Looking back to see where we might be able to go

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The ballots are in the mail — but the check isn’t.

Less than two weeks from today, we’ll know whether Colorado Springs voters have approved a cumulative 10 mill increase in city property taxes.

For supporters of issue 2C, the prospects are not encouraging. Private polling shows that Springs residents regard the proposal with skepticism.

Battered by the national recession, by declining property values and straitened family budgets, local taxpayers might be in no mood to pump up the city’s coffers.

Absent a new revenue source, council members can only balance the city’s budget by combining several bad alternatives. That toxic stew might include closing facilities, shrinking services, firing/furloughing employees and implementing across-the-board pay cuts.

Under any scenario, the city is diminished.

Draconian pay cuts would likely result in an exodus of the best qualified employees, leaving a marginal, discouraged and ineffective work force. Closing the Pioneers Museum, abandoning the City Auditorium, draining municipal swimming pools and putting city parks on life support will not exactly move the city forward.

We’ll become a shabby, demoralized little city. South Academy and South Nevada will continue their long decline, residential property values will fail to rebound, small businesses will struggle and commercial property will crater.

The Army won’t decide to station another 20,000 soldiers at Fort Carson. The national economy won’t come roaring back. Mike Kazmierski isn’t going to find a California company to bring 10,000 primary jobs to town. The El Pomar Foundation isn’t going to give the city $40 million annually for the next 10 years. Ted Haggard will not march west into the wilderness, fast for 40 days, miraculously discover a gold mine, and turn it over to the city.

During the past, we’ve always found the “Deus ex Machina,” the unexpected — and maybe undeserved — economic salvation that has saved us from hard decisions.

We’ve leaned on an expanding military presence, upon religious nonprofits, upon a brief high-tech flowering, upon fickle international companies and upon the natural amenities of the Pikes Peak region.

Twenty-six years ago, Denver voters had a choice. They could go along with a once-innovative mayor whose administration had lapsed into complacent cronyism and indifferent performance, or they could throw out Bill McNichols and go with someone new.

But for a fierce blizzard during Christmas Eve of 1982, which shut down the city for nearly a week and brutally exposed the incompetence of the McNichols administration, the voters might have stuck with good ol’ Bill.

Angry voters take out their anger on incumbents. And even without the blizzard, the voters had a lot to be mad about.

During the early 1980s, Denver’s economy virtually collapsed as that decade’s energy boom came to a sudden end. Oil and gas companies, for years the fastest-growing and most profitable segment of the city’s economic base, disappeared overnight. Well-compensated professionals were unemployed, and forced to fend for themselves in a changed environment.

Developers went broke, abandoning half-finished projects, which came to be called “see-through buildings.”

Denver voters chose Federico Pena, a 36-year-old attorney, to be their next mayor. During his campaign, Pena called upon Denverites to “imagine a great city,” and support the creation of regional partnerships to build a new prosperity. His vision was widely derided, especially by media cynics who made fun of “Feddy and the Dreamers.”

Pena and his successors built modern Denver.

Empty prairie became Denver International Airport, now one of the 10 busiest in the world. Metro-area taxpayers funded or helped fund Coors Field, Invesco Field, the Daniel Libeskind-designed Denver Art Museum, a new library, a revived park system, a new convention center, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and massive infrastructure improvements throughout the city.

The city’s recovery wasn’t driven solely by grandiose infrastructure projects. Private investors revived the once-derelict warehouse district of lower downtown and partnered with creative public officials to transform Stapleton, DIA’s deserted predecessor, into a vibrant new neighborhood.

In less than 25 years, Denver shook off the “Denver Depression” and became the great city that Pena imagined. The city’s rebirth and ascendance did not come through “Dei ex Machinae,” but from its own efforts. Denver taxpayers ponied up the dough, and Denver’s municipal government responded with intelligence, creativity and a powerful vision of a possible future.

And even those laid-off petroleum geologists prospered — among them, a guy named John Hickenlooper who opened a new-fangled bar called a “brewpub” in lower downtown.

If 2C fails, we’ll have a choice come April 2011. We’ll elect a new mayor and five council members. We can ditch both tired cronyism and resentful Bruceite conservatism, and vote for a new practicality.

And here are a couple of campaign slogans. “Imagine a grown-up city,” or “The future without illusions.”

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John Hazlehust@csbj.com or 227-5861.