Drilling aside, what could help city coffers?

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As the year of 2013 began, we were hearing regularly about a potentially huge windfall for the Colorado Springs economy, with an impact substantial enough to change our local governments’ outlook for the future.

Just two quarters later, we enter July fully realizing that the supposed promise of an economic boom created by oil and gas drilling instead has become a quick, total bust. The main two companies hoping to strike it rich by finding underground resources, in the eastern half of El Paso County and within city limits on the Banning Lewis Ranch property, already have shut down exploratory operations.

So much for the thousands of high-paying jobs and streams of new tax revenue for the city and county.

Eventually, you can be sure, we’ll have to face the reality caused by having incredibly low property tax rates and the choking effect of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights ratchet-down effect. Unless something changes soon, we’re heading for massive problems related to fulfilling stormwater infrastructure needs, continuing to provide basic city services, and funding many ideas to improve our quality of life.

We keep hearing that Mayor Steve Bach at some point will propose a large ballot issue, perhaps following the lead of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority’s 10-year packages, but on a much grander scale.

That might become a viable solution at some point, but it probably won’t happen quickly or easily.

Meanwhile, we’re about to learn whether the City Council will pounce on its latest possible windfall.

That would be retail marijuana.

As most people understand by now, the language in Colorado’s Amendment 64, approved by the state’s voters last fall to legalize recreational marijuana, also gave cities and counties the chance to opt out of allowing retail sales of pot for non-medicinal purposes.

El Paso County commissioners have exercised that option, prohibiting recreational marijuana sales in unincorporated areas. Manitou Springs and Palmer Lake appear likely to allow limited recreational sales, realizing they may be alone.

What about Colorado Springs? This issue has become no less than fascinating, with Mayor Bach, various community/business leaders and retired military officers insisting to Council that recreational marijuana outlets will cause irreparable damage to the city.

Yet, various unscientific public polls indicate that most Springs residents have no problem with tightly regulated retail stores selling recreational pot. It’s apparently the libertarian side of the city coming out, combined with those who see marijuana as less harmful than alcohol. Put them together, and you have a strange majority.

After the municipal election in April created a “new” Council with six first-timers, we were hearing that the group likely would split 5-4 on allowing recreational marijuana stores. Would that be 5-4 in favor or against? Nobody could say for sure, since some newcomers hadn’t tipped their hand.

But now, with the Council taking up the question next week following a five-hour public hearing on June 27, word is spreading that those 5-4 projections might not pan out. Instead, we’re hearing, it could end up 6-3 or even 7-2 — in favor of allowing the sales of recreational marijuana inside city limits.

Until the elected leaders actually have their debate on the dais next week, we don’t know whether that information is correct or misguided. If it’s true, we can’t say yet what factors are influencing Council the most.

My guess is, it’s a combination of not wanting to go against constituents’ wishes — and yes, most city voters did approve Amendment 64 — along with a realization that recreational marijuana could replace oil and gas as the city’s next big windfall.

Already, taxes on medical marijuana pump more than $1 million a year into the city’s general fund. Forecasts suggest recreational marijuana would more than quadruple the amount of tax revenue, meaning $4 million or more annually for Colorado Springs.

In the end, this doesn’t look much like a morality debate anymore. We heard fears that the Pentagon might reduce the local military presence because of marijuana, but that isn’t happening. We heard companies might refuse to move here if the city allowed recreational pot sales, but we haven’t seen hard evidence of that. We heard fully legalized marijuana would cause visible moral decay across the city, but we don’t see that either.

As a friend recently put it, seems like legalization of recreational marijuana simply means those adults who were using pot illegally now use it legally.

We have so many other important issues facing the Springs business community. Wouldn’t it be easier to follow the apparent public wishes, push recreational marijuana forward, see how much it helps city finances — and focus on other challenges facing us all?