Colorado Springs: A modern-day ancient Rome?

“To the glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome.”

– Edgar Allan Poe, “To Helen”

The ruins of ancient Rome have fascinated historians, poets and melancholy romantics for centuries. Since Edward Gibbons’ monumental “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” historians have focused upon the politics of decay and collapse.

But before empires, nations or cities can fall, they must build, maintain and rebuild. At its zenith, the Roman Empire circled the Mediterranean, stretching from England to Egypt, from Constantinople to Lisbon, encompassing a quarter of the world’s population.

Rome’s grandeur was anything but romantic. It was created and sustained by practical feats of engineering, by military power, by administrative excellence and by ingenious systems of taxation.

Roman bridges spanned every river in Europe; Roman roads connected the imperial city with its satrapies; Roman aqueducts brought water to cities from distant mountain streams.

Colorado Springs will never rule the known world – and given our quarrelsome, dysfunctional City Council it may not even rule the entire city. But by studying Rome, we learn a simple lesson: build, fix, repair and rebuild. Without functional urban infrastructure, cities fade away.

We’ve fallen dramatically behind all of our peer cities in everything but aqueduct building.

 

We’re lucky; we don’t have to raise and maintain 30 Roman legions to protect the city, nor do we have to pay for transportation improvements throughout our empire. We do a good job of building and maintaining the aqueducts that transport water from distant mountain sources, but that’s about it.

Rome finally fell to barbarian tribes in the 5th Century. The now-fractured empire was overextended, its economy devastated, its citizens disaffected and rebellious. The creative energy that had once energized Rome had long before migrated to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire.

But we don’t have to worry about barbarians from Pueblo, Albuquerque or Denver sacking our town. We’re doing the job ourselves.

We’ve fallen dramatically behind all of our peer cities in everything but aqueduct building. Thanks to a generation of neglect, we’re a billion dollars in the hole. Our stormwater infrastructure is dismal, our roads and bridges are just as bad, and our once-resplendent downtown is tired and shabby.

What happened? How did we screw up so badly?

The answer is simple – we became an imperial city. We didn’t rule all of Gaul, but all of suburbia.

Like the ancient Romans, city officials believed that revenue flows from their new subjects would bring prosperity to all. Revenue increased, but so did expenses. New infrastructure had to be built and maintained even as city policies subsidized explosive suburban growth.

Taxes had to be raised and raised again – and along came the Dougster. The irascible Mr. Bruce brought his Tabor anti-tax charter amendment to town, and persuaded conservative residents to support it.

The 1991 amendment not only forbade local governments to raise taxes without voter consent, but also phased out a recently instituted half-cent sales tax for capital improvements.

The statewide Tabor Amendment and the previously enacted Gallagher Amendment (which established a fixed ratio between commercial and residential tax collections) contributed to local fiscal paralysis.

Voters approved new taxes to support open space, transportation and public safety, but refused to raise city property taxes. The tireless Bruce, peeved by Council passage of a “fee” to pay for stormwater infrastructure, asked voters to nix it – and they did.

So here we are. Midwestern hellholes that we laughed at 30 years ago, such as Omaha and Oklahoma City, have become modern metropolises overflowing with cool. Denver, once a dreary backwater famous only for the “brown cloud” of air pollution that hovered above the city most winter days, is now a world-class city.

And us? We’re the happy subjects of Cleopatra, queen of denial. We think it’s fine to have a coal-fired power plant in the middle of downtown, fine to rely on the federal government to prop up 40 percent of the economy, fine to assume that someone – the feds, the state, El Pomar, Phil Anschutz – will bail us out. We’re Colorado Springs! We’re not like those other cities! We don’t need to raise taxes, or fix roads or do anything that costs money!

And you tell that to Mayor Bach and his developer friends – we don’t need no stinkin’ Olympic baseball health and visitor center, or whatever it is they want. Just shut up and fix the potholes. We know you have plenty of money to do it.

17 Responses to Colorado Springs: A modern-day ancient Rome?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. There’s always a lot of talk and hand-wringing, but little action from the sclerotic good ol’ boy faction that seems to actually run the Springs. Which is why I’m headed to Denver or Boulder after I graduate — they have thriving tech activity, plenty of jobs and venture capital, civic vision, and Interesting downtowns.

    No taxes ever under any circumstances does not a thriving metropolitan area make.

    Phoebe
    September 24, 2013 at 11:18 am

  2. Running off statistical averages, how much city sales tax revenue and property taxes are lost when one college-educated, high-tech related young person who will work and spend in Colorado Springs over a lifetime is lost when they move to Boulder?

    And Ms. Phoebe, what would it take to keep you? Has anybody asked?

