MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. — Manitou Springs is known for its natural mineral waters, beautiful scenery, unique attractions — and its art scene.
“Manitou has always been an artistic place,” Natalie Johnson, Executive Director of the Manitou Art Center, told Rocky Mountain PBS.
Johnson said the city’s reputation as an arts haven was originally a throughway to economic recovery. In the 1970s, the city faced deteriorating structures — and a chance for reinvention.
“We didn’t know who we were, or what to be,” Johnson said. “We looked around and said, ‘What are our assets?’ And our asset is our artistic community. And so the city actually built its economy around our artists in the 1970s in an intentional way.”
Over the last 15 to 20 years, Johnson said, the financial energy to maintain the community’s cultural features declined.
“We thought it would just magically continue,” Johnson said. “And we were watching other communities intentionally invest. We looked around and said, ‘If this is who we are — if we’re a quirky artistic community — we have to put dollars behind that.’ And I think we are now, and that is so important.”
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In 2019, Johnson and four others saw an opportunity to obtain much-needed funding for the arts when a previous city-wide sales tax came to an end.
“We had a .03% sales tax that the city had used to pay off some sort of improvement plan, and they had completed that process,” Johnson explained.
The group presented a public tax structure — the Manitou Springs Arts, Culture and Heritage Initiative, or MACH — that would help sustain the community’s long standing cultural institutions, as well as other nonprofits and artistic programs.
“We were able to re-institute that exact same sales tax through the MACH campaign,” Johnson said. The measure is expected to generate anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 a year for local arts and cultural opportunities.”
But it didn’t come easy.
"To win something, I have never felt like I have lost over and over again so many times,” Johnson said.
The night of the election, the vote tally was a loss — by five votes.
“It was devastating,” Johnson recalled.
In a small community like Manitou Springs — with a population of 5,283 — small margins are not uncommon. In 2015, the Mayoral race was decided by just 10 votes.
“That’s the reality of living in a small community,” said Johnson. “We’re dealing with hundreds of votes, not tens of thousands.”
The close vote spurred a recount. Days later, the numbers flipped: the measure had actually passed by five votes.
Victory, right? Not quite.
To create an ordinance, the Manitou Springs City Council had to vote to approve the passed ballot measure. Usually, Johnson said, this step is a formality.
“But it was really difficult for our City Council to accept that citizens were telling them how to spend these sales tax dollars,” Johnson said. “And so, in that moment, when they did need to then pass that sales tax — they chose not to.”
Johnson said the upheaval of the democratic process was “shocking.”
“And I think the community was shocked,” she added. “Even folks that voted against the ballot measure were horrified that something that was passed by the voters was not then instituted by the City Council.”
For two and a half months, Johnson and other MACH supporters waited for another try. When a new Mayor and three new City Council members took office in January 2020, the ballot measure was approved. Johnson said the vote was expected.
“I think [the previous Council] understood that going against the vote of the people was not a long term solution,” Johnson said.
The delay caused a loss of six months of funding. Tax collection began July 1, 2020.
Under MACH, 66% of funds are earmarked as improvements and support for larger cultural institutions: the Manitou Art Center, Carnegie Building, Manitou Springs Heritage Center, Miramont Castle, and Hiawatha Gardens. 34% is set aside for a competitive grant process that awards direct funding to individual artists, programs, and smaller nonprofits.
Neale Minch, MACH Board Chair, helps a committee of local residents chosen by City Council decide where that 34% goes.
“We started meeting in July 2020,” Minch explained. “Our mission was basically to come up with the processes for people to apply, and for us to assess, rate, and evaluate the applications and ultimately make a recommendation to City Council around which ones get funded.”
In its initial round of funding, MACH Board members recommended 16 of 30 grant applications totaling $55,000. Most grants were in the $2,000-5,000 range, Minch said.
“We were looking for a diversity of applicants — people involved in visual arts, music, and historical presentations,” said Michael Howell, MACH Board Member. “It was open to every category.”
Grant proposals do not have to be from Manitou Springs residents; applications can partner with a local non-profit as a fiscal sponsor to bring programming to the area, Howell explained. Minch said the committee learned vastly from the volume of applications received, and is already working on ways to better the process — for example, by simplifying application and reporting processes.
The breadth of applications stunned the committee, Minch said. Yet the surfacing talent wasn’t surprising.
“I think it’s partly why people come here, because there is the creative energy going on,” Minch said. “Art and culture is second to, but also part of, Manitou Springs’ base economy of tourism.”
“So many people are involved in arts and cultural aspects here in town,” said Howell. “It’s a vital part of who we are as a community.”
Johnson agrees and adds that just as arts and culture were instrumental to the City’s economic recovery in the 1970s, they will again play a major role over the next few years.
"As soon as the performances start happening, as soon as people see where their tax dollars are going, I think the energy is going to be there, and it’s going to be fantastic,” Johnson said. “It’s already something I can see and feel. But just knowing that we have fourteen and a half years to build upon all this creativity and funding — it’s going to be unbelievable.”
Johnson hopes Manitou Springs can be an example for all cities — big and small.
"I believe that every community needs some sort of a MACH,” Johnson said. “I really want to share this story as something that other communities can emulate in their own way.”
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