During the past several years, Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and Pueblo have attempted to transform their downtowns into vibrant community centers.
Their goals were similar: to revitalize businesses, to encourage people to live downtown and to make the city centers fun and inviting for workers, residents and visitors.
And while Pueblo and Manitou Springs are well on their way to reinventing themselves, Colorado Springs appears to be stuck in limbo.
Combining a voter-approved bond issue with federal highway money and foundation grants, Manitou, with a population of less than 5,000, will invest $7 million into upgrading its main street, Manitou Avenue.
The project has removed overhead power lines, widened sidewalks and will add street trees, park benches and pedestrian-friendly crosswalks. The private sector has responded by investing $30 million during the last three years in lofts, retail shops and renovation of the long-derelict Manitou Spa building.
The town’s development efforts earned a governor’s award for excellence in downtown partnerships last winter.
Kitty Clemens, Manitou’s economic development director, attributes the success to community buy-in, and to a powerful, visionary mayor, Marcy Morrison.
“When everybody’s behind the project, and (the publicly funded improvements) are real, then the private sector comes in,” Clemens said.
To succeed, she said, cities have to understand the “the experience economy.”
“People with disposable income can go wherever they please, so you have to understand your brand and what you have,” Clemens said. “Ours is that we’re ‘One of a Kind,’ with a unique setting, with unique stores, with unique experiences.”
In contrast, Colorado Springs seems to perpetually be on the verge of important breakthroughs.
Despite substantial public investment, including a new courthouse, two new parking structures and America the Beautiful Park, the private sector has declined to make large-scale investments downtown.
During the last few months, aging, functionally obsolescent structures have been razed on the corners of Nevada and Pikes Peak avenues and Cimarron and Sawatch streets, but there are no active plans for construction on either site.
Only Dan Robertson, who recently completed a four-story retail/residential project on a vacant parcel adjacent to the historic Gidding Building on Tejon Street, has been willing to risk money on new construction downtown.
Yet hope springs eternal. During Tuesday’s State of the City address, Mayor Lionel Rivera said: “It’s exciting to think of what our future holds (for downtown). New high-rise buildings with hotel, retail and residential uses, an expanded arts community, a revitalized City Auditorium and maybe an Olympic presence.”
Like Manitou, Colorado Springs has an active, dedicated and professional downtown partnership trying to midwife development.
But it hasn’t always been an easy process.
As Susan Edmondson, a downtown advocate and foundation director says: “Downtown interests are a lot more diverse than in, say, Manitou. It’s a much bigger place, and it’s a lot harder to get things done.”
County Commissioner Jim Bensberg points out that “Manitou and Pueblo primed the pump with tax increases, which kind of jump-started development. In El Paso County and in Colorado Springs, our citizens are tax-averse, so that takes away that option.”
Les Gruen, a downtown advocate and chairman of the Urban Renewal Board, said that there are significant differences of scale between Colorado Springs and the other two cities.
“A vacant parcel of land in downtown Pueblo or Manitou, both low-rise cities, can be developed at a reasonable cost,” he said. “But a half-block in downtown Colorado Springs, 114,000 square feet, is worth from $30 to $50 a square foot — or as much as $5.7 million. To justify that price, a developer has to build a major structure, and that’s not easy.”
In the wake of the collapse of the steel industry in the early 1980’s, Pueblo’s leaders believed that, in order to revive the city’s economy, they would have to invest in economic development.
Twenty-two years ago, Pueblo residents approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for economic development, which has, as Bensberg noted, jump-started economic development.
Pueblo’s downtown includes a convention center, a convention center hotel, a hockey rink, a new library, the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center and the Riverwalk. All of these amenities benefited from public financial support, whether through bond issues, the economic development tax or from ad hoc packages of development incentives tailored the individual projects.
On May 6, Pueblo celebrated the opening of the Arkansas River Legacy Project, which will include a $1.5 million kayak run through downtown and a year-round stocked trout fishery.
The total project will cost more than $9 million.
“We rolled up our sleeves, we taxed ourselves, we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Jeff Chostner. “We did what we had to do.”
But, it seems, downtown developers in Pueblo still expect substantial public funding before they’ll break ground on important projects.
Last week, Servicestar, a Denver developer that was named the preferred developer for Phase 3 of the Riverwalk, outlined plans for a large-scale development on a 19-acre parcel. The development would include a 12-screen, 1,900-seat theater and 329,000 square feet of retail/office space.
There’s just one catch, though. The developers are asking for $30 million in “public investment” in the form of improved utilities, road realignment and parking structures, as well as the expansion of the convention center and the removal of a nearby bus barn.
The Pueblo City Council listened with interest to the plan, but rather than questioning the need for subsidies, zeroed in on the project’s economic justification. Council members were skeptical, pointing out that previous studies suggested that the area could support no more than 100,000 square feet of new commercial development.
But the developer, Mark DeRose, expressing the sunny optimism that seems to characterize Pueblo these days, said that the development would be a kind of festival downtown, drawing a regional crowd rather than a merely local one.