"I came here in the mid-1980s, about when you came back to your hometown," veteran real estate broker Mike Casey said last week. "If either of us had had any sense, we could have bought up properties in Manitou for $30,000 to $40,000 — and we'd be rich and retired."
Thirty-five years ago, Manitou Springs was a crumbling, disreputable community. Manitou??!! You don't want to live there! Just a bunch of bikers, hippies, drunks and eccentrics, living in falling-down old Victorians without insulation. Sure, it was cool and beautiful, but it would never be anything but a picturesque backwater.
Manitou was the Coney Island of the Pikes Peak region, not much except the Manitou Arcade, some tacky souvenir shops and a few raffish bars. The action was in Colorado Springs with jobs to be had, companies to build.
Mr. Real Estate Investor, don't buy in Manitou! Go for Academy Boulevard, the expanding suburbs of the northeast and northwest, even downtown, the Old North End or Patty Jewett. Not Manitou Springs.
I should have listened to my heart, not my head. Manitou Springs was (and is) a historically intact, self-governed, progressive community. When Colorado Springs became "ground zero" of the religious right in the early 1990s, Manitou was a beacon of tolerance, diversity and respect. Smart, creative people sought refuge there. By the turn of the century, Manitou's renaissance was underway — and then it exploded.
"Rebuilding Manitou Avenue made an enormous difference," Casey says of the downtown improvements in recent years. "Going from four lanes to two lanes, the wide sidewalks, the cobblestones. All the stores and restaurants lifted their game a notch."
What about the floods, the Ute Pass closures? Hasn't that affected real estate, starting with Casey's company, Homes of Manitou Springs?
"Come into my office. I'll show you a map," Casey offers. "Less than 1 percent of the properties in Manitou are in the floodplain. Most residences are in the hills above the valley."
"Manitou is so diverse," adds Manitou resident Amanda Miller Luciano, a journalist-turned-real-estate-broker. "That's attractive to buyers, and the schools are great."
At 1,500 students, School District 14 serves Manitou Springs and the communities up the pass — Cascade, Green Mountain Falls, Chipita Park — as well as Crystal Park and Cedar Heights.
"In fact," writes D-14 Superintendent Ed Longfield on the district's website, "we are the last small public school system in the Colorado Springs metropolitan area."
"The demand is very, very strong now," says Casey. "Manitou is 100 percent built out, so demand will always exceed the supply. If you want a 3-2 [3-bedroom, 2-bath home] in Manitou, it's going to be $280,000 to $300,000. I tell people who maybe want to be in Manitou to look at the west side, where an equivalent place might be $225,000 to $250,000."
Will the strength of the Manitou market trickle down — and spur higher prices and more renovation on the west side? That depends.
"Manitou has views," says Casey. "And most properties on the west side don't. So you'll never get price parity."
"The [west side] commercial market is strengthening," says Miller. "Every retail property along Colorado Avenue with a 'for sale' sign on it is already under contract, as are many without signs."
Last week's issue of the Pikes Peak Bulletin, Manitou's community weekly, carried 3½ color pages of real estate advertisements, many boasting of homes sold or under contract. So how can the west side compete?
Ever since Old Colorado City was annexed to Colorado Springs in the early 20th century, its schools, zoning and level of taxation have been controlled by other entities. Manitou residents determine their own fate, while OCC (where I'm a resident homeowner) is a forlorn colony of Colorado Springs.
Would secession improve things? Maybe, maybe not. But as Casey and Miller tell their clients, there's a difference between owning and renting.
Imagine Old Colorado City's Independence Day! We'd raise our flag above City Hall, and our first mayor might say, as did Trinidad and Tobago's Eric Williams when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time:
"Massa day done!"