During a period when most cities are focused solely on budget problems, Manitou Springs' challenge is figuring out where to store tourists' cars.
Since Manitou refashioned its downtown a few years back, crowds have overwhelmed this small town, clogging streets to the point that, at times, emergency vehicles haven't been able to pass. Last Oct. 30 alone, a record 8,000 people flocked to 5,000-resident Manitou for the Emma Crawford Coffin Races.
In the grand scheme, city planner Michelle Anthony acknowledges, "It's a good problem to have."
But, then again, in a crowded, historic town — squeezed by the steep sides of a 14,000-foot mountain and the crumbling edges of cliffs — parking isn't an easy problem to solve. Of course, that hasn't stopped people from trying.
"Gondola!" Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder says matter-of-factly.
He's not kidding. Snyder imagines a large parking lot at Higginbotham Flats (bordering U.S. Highway 24, near Cave of the Winds). Parkers at the Flats would ride a gondola lift to downtown Manitou, and then, if they please, go up to the top of Ruxton Avenue to the Barr and Incline trailheads.
"I'm trying to think outside the box and think up some ideas that would not only solve our parking problems but maybe become another attraction," Snyder says.
"We are physically, geographically constrained. There isn't any more space to put surface lots in the downtown."
Manitou has been addressing its biggest problems in the past decade or so: First came downtown rejuvenation, then the much-needed repair of water and sewer pipes. It's no secret that parking now occupies the top spot.
Anthony is setting up a public meeting this month to discuss options and funding. Some ideas have been floated before.
The Wichita Parking Lot, next to Stagecoach Inn downtown, was identified in a 2007 plan as an ideal spot for a three-level parking garage. At that time, the cost for creating 284 parking spaces was estimated to be $4.2 million, or $14,935 per parking space — astronomical by Manitou standards.
Another option: Buy 10 Old Man's Trail, the Tajine Alami restaurant site, next to Manitou's Memorial Park. With the structure — which could be rehabbed to house the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and other city offices — the lot has 150 parking spaces. Without the structure, it has 200.
Echo Architecture just submitted a report detailing the work needed. Long story short: Doing quick fixes that would last for a few years would cost $906,920. Fixing the building and lot properly would cost $1.98 million. Ripping down the building and repairing the lot would cost $887,250. Any of this would be on top of the $1.5 million asking price for the property, which Echo says is overpriced by about $500,000.
On the positive side, Tajine Alami's lot is the last big, flat surface lot anywhere near downtown. But the report also notes: "The distance from 10 Old Man's to downtown is realistically too far to expect the majority of tourists to be willing to walk. (The distance from 10 Old Man's to the historic Spa Building is .4 miles. Rule of thumb for walking from parking to destination is a maximum of .25 miles). Tourist parking at this site would most likely require some sort of shuttle, public transit, or other means of moving people downtown."
Snyder recently got an estimate for a downtown shuttle from Mountain Metropolitan Transit: about $100 an hour. In the summer, that's $1,200 a day. To put that in perspective, Manitou's entire general fund budget this year is $4.9 million.
No easy answer
The Manitou Springs Parking Advisory Board, an independent, tax-funded entity that owns the Wichita lot, recently opened the small Smischny Parking Lot on the far west end of Manitou Avenue. Jay Rohrer, vice president of the City Council-appointed board, also sees hope for a small section of flatland near the Intemann Trailhead off Ruxton Avenue. But such a plan would only open a few dozen parking spaces at most.
Like so many small-town problems, the root of this issue is money. That 2007 plan proposed making parking pay for itself by metering on-street parking and upping enforcement. But retailers, Snyder says, see meters as unfriendly. He doesn't argue.
"I am committed to trying anything and everything before installing parking meters on the streets," he says. "That is such a controversial issue."
Without parking funds, Manitou voters would likely need to approve a tax increase for any large project.
Meanwhile, parking choices are likely to diminish more. Manitou is working on residential parking permits that would allow resident-only parking in certain neighborhoods. Passes would go to the Ruxton neighborhood first. Those residents want the permit situation worked out quickly, before the Incline Trail becomes legal and further increases traffic.
But Rohrer points out that a Ruxton permit system likely will displace the problem to other neighborhoods, meaning more permitting.
"Where's the traffic going to go?" he says. "Because it's going to have to go elsewhere."