Trails, open space and parks distinguish Colorado Springs

Filed under: Opinion |

It may be a penny for your thoughts, but it only takes a tenth of that to help make Colorado Springs one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the country. When voters approved a tenth of a cent sales tax dedicated to Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) in 1997, they decided to put their pennies together to create a legacy for future generations in the Pikes Peak Region. A tenth of a cent may not sound like much, but that small amount of sales tax has paid for 19 new parks, 41 trails projects and 4,013 acres of open space in Colorado Springs since 1997.

The City stretches our citizens’ money even further by utilizing matching grants and donations, as well as volunteer work hours. Since its inception, TOPS funds have been used as leverage to secure $30.9 million in matching funds or donations for open space, $4.7 million for parks and $4.1 million for trails. Groups such as the Trails and Open Space Coalition, a citizen-driven group, are key partners for TOPS. The coalition generously donated $28,500 in 2004 alone toward the construction of a trailhead at Blodgett Peak Open Space and the creation of an interpretative kiosk along the Rock Island Trail. Volunteers are another core component of TOPS, carrying out the bulk of the work for trail construction, which results in significant savings to the program. In 2004 alone, 804 volunteers accounted for 4,721 hours of labor worth approximately $47,210 to TOPS. Some of the major projects they worked on included Red Rock Canyon, Blodgett Peak Open Space, Cottonwood Trail, Homestead Trail, Midland Trail and Bluestem Open Space.

One of the most prominent TOPS projects in recent years is the Red Rock Canyon Open Space. Parks staff conducted public input meetings last year to aid in the design of a master plan for the 787 acre, $12.5 million open space. The implementation of that plan, which includes 17.5 miles of multi-use trails, began last summer with various volunteer projects. Work in Red Rock Canyon will begin again this month as Phase I continues with parking lots, entryways and the 31st Street trailhead. It will take several years to fully realize the master plan, but Parks staff looks to have several more miles of trail built by the end of this summer, again with the help of volunteers. Volunteer events at Red Rock Canyon will begin on May 7 with additional opportunities available all summer.

Other major projects on the 2005 agenda are Snowy River and Stetson parks, both located on the northeast part of town. Construction will begin in June and should be completed by the end of August. A major addition to the Cottonwood Creek Trail will connect it to the Pikes Peak Greenway, and a section of the Midland Trail will be added between 21st and 31st Streets. The Sand Creek Trail will also be extended from Chelton Road to Wildflower Park.

The dedication of our citizens to designating, preserving and maintaining open space, trails and parks makes the city appealing to those seeking a healthy lifestyle. And the rest of the country is noticing. In fact, Men’s Fitness magazine ranked Colorado Springs third, behind only Seattle and Honolulu, in its 2005 rankings of the country’s Fittest Cities. The ranking moves the city past Denver and San Francisco. The magazine found Colorado Springs to have the third highest ratios of parkland and open space acreage per resident of any city in the survey – with only Jacksonville (Fla.) and Denver having a bit more. With TOPS’ help, Colorado Springs may pass those cities in the next few years. The survey included the 50 largest U.S. cities according to the most recent United States Census Bureau. Another publication, the American City Business Journals, ranked El Paso County in the 98th percentile of all 3,141 counties and independent cities across the nation in its Quality of Life survey released in 2003.

To attract quality employees, it’s important to offer them an attractive lifestyle in the community where they will work and live, and Colorado Springs positive reputation certainly helps employers do just that. Our reputation is due in no small part to what TOPS has achieved since the tenth of a penny sales tax was added in 1997. In April 2003, citizens voted nearly two-to-one to pass an extension that would keep TOPS active until 2025, 16 years past its current expiration. The vote made it clear that our citizens want the outdoor quality of life to remain a priority in Colorado Springs. However, a lawsuit was brought forth questioning the validity of the extension. That lawsuit overturned the results of the 2003 election to extend the tax. Currently the City and Colorado Municipal League are pursuing an appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals. A final decision is expected by October of this year.

If the appeal is denied, the City will not be able to acquire new open space land (including the proposed purchase of Manitou Section 16) or build new neighborhood parks. In that case, a new item, with different language, will need to be put in front of the voters in 2007 so they can reaffirm their commitment to Colorado Springs’ legacy of trails, open space and parks.