    Anybody?

    Rick Wehner
    September 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm

  3. Great article! We have moved to Colorado Springs four years age from a back-water town called Dubuque, Iowa. Dubuque is so much better than here, it’s almost funny! NO IT IS FUNNY!

    But you know what the philosophers say:
    “Put an infinite number of monkeys,in front of an infinite number of typewriters, and eventually they’ll write the great books.”

    Thank you!

    Gerry Murphy
    September 24, 2013 at 1:31 pm

  4. So your answer is “Raise Taxes” and all of Colorado Springs problems go away???!!!
    Raising taxes doesn’t solve any problems with infrastructure. The failing economy has hurt everyone’s bank accounts. So we should take more of it to do what? Drive more people away…..
    Let’s first look at how to bring more companies here that will create jobs and what spending can we eliminate, that will help save money so it can be spent responsibly. Let’s not try to stop Kum and Go from building stores in Old Colorado City because it’s a historic place (7-11 must be historic because they have stores in Old Colorado City). More businesses, equals more jobs,equals less un or under employment, equals more tax revenue from people and these companies.
    That’s the types of things we need to do to keep up with keeping our city running efficiently, our road and bridges in good shape, etc….

    Taves Maciel
    September 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm

  5. yes, but just to make sure this is truth you are telling, we need another study…another company to tell us what the last company told us was true. I am tired of talking and tired of listening.

    carolyn cathey
    September 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm

  6. Taves

    It appears there is some chickening and egging taken place in that yes, more business and more people spending more dollars is an essential part of the equation to rebuild the local area.

    But there also appears to be a confluence of events as powerful as stormwater and that is the confluence of 1) companies will not move to the area until there is considerable improvement 2)Those who are gaining their educations are grabbing diplomas and bus tickets out on the same day 3)What appears to be more and more financially comfortable retired couples are moving out.

    Three sources of revenue: one won’t come and two are leaving.

    What mechanism would you suggest to determine how best to re-evaluate those causal factors creating this exodus? Is is necessary to first find out what the real root causes are before setting up corrective measures? And: who undertakes this endeavor?

    Rick Wehner
    September 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm

  7. Ah, ’tis so true. This late-30-something did what he had to after growing tired of commuting from Colorado Springs to the Denver-Boulder area for a high-tech job that actually paid enough. I sold the house, packed up the family, and moved to the Seattle area! Rain and all. Sadly, I could not raise my family on the scenery, alone, in Colorado Springs.

    Araye
    September 24, 2013 at 11:27 pm

  8. There are some very basic structural problems here, and no easy/short term solutions. Lack of good paying jobs is leading to a flight of talent to north, which decreases the local talent pool, which decreases the tax base, which decrease the basic services, which makes it less likely that companies will move here. That leaves us relying on the federal government as a major employer. IMHO, the jobs that the federal government brings here are on the low end – enlisted men, as opposed to officers, have low pay, low benefits, less education, less opportunity for advancement/growth/higher income. They also tend to be transitory: a 2-3 deployment here, then off to the next base. The lack of discretionary income in retirement also applies to the high number of military and civilian retirees. Thus companies that are expanding here serve those needs : more Kum and Go’s, more self storage units, more chain restaurants, and no technology companies, no expansion of engineering firms, no small business. It’s a vicious circle. Lack of opportunity result in low paying jobs which results in lack of opportunity.
    Combine that with a highly dysfunctional city council, a politically divided citizen base, and a highly transitory young/military population that has no long term connection to the community around them and an aging population that does not want nor can afford higher taxes to pay for basic infrastructure needs and you have the recipe for a demographic disaster.
    Maybe the best we can hope to be is a high quality bedroom community for Denver and points north, like Fredericksburg in VA is to Washington DC? Maybe we should focus on winding down the city, stop expansion to the East, South and North, and focus on trying to save what we already have? Maybe we should let the city and the county completely and rapidly collapse, then allow us, like a business in the free market, figure out what we want to be and then start the process of rebuilding. I don’t know. This just seems to becoming ‘Pueblo North’ at a fast clip, and I am worried for the future of this town…

    John
    September 25, 2013 at 9:13 am

  9. John.

    Is this not what we see taking place?

    “Maybe we should let the city and the county completely and rapidly collapse, then allow us, like a business in the free market, figure out what we want to be and then start the process of rebuilding.”

    Without the cooperative and collaborative spirit that has been seen in ‘civic engagement trips’ to competing cities – - what you describe is occuring. The forecast from local economists (plural) coupled with that from the City Committee indicate flat revenues for the coming decade.

    A unification of bright, committed and dedicated members from within the small business community might well be the key to reversing this trend and developing the vibrancy the region is capable of becoming.

