but now is a fish habitat.
That pool Ozonator, a $4,500 device, was paid for by community fundraising.
"We have to be very strategic when we make our decisions about what the next priorities are," Manitou City Councilor Aimee Cox says. "We've done a lot with very little money."
City improvements also have drawn in investors. Drummond estimates that over the past four years, more than $30 million has gone into improving the central business district, including Chuck Murphy's renewal of the Spa Building.
Murphy says he watched the town improving and felt the time was right.
"They've had a very progressive, forward-looking mayor, especially as of late, and he's done some great things, and the Council has as well," Murphy says. "They really want the city to be a showcase, and it is."
The city plans a lot more. Federal stimulus grants and loans could help fix its water system. Grant money and mill-levy funding could continue improvements downstream on Fountain Creek. Grants and partnerships will go toward trail extensions. State and regional funds may help pay for future Manitou Avenue work. A state program will likely pay up-front costs to "green" city buildings.
City Councilor Marc Snyder says Manitou gets grant money because it plans ahead.
"We'll get the funding because often we're the only ones ready to put a shovel in the ground," he says.
All the changes mean tourists are starting to come in other parts of the year — not just summer — and some residents are getting more involved in their town.
Natalie Johnson, owner of Black Cat Books, says she's thrilled with improvements Manitou is making, and thinks it's improving her business. Others, like Dutch Kitchen owner Mike Flynn, are more cautiously optimistic.
"What they should have done first," Flynn says, "is figure out the parking problem."