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The tilde in Cañon City's name has become its symbol and is sported on shirts, signs and souvenirs. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CAÑON CITY — The languid seven blocks or so of Main Street that mark the heart of downtown here hardly seem like a place for a revolution.

Traffic rushes by on U.S. Highway 50 a block away, most drivers oblivious to the struggling downtown business district — even if city officials tout it as the longest historic business district in the state.

Its most famous attraction, the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, lies 13 miles to the west — also off U.S. 50. The city-owned park, which this year celebrates its 90th anniversary,  has drawn nearly 30 million visitors since the bridge opened.

But in recent decades, few tourists stopped or stayed in Cañon City, which is best known as a prison town. The gorge was a day-trip for Front Range visitors, or they “come out of the park and turn left and go west” toward Salida, said Dan Brown, a Realtor and owner of The CellHouse, a downtown shop that sells items made by inmates working in Colorado Correctional Industries.

That’s also true for rock climbers and mountain bikers drawn to the region by its world-class outdoor recreation areas.

Shelf Road, for example, has long been popular with climbers from Denver and Colorado Springs. But many travel through Cripple Creek from the north and never set foot in Cañon City, said Ryan Jordan, owner and president of VistaWorks, which handles marketing for Fremont County.

Cañon City facts

  • 1860: Founded
  • 1862: First commercial oil well west of the Mississippi drilled just north of town
  • 1868: Selected as site of Territorial Prison (Old Max), which opened in 1871
  • 1876: Dinosaur bones discovered in Garden Park, leading to eventual discovery of dozens of specimens
  • 1929: Royal Gorge bridge built
  • 1983: Downtown Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places
  • Elevation: 5,331 feet
  • Population: 16,000

Cañon City has been working hard to remake itself as more than drive-through territory, thanks to efforts by the city, outdoor enthusiasts, businesses and history buffs. This week, the city beat out 14,000 other towns around the country to become a top-six finalist in a competition to be featured in the fourth season of Deluxe Corporation’s Small Business Revolution — Main Street show.

If Cañon City wins a public online vote contest, the Hulu show would come to town with marketing expert Amanda Brinkman, renovation icon Ty Pennington and $500,000 for small businesses to help with a makeover of sorts.

Even if Cañon City doesn’t win, officials and business owners say the effort to get into the competition has done plenty already.

“This is one of those catalyst kind of events where everybody came together,” said Ryan Stevens, the city’s economic development director and who initiated the nomination process. “It doesn’t matter if we win or not. Even if we do, eventually the cameras go home and we have to sustain that momentum.

Small Business Revolution

Voting continues through Feb. 19; you can vote once a day per email at  Results will be announced Feb. 26.

“We need to work on building the business and marketing acumen for our store owners. Most small business owners are good at a trade or service, but don’t know as much about running a business or marketing.”

Regardless of the contest outcome, Cañon City will be the beneficiary of a Deluxe Corp. marketing seminar in May — one of the perks of being a Top 10 finalist.

“Oh my gosh, the community came together around this,” said Cathy Dixon, who opened the RoadRunners shop, chock full of handmade items, with her husband, Steven, about a year ago and moved it to a downtown location in October. “This has been something to lift the spirits.”

Cathy and Steven Dixon at the voting station in their RoadRunners shop on Main Street. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After attending the watch party at 6 a.m. Tuesday to see if Cañon City made the finals for the Small Business Revolution, she decided to create a voting station in the shop. Some residents, she said, don’t have internet or don’t want to fiddle with voting on their phone, so this made it easy for them to vote.

A large orange tilde — which has quickly become a widespread town symbol — in the window directed people to come in and vote.

Others rushed around downtown and to outlying businesses on Tuesday handing out fliers and posters about the competition.

“The tilde is like the roller coaster we’re on,” said Jennifer Malespini, owner of Bella Capelli Salon and Boutique. She has run a beauty salon downtown for 20 years and five years ago changed storefronts and added a boutique.

“I’d love to see more boutiques,” she said, noting that it’s easier to draw people when there is a variety of places for them to shop.

Debbie Lake, chairwoman of the Downtown Business Alliance and owner of Classic Furniture, concurred.

“We have some amazing businesses that are diamonds in the rough,” she said. “We are beginning to look out for each other.”

