Historically, local recessions have been times of ferment and change in Colorado Springs.
During the 1970s, business and political leaders focused on economic development and created the Economic Development Council. One of the first such organizations in the United States, the EDC was amazingly successful in recruiting companies and creating primary jobs.
The EDC’s success was driven by the product. If Colorado Springs had a national image, it was that of a scenic, comfortable place to live, the home of the Air Force Academy.
The EDC’s emissaries were able to fill in the picture and brand the city.
We weren’t just a pleasant little city at the foot of Pikes Peak — we were a place of spectacular natural beauty, with low taxes, low utility rates and honest, business-friendly local government. Employees of relocating businesses would benefit from affordable real estate, good schools, a mild climate and easy access to the mountains.
That was our brand — but after the next downturn during the late 1980s, it changed.
Prospecting for business, the EDC focused on religious nonprofits. At the same time, a determined, charismatic leader ignited the city’s latent anti-tax, anti-government sentiments. California transplant Douglas Bruce successfully initiated two City Charter amendments which, depending on your perspective, either permanently crippled or permanently restrained local government.
Meanwhile, thanks to a multi-million dollar incentive package from the El Pomar Foundation, Focus on the Family, an aggressively political religious nonprofit, moved to Colorado Springs.
Within a few years, Colorado Springs had a new brand.
We were “Ground Zero for the Religious Right,” and the home of anti-tax, anti-communitarian zealots.
The national media found it easy, even fun, to portray Colorado Springs as the world’s largest open-air lunatic asylum. Elected officials such as Betty “Normal White American” Beedy and Charlie “Minuteman” Duke got national publicity, as did Bruce, who was characterized as a “gonzo anti-tax activist” by the Wall Street Journal.
James Dobson’s stern pronouncements about the evils of abortion and homosexuality further defined our city, while Pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life Church rose to national prominence.
When Haggard resigned in disgrace after a meth-snorting episode with a male “escort,” our makeover was complete.
Visit another city. Tell people that you’re from Colorado Springs. Often enough, their reaction is one of amused dismay.
“How can you live there? Is it really as crazy as they say? Is it dangerous for a gay person to live there? How can people elect/listen to/live in the same city as all those nut cases?”
And so we try to explain, to tell them the real city is very different, that they’re reacting to a media construct, that the city is beautiful and friendly, that a few noisy partisans don’t speak for all of us, that there are more Democrats in Colorado Springs than in Boulder and so on and so forth … and they don’t believe us.
This, too, is a time of ferment, of discontent and of lively, engaged debate. There seems to be a growing awareness that we need to change — not simply invent a new story, but create a new reality.
Re-branding is fine, but, to rephrase an old Texas saying, “a brand’s no good unless you got some cattle!”
Where’s our herd?
It seems to me that we can’t just rely upon the old standbys — Pikes Peak, the Air Force Academy, low taxes and the U.S. Olympic Committee. We need something entirely new, something that will enhance our economy, attract national attention and redefine our city.
And this time, half-measures won’t work.
During a recent panel discussion, the EDC’s Dave White talked about visiting cities such as San Diego, Austin and Omaha — peer cities that compete with us for relocating/expanding businesses. All three have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure during the last 10 years, and it shows.
Even more significantly, Denver has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure during the last 20 years, including a convention center, light rail, a new art museum, a new library, a new airport, and a redeveloped lower downtown and Platte River valley.
How do we compete?
One way, embraced by panelists Warren Epstein and White, is not to compete but to link.
Suppose, for example, we had our own regional light rail system, and partnered with other Front Range cities to create a high-speed rail link to Denver?
A 30-minute train ride to Denver and Denver International Airport would make Colorado Springs as convenient for businesses as any close-in Denver suburb. Springs residents would have all the advantages of Denver, and none of the hassles.
Such a system would be as expensive and controversial, as was DIA. And like DIA, it would ignite a firestorm of economic development — and unlike DIA, it would make commuting and air travel easier and more pleasant.
Along the way, it would re-brand our city as the greenest, most progressive and most innovative city in America.
And the nation would forget about Haggard, Dobson and that other guy — you know, the anti-tax person … is he still around?
John can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.