As the Waldo Canyon Fire burned in the summer of 2012, people gave money earmarked for the disaster to the American Red Cross, the agency that could be depended upon to provide coffee and cots and comfort to the displaced. It's what the Red Cross does, and by its own account it did it well during Waldo, even marshaling water and masks and work gloves for residents when they returned to scorched homes.
But in early 2014, the Red Cross went a step further, giving $50,000 of money designated to help with 2012 Colorado wildfires to the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. The grant first came to light in late October, when $10,000 of it was used to pay for a Manitou fireworks display, as the Gazette reported. The Chamber then backtracked and said it would pay for the fireworks from other funds.
That Red Cross money collected in the heat of the wildfires instead would be used as it was intended to be used, the Red Cross said — to promote Manitou shopping and tourism.
Sometime in June or July of 2013, Marcy Morrison, the acting chief operating officer of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, was visited by Iain Hyde, then a disaster recovery manager with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The Manitou chamber was looking to buttress tourism after publicity surrounding Waldo. Hyde "said to me, 'Maybe we can find some money for you. I'll see if there are any grants available,'" Morrison recalls.
From there, says Hyde: "I let Red Cross among other organizations know what the needs were, and they were responsive to that."
Morrison wrote a letter dated Dec. 23, 2013, to Jaici Murcia, a disaster officer with the Red Cross Colorado & Wyoming Region office, in Denver. (The Pikes Peak Chapter of the Red Cross was not involved with the grant.) Morrison referred to the Manitou floods in August 2013 as another source of bad publicity.
"We would certainly appreciate any assistance to stabilize our tourism industry," she wrote, adding, "We would like to request $50,000 for increased advertising and promotional offers during the shoulder months of 2014 and 2015," referring to the times when tourism ebbs.
The letter detailed the way the money would be spent: $7,500 allocated to promote "the Mineral Springs experience," with signs, brochures and collapsible cups; $9,384 to place ads in EnCompass, the magazine of AAA Colorado, extolling Manitou; $6,000 to place ads "in two major local papers and online to increase local attendance at special events"; $2,116 to "Update our photo library with new shots of local scenes in Manitou"; and $25,000 to be held in reserve "in the event of a natural disaster during the summer of 2014," or for more advertising in 2015.
Several months went by, Morrison says, "and then we heard that we had received the grant ... I was surprised, but pleasantly surprised."
She had not thought the Red Cross would give money to pay for advertising, she says.
The Manitou Chamber spent $25,000 of the money this summer on ads, while the town collected record sales tax revenue, thanks in part to fine weather, Mayor Marc Snyder told the Gazette. Now it's gearing up to spend the balance to buy ads in the Gazette, underwriting on public radio station KRCC, and spots on local TV that will say "shop Manitou Springs this holiday season" and "talk about Santa being downtown," explains Leslie Lewis, the Chamber's executive director.
That money "came from donations designated to support Red Cross response and recovery efforts in relation to the 2012 wildfires," says Patricia Billinger, the communications director for the Red Cross Colorado & Wyoming Region, in a written response to questions. The Red Cross raised about $3.5 million for those efforts, she adds, of which $1.483 million was used for emergency food, shelter and relief items; $1.064 million for disaster preparedness; $297,000 for immediate physical and mental health needs; and $674,000 for casework and recovery. The money given to the Manitou Chamber came from that last category, Billinger writes.
"Whether or not we fund grants is dependent upon... whether funding remains after providing for initial response and individual assistance," Billinger adds. Asked if it's normal for the Red Cross to underwrite tourism promotion, Billinger, after researching the matter, writes that such funding had never been given by the American Red Cross anywhere before.
The Red Cross has come under scrutiny lately with a report by NPR and ProPublica contending the organization botched key elements of its response to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, and that officials at its Washington, D.C., headquarters "compounded the charity's inability to provide relief by 'diverting assets for public relations purposes,'" as an internal report put it.
Asked what her office could tell people who donated to the Red Cross for disaster relief during Colorado wildfires — who may have expected their money to be used for coffee and blankets, not to pay to advertise tourism — Billinger writes, "I would say: THANK YOU. Your donations DID pay for coffee, and blankets... and supported economic recovery so that those people who lost so much during the fires don't end up losing everything because their jobs and their income have also been wiped out by the disaster."