Quality of Life Indicators paint grim picture of Springs

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Few bright spots include tourism and cost of living

Remember 2007?

Those were the good ol’ days, according to the Pikes Peak Quality of Life Indicators.

Unemployment was low, the city boasted higher-than-average incomes and job growth was steady.

But the 2011 Quality of Life Indicators, prepared by the Pikes Peak United Way and released this week, paint a grim picture.

Unemployment reached 10.5 percent in February, wages dropped by 5 percent and job growth is nonexistent.

And there are social problems, too.

The area has lost between 20,000 and 30,000 primary jobs in the past decade. And while the population has grown by 110,000 people, civilian jobs have not kept pace. In fact, if it weren’t for the five military bases in the area, the economic outlook would be bleak.

In 2007, the unemployment rate was a rosy 6.8 percent. Now, it’s around 9.4 percent — higher than the state and national average.

Five years ago, foreclosures were down from previous years. Now, after a historic spike in 2009, the rate of foreclosures remains higher in Colorado Springs than the national average.

In 2007, the median household income was $57,000 — Today, it’s $52,000.

And the news for small businesses isn’t any better. The number of small businesses grew steadily until 2008, and then dropped this year below 2006 levels.

Despite increases in revenue in 2009 and 2010, few small businesses are hiring. The reason: high health care costs, lack of capital and economic uncertainty.

Construction levels have declined since 2007 — single family permit activity from 2008 to 2010 was less than 25 percent of the peak experienced in 2005. Significant improvement is “years away,” according to the reports’ authors.

Socially, more children are living in poverty, and the city’s suicide rates remain high. For the first time, the report notes that unusual populations — men and senior citizens — are committing suicide at much higher rates than the national average. It’s particularly disturbing, because the report doesn’t include military suicides, which typically are calculated by the federal government, not state public health officials.

In the meantime, young professionals are leaving by the hundreds, apparently and about 25 percent of the area’s third graders aren’t reading at grade level.

So what does the city’s strong mayor think about the lack of progress being made in the economic, education and social arenas?

It’s hard to tell.

Mayor Steve Bach, who campaigned on the promise of job creation and claims to be intimately familiar with the local business climate, brushed off questions earlier this week about the QLI report, saying instead that he planned to speak about the matter at today’s United Way press conference.

The QLI report did offer a few hints that things are improving.

Job growth statewide has been higher than anticipated, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 25,000 new jobs have been created in the state this year, far more than the 10,100 predicted.

And the United Way is working to improve reading scores in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Its “Success by Six” program kicked off last month, and the nonprofit is, for the first time, going to partner with agencies that are not United Way members in order to promote reading skills at an earlier age.

Fort Carson, the largest employer in the area, will get another 2,700 soldiers as part of the Combat Aviation Brigade. Construction of the brigade’s headquarters and other buildings is bringing an additional $720 million in construction costs to the Springs.

Attendance at local attractions has remained steady, in spite of the uncertain economy. Residents think the region is more accepting than in years past, that number is up 6 percent.

The cost of living in Colorado Springs is low. The city has a better median household income compared to benchmark cities and is the second most affordable city. The area hasn’t seen the income drop other Colorado metropolitans areas are struggling with.

And we’re pretty smart.

In comparison to Omaha, Boise and Albuquerque, El Paso County adults have higher levels of education and are earning more degrees.

Still, it’s a long slog back to 2007.