High-country connector

Idaho Springs touts tourist appeal

Tucked along Interstate 70 about 30 miles west of Denver, Idaho Springs is more than an oasis or fuel stop for motorists from the Front Range en route to Colorado’s mountain resort country. Getting more tourists to slow down and visit the historic gold-rush town has been a priority, and Idaho Springs and Clear Creek County have staked claim to a collaborative and inventive approach to grass-roots tourism development.

It started in 2012 with the restructuring of the Clear Creek County Tourism Bureau and the requirement that all members had to be somehow involved in the tourism industry. In April 2013, the group hired Cassandra Patton, a former art director with a marketing background, as the bureau’s full-time director.

“One unique thing about us is that we give the whole county free promotion,” she says. “We’re here to help … not just those that are willing to pay dues, and I think that has changed a lot of the community vision.”

Under the leadership of newly elected Mayor Michael Hillman, voters approved a sales tax hike of one penny on the dollar to 7.9 percent to fund road maintenance, sidewalk improvements and code enforcement. According to Phyllis Adams, city administrator, Hillman marketed the idea the old-fashioned way by hitting the pavement.

“He’s also a restaurant owner in town, so he has a much more ground-level perspective than the previous mayor did,” says Jason Siegal, president of the Idaho Springs Chamber of Commerce. “I think that’s really helping to change the attitude of some of the stagnate business owners.”

For Siegal, ideas are only as good as the actions behind them. As general manger of the Kine Mine, a retail marijuana dispensary in town that attributes 80 percent to 85 percent of its traffic to tourists, Siegal understands the relationship between economic development and tourism. He has witnessed a good amount of turnover among tourist-centric businesses and thus advocates for well-researched, season-proof growth.

“I think that if we had some more sustainable businesses opening up in downtown that are run a little bit more efficiently, over time, just having consistent business operations in a small town like this is the kind of thing that brings people back,” he says. He points to some of the most well-recognized businesses in town — Beau Jo’s Pizza, Tommyknocker Brewery and The Buffalo restaurant — staples for tourists and locals alike.

One challenge that all of the residents and businesses in town share is a struggle with infrastructure. Like urban centers on the Front Range, “Parking is probably the elephant in the room for Idaho Springs,” Adams says. “If I could say there’s one thing we needed, it would be parking.” The city is weighing a number of temporary solutions while awaiting the results of a study commissioned to address the issue.

Idaho Springs has also been at the heart of several large-scale CDOT projects to improve traffic flow along I-70 in recent years. Motorists returning to the Front Range often cut through town, causing congestion that frustrates locals. That, too, is something officials and businesses are working through, but with the completion of the Exit 240 bridge, many feel the worst is behind them.

With the administration and community onboard, Patton’s determination to link grassroots efforts with traditional marketing has seen a much quicker adoption rate than previous top-down approaches. A piece of that is educating stakeholders about what is available to them through free mediums like social media and word-of-mouth as well as through the county and Colorado Tourism Board.

Last year, the county’s tourism bureau distributed 20,000 guides that included free promotion for businesses throughout the area. They also utilized their CTO membership benefits, advertising along the Front Range with print ads in the Colorado Visitor’s Guide and with Visit Denver. The potential coverage available allows them to reach over 150,000 visitors from the airport to their accommodations.

“By investing a small amount of money into something like that, we have the potential to gain a casual day trip, or an overnight stay, or a pass-through, giving somebody the security that we’re a destination listed on the map,” Patton says. Making visitors aware of the offerings throughout the county in Georgetown, Silver Plume, Empire, Downieville, Dumont and Lawson as well as Idaho Springs has led to a more united front.

Mayor Hillman’s campaign slogan, “It’s a new day in Idaho Springs,” has become a new ethos for optimism and action in the town. And for passionate residents like Adams, “It is about economic growth and it is about tourism, but everything that we do, and everything that I’m aware of that’s being considered, isn’t just for the tourists. It’s going to make things better in town for everybody that lives here, too. If for no other reason than increased tourism equals increased sales tax, the financial engine that drives this city.”

“I think that the attitude in general in this town is for not necessarily massive growth, but just for prosperity,” says Siegal. “I think we can prosper without becoming a Vail or a Breckenridge.”

Categories: Economy/Politics, Magazine Articles