Manitou Springs Juggles Tourism With Quality Of Life For The People Who Live There

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Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
The Pikes Peak Cog Railway takes passengers from Manitou Springs up to the summit of the mountain.

Hundreds of thousands of people visit Manitou Springs each year. Many of them come to ride the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the summit of Pikes Peak or climb the Manitou Incline’s 2,700 steps. The city also serves as a starting point for the signature Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent. 

But Manitou Springs has just 5,400 residents, and that many people coming to town can have an effect on the people who actually live there.

Free shuttle buses run along downtown's main corridor and also pick people up from a parking lot just outside of downtown Manitou Springs. The shuttles link the main drag to the Cog Railway Depot and incline, both at the end of the same residential street

One August weekday, Kansan Donna De La Cruz waited there along with a couple of dozen other people.

“I drove all the way up to the railway, because I didn't see anything about additional parking elsewhere. And I got all the way up there and they told me I had to come back,” she said because it was too busy to park up there. “They have construction right now. It's horrible, but I hope it's going to be worth it.”

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Kansan Donna De La Cruz (at left) waits for the free shuttle bus to the cog railway.

When the bus arrived, it filled quickly and De La Cruz and others were turned away. They’d have to wait another 20 minutes for the next shuttle to arrive.

A few blocks away on Manitou Avenue, the main street running through downtown, people were browsing for jewelry, clothing and art, dining on cuisines from burritos to beignets and sampling mineral waters from eight natural springs. Lines of cars rolled past several construction zones

Real estate broker Ila Quinn’s neat little home is in the same canyon as the cog and the incline. She remembers the small-town feeling back in 1995 when she moved here. That was the draw for many of Manitou’s residents. 

But now it’s, “almost to the point of unbearable … Traffic is horrendous. It's really bad,” she said. “I time when I go to the grocery store. I'm thankful I don't have a job that I have to be in a certain place at a certain time or come home at a certain time. I think I would be a much angrier person if I had to do that.”

Many other residents said the same thing, like Christina Ahlen. 

“I do not invite people to come to my house on the weekend because they may be sitting in traffic for 45 minutes,” said Ahlen.

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Construction on Manitou Avenue in Manitou Springs.

And it’s not just the traffic. Quinn worries about the environmental impact of all those vehicles, so much so that she and some of her neighbors have set up air quality monitors at their homes. 

But residents like Quinn and Ahlen also realize it's the price they pay for living in Manitou Springs. 

Long-time resident Robyn Barker said they’ve sometimes considered moving away.

“It would be very very difficult to find anything that's as incredible as what we have here,” she said. “But I will not say that it hasn't crossed our mind, do we want to live in this kind of congestion?”

Not everyone thinks all those tourists are trouble. Matthew Gray owns The Loop, one of the oldest restaurants in town.

“I think it's wonderful. I think it's good for the downtown businesses,” he said. “The people who live here, they have to expect growth.”

But business owners like Gray see the challenges too. 

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Traffic comes down Ruxton Avenue in Manitou Springs. The Pikes Peak Cog Railway depot and the Manitou Incline are located on Ruxton Ave.

“It's a little rough over here for parking in the summer,” he said. ”Some people can't find parking and they don't stay.”

The cog railway is owned by the Broadmoor and the incline is managed by the Colorado Springs Parks department, so the city of Manitou Springs doesn’t fully control either of these major tourist attractions.

Quinn said the pandemic gave residents a break and also provided a sharp contrast. 

“We had become almost to the point where it's like abuse, where you just sort of go into a coma and you don't think anymore, it was so bad. And then all of a sudden it was gone. COVID happened. The incline closed, the cog was shut down and it was like, whoa, this is wonderful. This is what living in this small town is supposed to be like.”

The city is trying to address the issue. They started with parking lots and the shuttle buses. But even then, it can be confusing with questionable or inadequate signage. They’ve also restricted street parking in the neighborhoods adjacent to the cog and the incline to residents only. 

Manitou Springs Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Fortuin said concentrating on parking isn’t the only answer, and they need to think more broadly.

“We ultimately could kill the golden goose,” she said. “Because if you just build parking garages and put in surface parking everywhere, you give up what makes the community so special, and that will just tip it and it will no longer be a fun place to visit or a cool place to live.”

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
The shops and eateries along Manitou Avenue in Manitou Springs attract tourists.

Other residents said the new incline hiking reservation system put in place last year has made a difference, allowing just over 1,100 people a day to scale the steep railroad tie steps. That’s a big reduction from earlier years. 

But combine those visitors with a few thousand cog passengers a day and traffic on Manitou’s streets often slows to a crawl. That could create safety issues. 

Fortuin said it’s a struggle to balance the quality of life with the town’s dependency on tax revenue from visitors.

“People love to come here. We love to live here ... and if that balance gets out of whack, we will suffer for that,” she said. “So we are constantly looking at making sure that our residents have a good quality of life and making sure that our businesses can still be successful. And it is quite the challenge to do that.”

It’s been a busy summer since the cog reopened after three years of renovations. Some locals say the Broadmoor, which owns the cog, hasn't lived up to its promises to help solve the traffic and parking issues. KRCC reached out to the luxury hotel multiple times for comment, but have not heard back.

In the meantime, Fortuin said they’re improving two-way communication with residents.