Growth awakens bedroom communities

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In the 1800s, Colorado towns like Monument, Palmer Lake, and Fountain were thriving cities – central hubs for the town folk. An industrial revolution, which sparked a societal change from ranching and farming to manufacturing, incited the development of bigger, more metropolitan areas. Younger generations left the farm and ranch towns for opportunities in the big city, and those once booming towns were put to sleep. Not until the evolution of transportation, advanced technology, the post-WWII era, and the working man’s desire to commute to the suburbs did we see the revitalization of those small towns. Bedroom communities, they called them. And the people flocked to those bedroom communities like a fleet of birds traveling south for the winter.

Because of continued growth, bedroom communities have awakened to all kinds of problems, from infrastructure issues to provisions for more services, such as fire and police, to the cries of some who simply want to keep things just as they are.

Mike Davenport, town planner and assistant town manager for Monument, Colo., defines a bedroom community: “When the predominant use of the land is for residents, schools and churches, excluding commercial development (with the exception of grocery stores), the area is characterized as a bedroom community.” He adds, “When consumer shopping changes significantly from necessary spending to discretionary, the definition of the bedroom community changes.” Until then, couples and others locate to the fringe areas, such as Palmer Lake and Monument, to accommodate careers in the bigger cities.

Because of its proximity to Denver and Colorado Springs, the Tri-Lakes area houses many commuters who come home every night to nest amidst trees, lakes, foothills, and federal land. And a lot of those nesters want to preserve their piece of the pie, the pristine surroundings, and the bedroom community. However, there are plenty of people who still crave their own piece of pie, and growth continues.

Jeff Featherston, vice president of First National Bank in Monument, says “turning the door on the community every morning requires a tax revenue to support the services.” He continues, “Most towns cannot live on a residential tax base. We need a commercial tax base for prosperity.” As a bedroom community wakes up because of growth spurts and the need to add services and upgrade infrastructures, city planners and managers try to figure out ways to balance their community. Mike Davenport defines a balanced community as one that includes, alongside schools and churches, employment opportunities, office and industrial space, affordable housing, recreation, shopping, hotels and restaurants. Planners, managers, and city councils are also trying to decipher ways to balance the diverse opinions of residents as growth hits their towns. Big box stores, like Wal-Mart, become big issues when small retailers and residents decry city leaders and developers for attempting to bring in commercial tax revenues. Just ask anyone in Monument.

“The uproar against Wal-Mart is in part because that type of industry does not cultivate the quaint, small town atmosphere,” said Lee Kilbourn, chairman of the Tri-Lakes Economic Development Committee and owner of Centennial Services in Monument. “Businesses are not always going to be attractive to someone’s emotions, but we have to keep the people spending in our town,” said Kilbourn. When residents play and shop elsewhere, leakage – spending money outside of the community – occurs. Kilbourn adds, “If towns cannot control leakage and do not have strong commercial revenues, developers’ fees are driven sky high and the area is earmarked as a high dollar community.” And a lack of affordable housing impacts economic development. “Affordable housing is a pervasive problem for workforce planning,” said Mike Davenport. “The balanced community is one that provides both jobs and affordable housing.”

This past summer, the National Civic League selected Fountain, Colo., as the number one “All American City.” In 2001, the New York Times chose Fountain as the new “Millennium City.” Fountain landed the prestigious awards because of its education standards, community improvements, affordable housing, and ethnic diversity. “That kind of publicity puts you on the map,” said Tom Fulkerson, president of the Fountain Chamber of Commerce. In kinship with northern cities, Palmer Lake and Monument, Fountain has never been able to rely on the tourism industry. The towns rely on residents. “Many people who live in this town are connected with the military in Colorado Springs and Pueblo; they work outside of the area, but there is a lot of participation within,” added Fulkerson.

Susan Miner and Dave Smedsrud are not fond of the bedroom community classification. Dave Smedsrud, Fountain deputy city manager and city planning director, states that the economic development committee is always developing strategies to retain income, and the city maintains its own image, completely separate from Colorado Springs. Smedsrud defines a bedroom community as one that is subordinate and dependent on a bigger city. Fountain’s independence is evident as the town makes plans to hire a part time economic development director in 2003. City leaders are also researching ways the city can partner with private industry to promote economic development, while adhering to the desires of residents. “We don’t want new development to shape our community, we want our community to shape new development,” said Smedsrud. Fountain also boasts affordable housing, which allows the city a competitive edge for business development.

Susan Miner, Palmer Lake economic and community development trustee, throws the bedroom community label out the window. “Small towns are a microcosm of a bigger community,” said Miner. “Whenever there are people interacting outside of their residence and ‘stuff’ is going on, a city is alive.” Restaurants, art galleries, retail stores, schools, churches, and community events are the gathering places that create a common thread in communities across the country.

Mike Davenport believes that social interaction is an “equally vital component” to the success of any community. “Fifty to one hundred years ago, people did not commute great distances for recreational activities,” said Davenport. “Residents were rooted in their towns for all types of activities.”

People are more mobile than ever, but high technology has ignited home-based businesses and corporate stay-at-home employees. Just as the industrial revolution stirred mobility, the technological revolution may bring us home again. Thus, resurgence in the small town hubs of the 1800s may follow, and bedroom communities, at least the tag line, will sleep again.