    A ‘regional management team’. Non-Political.

    Sometimes, we just don’t put gas in the car until we are stalled out on the side of the road. Are we sputtering yet?

    Rick Wehner
    September 25, 2013 at 9:27 am

  10. Rick

    Yes, I think this is what is happening. Only I don’t see any cooperative or collaberative spirit. I read flat revenues and stagnation. The only growth appears to be from those who cannot afford to move elsewhere or who are stationed here.
    The result is I see small business owners moving elsewhere. In the past three years, I have had 6 friends, all small business owners, decide to leave this town. Not because of taxes or regulations. Three actually moved to California (!!!), two up to Denver, one to Ft Collins. All six said the opportunity for growth is so much stronger elsewhere. Two specifically stated that talent pool in the Denver/Broomfield/Longmont area was much stronger than here, and in order for them to grow it was only logical for them to move. One said it had become impossible to recruit new staff to Colorado Springs because of a lack of amenities. The response he had was ‘all of the front range has beautiful mountains, and much more shopping, dining, and entertainment. Why would I choose the Springs over that.’ The mechanical engineering son (in his mid 30′s) of a colleague recently moved his family from the Springs to Seattle for a better job opportunity. He told his mother “My wife and I couldn’t wait to get out” because the lack of opportunities, shopping, and dining for him and his family.
    I point this out because while we seem to be heading towards to bottom of the barrel when it comes to livability of Front Range cities, no one seems to recognize it. Or when it is pointed out, people become angry and deny that a problem exists. “Traffic and crowds and big business running out the small guy and not everyone wants to go out to a fancy dinner or participate in the messed up culture that is present in other parts of this country” are all excuses I have heard as to why we should not change anything here.
    It’s a difficult ‘what comes first, the chicken or the egg’ kind of problem. Traffic and crowds and big businesses and shopping and dining attract more of the same, and attracts more wallets. But how do you get the business in the first place? If a low tax, low regulation environment is all that it takes, then Wyoming and Nevada would be turning people away. The Springs has, the last time I checked, a smaller government, lower tax rate and less regulations than the other front range cities. Yet we lag the northern front range on expected growth.
    I’ts just sad and it greatly worries me. The car is sputtering, but instead of trying to get it to the gas station, I fear people may just end up abandoning it by the side of the road.

    John
    September 25, 2013 at 11:42 am

  11. ……. we need more brewpubs.
    ….. good beer makes anything more acceptable.

    richard black
    September 26, 2013 at 2:40 pm

  12. I did the move from CS to Bould/Den this year and my quality of life is much higher and my overall happiness has gone way up. Not a huge fan of Boulder lifestyle (love the Den lifestyle), but the high tech job environment is very different and much better to be around. In cos, it felt as if everyone was beaten down for so many years and was always worried about the next hit to be delivered and as a result felt like people felt like there efforts woudln’t make a difference. here in boulder, there is much greater optimism about bringing new ideas to the industry and making a difference.

    Le
    September 27, 2013 at 7:37 am

  13. Smart folks do get it.. And CS really could have been something cool. But that’s life. Fort Collins, Denver, Utah, etc. take up the slack.

    There are many, many places that could have been. But in life we go to those that ‘are being’… Like Austin TX for example.

    It’s not so bad, it’s just bad for the idea of CS being something. Those other places are good. I really never thought CS would turn out how it has. But after that shock, I think I’ve found a place to take CS’s place. I hope it turns out to be even better than I’ve imagined. That’s what often happens in life.

    Thank God We Left
    September 27, 2013 at 8:01 am

  14. I grew up in this town and am sad to say the first chance I have..I am selling out and moving on. I made a good living traveling on Task Force for a Hotel Company. After an exhausting 3 year stint of flying out for 2-3 weeks and home in CS for 2-3 days..I decided to stay home in support of my own town. Great I thought…make a living and return home every night. Big Joke on me…politically and economically this town has gone to the pilgrims who came here with a total lack of respect or vision. I now work at a JOB and I can’t even pay my utility bill on time….don’t get me started on that one$$$Coal is expensive and there is an additional fee to Western Union for online payment…

    Colorado Springs Native
    September 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm

  15. Once again, we have ex-city councilman Hazlehurst hailing higher taxes as the all seeing answer. So let’s review. If you ride around our fair city today, you will see more infrastructure projects going on than I can ever remember happening here. I-25 is being widened for a long way. Uintah Street is under going a widening and a sidewalk/retaining wall project that runs for several blocks west of I-25. Garden of the Gods Road is being widened to six lanes from I-25 all the way to Academy Blvd. I think the City has replaced nearly every concrete curb in downtown Colorado Springs, and even a few curbs in the suburbs, where the taxes are really collected. This goes on and on. So John, how did all that happen without local tax increases?