She and her husband, Rusty, have been in business about 12 years, growing a small consignment shop into a large Main Street furniture store. They are committed to being downtown and are happy to see other businesses opening and surviving.

Still, many others have come and gone in recent years as the downtown languished. A brewery opened and closed. The space of a former bakery is up for lease.

“Southern Colorado has been under the radar for a long time,” said Tony O’Rourke, city manager. “We want to maintain the quality of life and the low cost of living, but there’s a Catch-22 there — costs rise with growth.”

He sees Cañon City as a gateway to the Rockies and all the recreation and splendor in that part of Colorado.

“We’re positioned to bloom,” he said. “I think we’re heading that direction with the vision of city council and the leadership they’re providing.”

The downtown business district in Canon City. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In two years, there’s been $70 million in new development, a nearly 250 percent increase over the three prior years, he said.

A former bank building is being transformed into a downtown clinic by Valley-Wide Health Systems, Inc., and last summer the historic but long-closed St. Cloud Hotel was purchased at auction by Elizabeth, Colorado-based Unbridled Contractors. The company’s restoration plans call for a four-star hotel with such amenities as a restaurant with a locally sourced, seasonal menu and a “dramatic” lobby bar.

On the recreation side of the town’s equation, the volunteer Fremont Adventure Recreation (FAR) has made a huge push over the past five years to develop and add trails and sponsor events to bring people to the region, said Ashlee Sack, event and administration coordinator.

The region has 52 miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty, and FAR’s website includes maps and information on them. Recently, Ty Seufer, the new owner of the former Buckskin Joe’s property, announced that new hiking and biking trails would be built along a former railroad track that runs to Point Alta Vista, Sack said.

The Cañon City Daily Record reported that it would be accessible to disabled people.

The project includes renovation of two city-owned railroad track trestles at a cost of about $68,000, Sack said. She said the project should be completed this year and will offer another “free amenity” to those wanting to enjoy the outdoors.

“The outdoor industry is growing everywhere, and it’s such a healthy industry,” she said. “It’s great for tourism and for the people who live here.”

The recreation potential attracted one new business last year, the Bikes and Brews eatery and bike rental on the west end of downtown.

Conifer transplants Kirk and Mayra Anderson say they believe they’ve landed in the right place at the right time. With an outdoor patio and 16 taps featuring Colorado craft beers, Kirk Anderson said they’re poised for another “amazing summer.”

The Prison Museum shares a wall with the Territorial Prison (Old Max) on the west end of Cañon City. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At the 2018 SoCo Tourism Summit in Pueblo, Sack gave a presentation about mountain biking in the region with the tongue-in-cheek title of “Shackles to Chains: How the Royal Gorge Region is Transforming from a Prison Town to a Mountain Bike Mecca.”

It’s still a prison town, of course — Fremont County has 13 prisons that account for half of its jobs.

And while residents and town officials are beginning to embrace that history (some trails in South Cañon carry names such as Hard Time and The Great Escape), they also want folks to know it’s more than a prison town.

And, it’s more than the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, a lesson that came home when a wildfire in June 2013 ravaged more than 3,000 acres and destroyed nearly everything in the park except the bridge. While the Royal Gorge Route Railroad and rafting through the gorge resumed that summer, it was nearly two years before the park fully reopened.

The Fremont County Tourism Council met promptly to find other ways to bring visitors to the county.

Those things coincided with the city’s and FAR’s efforts to market Cañon City for other things, and it all coalesced into the excitement that reverberated around town this week when it made the top six in the Small Business Revolution competition.

City officials are confident that the city can maintain its momentum, regardless of the competition outcome, although of course he’d like it to win. There’s just so much going on — efforts to reclaim the Arkansas River front, the addition of a whitewater park, ongoing trail expansion and improvement, activity from arts groups an increasing number of event and so on. Add all that to a year-round climate that gave the city the nickname “Climate Capital of Colorado,” and there’s no reason the region can’t attract visitors for two or three days at a time, O’Rourke said.

“I think it has triggered a spark and we need to fan that spark,” he said. “We have a lot to be proud of historically here.

“We can do it with leadership and investment and showing pride in wanting to build on the past.”

With 3.5 million people on the Front Range, he said, there’s a huge and ready market for Cañon City to invite for a visit.

Canon City has boasted about its climate for years. This sticker in Dan Brown’s shop is from the 1930s. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @suemcmillin