The days of locally owned long gone

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

We all know this particular story — globalization, the world is flat, everything has changed, the new paradigm, fast-cycle technology — whatever you want to call it.
The details might be complex, but the story’s simple. If you have a job, own a business or participate in any way in the economy (this means everybody but a few Ted Kaczynskis out in the woods, as long as they don’t need supplies for letter bombs), you’d best be paying attention.
Slack off, slow down and someone, somewhere is going to put you out of business/make your job obsolete/stuff you into the “dustbin of history.”
Think of that memorable verse in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

There are a lot of “frightful fiends” out there, and as in the poem, we’d just as soon not acknowledge their presence. It’s easier to pretend they’re not around, because there may not be much we can do about them.
Consider the long, subtle, almost invisible process whereby large, prosperous locally owned businesses have virtually disappeared from medium-sized American cities like our own.
When I was growing up in Colorado Springs half a century ago, virtually every important business in the city was locally owned. El Pomar owned the Broadmoor Hotel, the two largest banks in the city — the Exchange and the First National — were locally owned, and every grocery store, restaurant, manufacturing business and hardware store was owned by local entrepreneurs.
Many of those entrepreneurs and business owners were deeply rooted in the community, belonging to families who had been here since the 19th century.
Intensely proud of their city, they were generous supporters of the arts, of their churches and of a variety of nonprofit endeavors.
They led this city. They served on school boards and city councils, as vestrymen in their churches and on the boards of every important nonprofit organization.
But, beginning decades ago, control of the “commanding heights” of the Colorado Springs economy slowly passed to out-of-town, even out-of-state corporations.
The Dodge family sold the Gazette-Telegraph to an eccentric Californian’s small newspaper chain, Freedom Newspapers. The owners of the Exchange and the First National accepted attractive offers from regional banking conglomerates. El Pomar, responding to changes in federal law, sold control of the Broadmoor to Oklahoma Publishing Co.
And, like their counterparts throughout America, locally owned hardware stores, grocery stores and department stores simply went out of business — unable to compete with the big boys.
Much of this transformation has been benign. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the big-box stores provide lots of employment as well as abundant, competitively priced goods.
But there’s one big difference. The wealth that is created by our largest employers flows out of town — and little of it comes back to Colorado Springs to fund community improvements.
Consider the difference between the gold mining industry in Cripple Creek a century ago, and the same industry today.
Cripple Creek’s original gold rush led to the creation of two great fortunes — those of Spencer Penrose and Winfield Scott Stratton — as well as making dozens of young men extremely rich.
The newly rich came to Colorado Springs, built mansions and opera houses, racetracks and streetcar systems, casinos and luxury hotels, homes for the indigent and amusement parks for the easily amused.
And most importantly, Penrose and Stratton established charitable foundations which, after four generations, still immensely benefit this city.
None of this would have been possible without local entrepreneurs, who came here, made their money here and stayed here.
A century later, Cripple Creek once more produces massive quantities of gold — but the local impact of the wealth thus produced is negligible. A few hundred folks have jobs, but the real money flows to the stockholders and upper-level executives of Anglo-American, a giant multinational mining company.
And they don’t live here.
It’s interesting to consider the differences, and similarities, between the still-locally owned Pueblo Chieftain and the Gazette.
Bob Rawlings, the Chieftain’s owner/publisher, contributed more than $5 million to the construction of Pueblo’s spectacular new Antoine Predock-designed library. The Gazette’s publisher de jour, a working stiff like the rest of us, is not in a position to write such a check. And the paper itself, although modestly charitable, is scarcely known for its generosity.
But wait a minute! Tim Hoiles and Robin Hardie, heirs to the eccentric Californian who created the Freedom Newspaper chain, both live here, and are notably generous supporters of local nonprofits, especially the Fine Arts Center.
So let’s look, shall we, at the campaign to raise tens of millions to fund the David Tryba-designed addition to the Fine Arts Center. Who are the donors? Who’s making this wonderful project possible?
The El Pomar Foundation is kicking in a cool $5 million — money that never would have been there but for Penrose’s Cripple Creek ventures. Indeed, the FAC wouldn’t exist without Penrose — it sits on the site of Penrose’s Cascade Avenue home, which he gave to the FAC’s predecessor, the Broadmoor Art Academy.
And look at the rest of the big donors — the Loos, whose wealth comes from a Springs-based family company, local real estate mogul Buck Blessing, Hardie, Hoiles and dozens of others, most whom made money here and live here.
Spiritual heirs to the long-dead Cripple Creek millionaires, they are, proportionately, far fewer than number than were their counterparts of a century ago.
These people are the backbone of this community. We need more of them. Without them, Colorado Springs would be, in Ann Burford’s famous phrase, a nothingburger — just a collection of houses, big box stores, office buildings and people working for the man.
That’s what we need — men and women with big dreams and lots of money, who are eager to put their names on art museums, opera halls, university buildings and libraries. They’ll build big houses, throw fabulous parties and give the rest of us lots of juicy gossip.
And who knows — maybe they’ll build a racetrack.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext. 241.