    Under Mayor Rivera, when no tax increases were voted in, but a large number of Certificates of Participation were past by City Council, a known way of sidestepping the voters. Nearly all of that money went into meaningless projects in downtown CS. Projects that have generated no meaningful return.

    There were some “interesting” deals made in the renovation/construction of the Lorig Building, now called the Olympic Committee Building. We like to subsidize downtown government projects, but never anyone else, and never outside of downtown.

    As a comparison, the worst mistake, a gigantic stupid mistake, an awesome holy monster of a mistake, was made by our same said amazing leadership. I refer to the decision to not grant Apple Computer any tax incentives for their plant, which then was located on south I-25. We will give the Olympic folks 60 million, but not Apple. We pamper the Broadmoor Hotel, but not Apple.

    So Apple responded intelligently. They closed the plant and moved their operations to Austin, TX. (Texans don’t like to raise taxes either.) Apple’s employment in Austin is now approaching 10,000 employees and may reach 40,000 in the next few years. Wouldn’t that have been nice to have here? And what happened to our local city geniuses who made this delicious decision? They retired on exorbitant retirements that routinely exceeded their salaries when they were working. This city’s motto is “Do Something Stupid, and We will Retire You in Glorious Luxury.”

    Then we have the runaway pension plan caper. That’s the one where our genius leaders used their inherent skills and abilities and appointed incompetent leadership to Memorial Hospital. It was a good hospital before they ran it into the ground.

    So then we tried to sneak a slick one past the University of Colorado by selling them Memorial without paying for our unfunded pension liability caused by the amazing pensions that have been routinely granted to government personnel in our fair city. Granted by our City Council, but not funded. The same pension plan crap is going on now in the CS Utilities, even as we speak.

    So John, like you, I’m a native. I like the place. I like the weather. I like the scenery. I like most of the people. But I have the audacity to think a lot of our successes around here has been in spite of our leadership and not because of them. I think raising taxes might be the worst thing to do. Most of the real estate market slowdown here coincided nicely with the CS Utilities decisions to raise the price of water. The rule is “Raise Taxes (or use utilities as a tax substitute) and Tank your Economy.”

    I think all governments seem to operate on the “emergency du jour” principle. The current emergency on the local level is the “storm water drainage problem.” Fact is, if our city government were to spend five billion dollars on a gold plated storm water system, and we got a storm like they just got in Boulder, the five billion dollar storm water system would be washed down to the Arkansas River. God just has more firepower than we’ve got. Your daddy told you, “don’t build right next to the creek.” Of course, we listened.

    Want proof? Go read the Gazette reports on the flooding in Cheyenne Creek in 1921. Huge storm happens on Cheyenne Mountain. Flooding and debris flows in 1921 created a lake 20 feet deep in the creek bottom. Same thing happens every twenty-thirty years or so. Like 1935 or 1965, 1985, or 2013. So where was the lake? Ah. I thought you would never ask. They built the Cheyenne Mountain Junior High School right on that very spot. Down there by the spot the Street department was dealing with flooding just last week. Brilliant site selection for a school, don’t you think? We don’t need higher taxes. We need better thinking.

    Pokey
    September 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm

  16. The sales tax in CS is somewhat lower than most of the cities I have lived. So a sales tax increase would not bother me much. But I would argue that tax increases are not going to solve anything. If you give politicians and civil servants more money they just think of more ways to waste it. The business community is responsible for picking up this city by its shoestrings. And the business community does need to quit depending on the federal government and the insurance industry. Neither one of these villains is anyone’s friend.

    Steven Shepard
    September 30, 2013 at 9:20 pm

  17. So much fun to read all the comments! Pokey, you make many good points (especially about building in the flood plain), but governments make mistakes – that’s the nature of the beast. Hindsight is always 100 percent, so it’s difficult to predict what might have happened with Apple had they been more generously “incentivized”, or whatever the current euphemism for government handouts is. They might have, like Intel, expanded wildly and then folded their tents – hi tech manufacturers mostly left for reasons that may have had little to do with city policies (except, perhaps, for the business personal property tax, particularly onerous for companies such as Intel.)
    As for higher taxes, I’m not sure. We may need a better-balanced tax system, one that isn’t so dependent on sales tax revenue, and a property tax that doesn’t penalize commercial property owners. But one thing seems apparent: whatever we’ve been doing needs to change – otherwise we’ll just be a crumbling little city full of retirees living on Social Security, minimum wage workers, and health care facilities – maybe not even Pueblo North.

    John Hazlehurst
    October 1, 2013 at 1:49 pm