All cities face challenges at some point in their history. Fire destroyed much of San Francisco, Katrina drowned New Orleans and a 1900 hurricane leveled Galveston. War ravaged Beirut, Dresden and St Petersburg. The Black Plague decimated London, and more than a thousand famines have swept through Chinese cities.
We dread the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the terrible steeds who bring war, famine, flood and death.
But perhaps we fear the wrong things. Cities fail because they lose their reason for existence.
Residents of such cities embrace the four donkeys of delusion. They tell us that everything’s fine, that the future will take care of itself, that God protects us, and that prosperity is the natural order of things. So believed the residents of Mesa Verde and Chichen Itza, of Nineveh and Tyre, and of Uravan and Tarryall.
We’ve had it pretty good in the Pikes Peak region for the past 60 years. We’ve been a military town in a defense-driven era and a Western city in a time of westward migration. We’ve grown and prospered. It’s been a long, strange, and interesting trip — and it’s about to end.
Military spending saved us from the worst effects of the Great Recession, yet recovery remains feeble and uncertain. In the end, little has changed in more than a half-century. Like it or not, our city’s future is tied to the military, which accounts for close to a third of the local economy.
That’s unacceptable. Even if we avoid sequestration in March, defense spending will shrink radically in the next decade.
What should we do?
We’re already in the Hunger Games, competing against dozens of other cities in trying to dodge the cuts that are sure to come. Do we have a Katniss Everdeen to defend us? I’m not sure that Doug Lamborn measures up.
Remember when Detroit began its long decline? Auto execs blamed Americans for refusing to buy Detroit’s junky cars, autoworkers blamed incompetent managers, management blamed greedy and rule-bound union workers, and politicians dithered.
Local decision-makers didn’t know how to react, as the manufacturing economy that had created and supported Midwestern cities for generations began to falter. The new world before them seemed strange, hostile and implacable — so they didn’t do much of anything.
What about us? Are we prepared for the worst? It seems inconceivable that our city could ever go the way of Detroit and Cleveland, of Flint and Buffalo … but here’s a scenario:
It’s 2025. Fort Carson has been closed for three years. Schriever is history. The Air Force Academy has dropped down to Division III, with just over a thousand cadets on campus. Military contractors have disappeared from the region.
The oil and gas boom that so many anticipated in 2013 never materialized. Ultra Petroleum cut its losses and sold Banning-Lewis to Phil Anschutz for $7 million. It’s still a cattle ranch — and Anschutz’s heirs, having sold The Broadmoor and closed The Gazette, intend to package the ranch with the rest of Anschutz’s vast land holdings and sell it all.
Our vaunted downtown renaissance never happened, as conservative banks, fearful investors, and a souring economy thwarted the ambitions of a few visionary developers. Southeastern Colorado Springs, hit hard by the closure of the Mountain Post, is our very own South Bronx, a grim landscape of boarded-up apartment buildings, closed businesses and abandoned homes. The City Administration Building has been vacant for years, abandoned after Mayor Steve Bach persuaded the U.S. Olympic Committee to share space with a much-diminished city work force. Utility bills have soared as bills come due for the now-abandoned Southern Delivery System.
With no new jobs, the local economy is sustained by tight-fisted retirees living on fixed incomes. Sales tax receipts have declined every year since 2017. Resentful old-timers, stuck in unsalable homes, fondly remember the boom years of the 1990s.
Unlikely? Yes. Unthinkable. No.
How do we avoid it? We create our own future, just as Denver, Omaha, Indianapolis and Columbus did. We invest in our city. We tear down Martin Drake Power Plant and build a baseball stadium, we revive our moribund park system, we fill downtown with new buildings, we convert the city admin building to live/work entrepreneurial space, and we welcome every crazed entrepreneur, artist, dreamer and scoundrel to Colorado Springs, the new California.
We throw open the windows of our tired old city and let the air in … and people will come and marvel, and even quote Shakespeare:
“O brave new world / That has such people in’t.”
Of course, when the awed Miranda spoke those lines in the Tempest, she was looking at a crowd of drunken sailors … but that’d be a good start.