The subtle but potent magnetism of Cortez is becoming one of Colorado’s worst-kept secrets.
This low-key, blue-collar town of fewer than 9,000 residents is becoming known nationally and internationally as a jumping-off point for an abundance of open-space and outdoor pursuits throughout Montezuma County and the Four Corners area.
For starters, try hiking, biking, camping, backpacking, archaeological exploring, cross-country skiing, boating, fishing and hunting.
“We’re really on the edge of absolute greatness here,” City Manager Shane Hale said recently while touting his town’s appeal.
“People are surprised at how much is happening in this small area,” said Noel Cooley, manager of the Cortez Welcome Center, a first stop for many visitors. “We want to increase tourism and the visibility of our community so people don’t assume we’re [just another] small town. We’re a little city with a very unique culture as a border town.”
More than 20 percent of Montezuma County’s residents are employed by tourism- related industries, while another 30 percent work for various levels of government, including the Park Service, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management as well as local entities, all of whom support tourism and recreation.
And visitation to Cortez is up, according to a study recently released by the Welcome Center, which also reveals that the city is above the national growth average. In 2014, nearly 50,000 visitors passed through the center, according to the study, and last year saw an increase to more than 60,000.
Cortez has made large strides in analyzing tourism trends over the years, Hale said, including the ability to determine where visitors originate in order to market itself more effectively to those demographics.
For instance, the Welcome Center’s statistics show nearly a fourth of foreign visitors are from Canada, with France’s share only slightly behind at 20 percent and Germany’s at 19 percent.
“We’re kind of seen as the Wild West for foreign visitors – they get so excited and are thrilled to be here,” Cooley said. “Often, they didn’t quite realize that there’s so much undeveloped area to roam in and explore. In many countries around the world, there’s no open space.”
Tourism numbers are expected to rise this summer, in part because of the 100th anniversary of the Park Service. Mesa Verde National Park, which sits between Mancos and Cortez, remains a powerful draw, seeing around a half-million visitors annually.
Although there is concern about the current closure of Spruce Tree House, the park’s most-visited site, which is undergoing major stabilization work, the undergoing major stabilization work, the rest of the park remains open, with many other attractions available.
“We have so many different opportunities,” said Ami McAlpin, marketing director for the City of Cortez. “The experience at Mesa Verde is still monumental. It’s the only national park in the U.S. that is dedicated to humankind — this is phenomenal.”
The visitor to Cortez is often seeking a deeper connection with the area and its past. The heritage of Southwestern and Native American culture is a big draw, particularly for international tourists.
“The person who comes to Mesa Verde is really looking for more of an experience imagining these past cultures, thinking about history, humanity and cultures — a lot more of a mental visit,” Hale said.
“If you have an opportunity to show your family these national treasures, like Mesa Verde, take it,” Cooley said. “We never know how long they’re going to last. If the best you’ll ever see is a picture, that’s too bad, especially if you have a chance to truly experience it.”
But the adventure traveler is another target demographic when planning for tourism in the area, Hale added.
“We see lots of families and adventure travelers,” she said. “There really isn’t an end to the travel season — we’re not dependent on skiing, which is the case for a lot of other Colorado locations.” The area has an abundance of public land, which serves as a great backdrop for many of the adventurers and weekend warrior-types who choose Cortez as their destination.
“The assets we have here are more engaging and allow the freedom to plan your vacation around what you like to do with open exploration,” McAlpin said. “We’re pretty diversified and the saying, ‘There’s more to explore, one day isn’t enough’ is the reality.”
McAlpin said during the busy summer months, some residents of Durango and Telluride will seek out Cortez for its relative peace and quiet.
“It’s fun to watch so many people come in from Telluride,” she said. “During the busy days of summer and music festivals, they’d rather rent out their houses and camp here.”
Cooley remembers spending summer months in Cortez during her own youth in San Francisco, and said she understands the peace people can experience here that allows them a taste of freedom that big cities don’t always offer.
“There’s not one night where the sunset is ever the same,” she said.
But there are limiting factors for tourism in Cortez — particularly transportation options.
The Cortez Municipal Airport, operated by the city and serviced by Great Lakes Airlines, is one concern. Direct air service has been reduced over the past few years, according to airport manager Russ Machen, because of a shortage of qualified pilots.
Although flights increase during summer months, a regulation passed in 2014 that hiked the minimum required flight hours from 500 to 1,500 for pilots resulted in a shortage because not enough pilots had achieved that time.
“We used to have 22 flights per week, then the effective occurrence of flights decreased to seven because there simply weren’t enough eligible pilots to fly,” explained Machen.
As a result, in 2013 there were 8,837 passengers who came through the Cortez airport, but in 2014 that fell to 2,482. In March of this year, a third flight was added in the middle of the day, a hopeful sign. However, Machen said the traveling public’s confidence in the airport will need to be rebuilt to regain ridership.
“When this thing hit us in 2014 [passengers] didn’t have time to cancel flights and people got burned and went elsewhere,” he said.
In an effort to deal with the shortage of available pilots, a 19-seat aircraft was converted to offer seating for just nine, meaning it required only one pilot and a co-pilot who could increase hours.
“It’s hard getting tickets for the whole family,” Cooley said. “Most people will fly into Vegas or Albuquerque and rent a car.” Cheap gas prices are a factor in the decision to drive rather than fly to Cortez, he noted.
As the Montezuma County commissioners seek to keep the local economy viable even as oil and gas prices drop and carbon-dioxide giant Kinder Morgan cuts production, they are promoting tourism and recreation as alternative drivers.
They hope to draw recreational users of all types, from cyclists to motorcyclists and ATV riders to horseback riders. Their push meshes with the growing interest in Cortez as a recreational hub.
City officials say it’s important for the different entities to be aware of what they all are doing in order to coordinate efforts. “Who cares which ad someone read or what initially inspired them to come here?” Hale asked. “We’re all in this together. It’s become much more collaborative with a lot more communication.”
Cooley agreed that there must be a strong coordinated effort among marketing and development efforts.
“The better we make the city, the more people will want to come here and the more money that will be brought in and stay here,” she said.
“We need to support each other in this because if people aren’t willing to work together, nothing will get done and people will always find disagreement.”
As awareness grows of all the area has to offer, it’s inevitable it will grow, and leaders have to decide how they want that growth to occur.
“Growth does not necessarily equate to success,” Hale said. “Although it would create more job opportunities and bring continued amenity development, there are a lot of special things about Cortez because we are who we are.
“I would rather have growth be more controlled for another 40 or 50 years, but there has to be some growth because without it, you’re going backwards.”
Cooley agreed. “If you cap growth too much, the economy doesn’t help people get jobs, but do we really want a Starbucks on every corner?” she asked. “City planners are working on drawing that line and understanding the points where there’s too much growth or too little.
“We need to work that out without losing the charm of the area and the reason why people choose to live here.”