Cañon City Main Street in the 1940s. (Photo Royal Gorge Regional Museum.)

Cañon City’s return to downtown glory

Years of hard work and a chance of at a TV show is bringing a revitalized energy to this territorial town.

There’s a lot to be said about Cañon City’s Main Street — its past, present, and future.

The town with a population of about 17,000 — now mostly known for its outdoor recreation and connection to the state and federal prison system — was most recently at the No. 3 spot for winning an appearance on “Small Business Revolution,” a series on the streaming platform Hulu. The top spot comes with $500,000 for business development. The show features “celebrity experts” to help struggling small businesses — an occurrence these Southern Colorado residents know all too well.

Like most places, Main Street in Cañon City was once the main artery through town. That was until the mid-70s when Highway 50 landed parallel to the downtown corridor. The changed route through town slowly took small businesses with it.

Gloria Stultz, a small business owner and former president of the merchants’ association in Cañon City, previously told PULP the 2008 recession really changed things for the downtown area. “For Lease” and “For Sale” signs lined the street. Businesses were constantly moving in and out of the retail spaces.

Then a fire hit just south of the Royal Gorge Bridge in July 2013. That hindered any progress that was made after the recession, said current Downtown Business Alliance president Debbie Lake. She’s owned a furniture store on Main Street for 12 years; unlike many she was able to stick it out through a sluggish economy and flames that sent tourists packing.

The city has worked to make access to downtown better, adding parking and flower beds along the street. Now, the city is looking at how to get RVs closer to Main Street so that those driving through town to and from a weekend of camping can peruse downtown, too.

It’s been bumpy, but Lake said she’s excited to see where Cañon City goes from here.

“I think this has done some amazing things for our community,” she said emphasizing that the community has really seemed to come together to support one another. “I’ve not seen this kind of unity before.”

In 2016, voters failed to create a proposed Downtown Development Authority, but the city did end up hiring a full-time city position that strictly deals with downtown economic development. Lake said where empty storefronts once stood are new businesses, and the buildings that are empty have plans to soon be filled.

“Now we’re seeing businesses come in and stay and that’s the exciting thing, seeing how we can help each other succeed,” she said.

Cañon City hasn’t leveraged any state funds to get back the vibrancy of their Main Street, but the Colorado Department of Local Affairs has centered an entire program around that premise, helping others cities like Woodland Park, Lamar and Victor.

In 2017, the program invested $109 million for physical improvements for downtown areas across the state, according to DOLA spokeswoman Natrice Bryant. More than $80 million of that was from the private sector. That translated into impressive economic development feats for the rural communities, she said, highlighting 206 full-time jobs were created because of the efforts and 270 part-time jobs.

“We want to make sure we’re giving technical support to these communities to make these downtown areas more vibrant,” she said.

In each community that looks a little different.

The program worked with Buena Vista to create an anchor for tourists who are often outdoor enthusiasts spending time just outside of the city. The city received mini-grants to help beautify the downtown district. More than 30 businesses have opened in downtown since that project, according to the state.

Bryant said if Cañon City were to work with the state’s Main Street program, it’d probably be a very cohesive project as DOLA has been working closely with the city to attain affordable housing for residents — another component of building community equity, she said.

Moving forward, Lake said she anticipates more of the community coming together to make downtown a destination for locals and tourists alike.

Cañon City is hoping that the historic St. Cloud Hotel will soon be an anchor for the downtown district. Elizabeth-based Unbridled Contractors bought the run-down project in July for $80,000. Jonathan Wield, the buying representative for the company, told the Cañon City Daily Record then that the company wants to be “a blessing for the community.”

The 140-room building has long sat vacant. It was built in 1879 in Silver Cliff, but later moved to Cañon City in 1890. Future of Yesterday Foundation took on the lofty project of paying for the hotel’s restoration in 2014. Last year, they said they were ready to move on to other projects, according to media reports.

Downtown merchants are excited about the prospect of the hotel returning to its original glory, Lake said.

From increasing tourism to the St. Cloud, there’s a lot of possibility for the downtown district — the possibility of being featured on a television show made that clear, Lake said.

“That was a real good boost.”