2013: From Council to disasters and C4C

Predictions of downtown flooding came true for Manitou Springs.

Predictions of downtown flooding came true for Manitou Springs.

January: Predictions (not endorsements) about City Council

“Here’s a possible lineup: District 1, Tim Leigh. District 2, Angela Dougan. District 3, Keith King. District 4, Deborah Hendrix. District 5, Al Loma. District 6, David Moore.

It’s a conservative group, which would likely look to Keith King for leadership. The canny King may have no experience in municipal government, but his years in the Legislature and the District 12 school board have given him the tools he needs to run the show.

The new majority would likely seek cooperation, not confrontation. There would be few of the angry turf battles that have characterized the past 20 months, as Hente’s Council and Bach’s administration sought to mark their respective territories.”

Other than correctly predicting that King would be elected and lead the new Council, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

March: Bemoaning one particularly divisive issue

Two months later we ate our words (or some of them). Noting that Don Knight and Joel Miller (who had both been endorsed by the Gazette and the Independent) were gaining traction, as were Andy Pico and Jill Gaebler, we also bemoaned the reappearance of one particularly divisive issue.

“Meanwhile, the Gazette-endorsed candidates stand united on at least one issue. Asked by Focus on the Family whether they ‘support or oppose having the mayor issue a proclamation in support of the annual gay pride parade,’ all expressed their opposition.

“There’s something dispiriting about seeing this forgotten nastiness resurface, and it doesn’t bode well for business. We have enough problems in this community without being re-branded as the city of intolerance. It’s up to the mayor to proclaim or not proclaim, so you’d think that the Gazette’s anointed sextet would have the sense to dodge the question, instead of pandering to the questioner.

“The future is unknowable, but one thing seems certain: Anti-gay prejudice is nonexistent among educated young people, and cities that cultivate such beliefs are unlikely to attract or retain the folks who will build our country’s future.”

 

March: So long, Ultra Petroleum

After bringing the area so much hope, Ultra Petroleum stopped its oil exploration activities in El Paso County and left for greener (or greasier?) pastures. It was not welcome news.

“When Ultra Petroleum stepped up in 2011 and bought the Banning Lewis Ranch at a bankruptcy auction, visions of sugarplums danced in many an establishment head.

“Our problems were solved! Oil and gas boom, here we come! No more pinched city budgets, no more 10 percent unemployment, no more gloomy talk of tax increases to fix our crumbling infrastructure. Who cares if Obama cuts the military budget — we’re in the money!

“Remember those delicious employment myths, most recently repeated by the still-hopeful City Councilor Angela “I’m a Believer” Dougan? The industry would create 3,000 direct jobs, paying more $100,000 annually. We’d be Texas without the duststorms, North Dakota without the nasty winters, Iraq without the bloodshed.

“And like a big quarrelsome family waiting for rich Uncle Joe to die and leave them money, we fought over our expected windfall. Fracking or no fracking? Environmentally benign or disaster in the making? Would the industry save us or ruin us?

“And then — poof.

“Ultra capped its first fracked well and slunk away in the night. No, Colorado Springs, there is no Santa Claus. Uncle Joe died broke.”

 

April: Fearing the worst before the April Council elections

“We’re in the process of electing six members of City Council at a time in the city’s history when we need experience, wisdom and good judgment. The good news is that there are such candidates. The bad news is that most of those candidates are concentrated in two districts.

“Imagine electing Jill Gaebler and Bernie Herpin from District 5, and Jim Bensberg, Brandy Williams, Keith King and Tom Gallagher from District 3. The six of them would mesh quickly and amicably with incumbents Jan Martin, Val Snider and Merv Bennett. Returning Herpin and Williams would guarantee continuity, while Bensberg, King and Gallagher would bring even more depth and experience.

“Dream on. While voters in District 3 and District 5 can scarcely go wrong, voters in other districts are not so fortunate. Some candidates are rigid ideologues while others have little knowledge of local government. If controversial incumbents such as Tim Leigh and Angela Dougan are shown the door by voters, their replacements had better be ready for extensive on-the-job training.

“Why are we in such a fix? It’s our own fault. We jiggered the city’s charter to add two more district seats. Had we left things alone, five councilors would be elected at large and four from districts. Williams and Leigh would have been elected to full four-year terms in 2011, instead of having to run for district seats after two years in office.

“By shrinking at-large representation, we’re going to get a more parochial, less experienced and more conservative City Council. That’s because of the winner-take-all nature of district races, and because moderates tend to do well in at-large races.

“When voters get to choose four or five candidates, they’re more likely to make diverse choices. Conservatives might throw in a sensible liberal, and vice versa.

“Winning candidates have to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, not just run to the right and hope for a conservative plurality. It’s much better to be the third or fourth choice of many voters than to be the first choice of a few.”

 

April: Bracing for dogfights during transition to new Council

Whether we were smoking some of that suddenly legalized weed, or just reading tea leaves, our predictions were improving. Here’s another.

“Go to the Humane Society and adopt six dogs. Don’t pay any attention to the Golden Retrievers and Labradors — we want tough, assertive, dominant dogs. How about two Pit Bulls, a Doberman, a Rottweiler and a pair of German Shepherds?

“Now load ’em in the back of your pickup, drive down to their new home at the corner of Nevada Avenue and Kiowa Street, and introduce them to their kennel mates — three relatively mellow mutts and a big, difficult dog who likes to fight.

“Think your 10 dogs will get along? No way — and you made a really stupid deal with the Humane Society. You’ve agreed to keep the four dogs you already have for two more years, and you have to keep the six new ones for four years.

“You must love watching dogfights, because that’s what you’re going to get. I know, I know — you’re the dog whisperer, and you’re sure these dogs will get along. They told you so, didn’t they?

“Welcome to the new City Council, same as the old City Council. Just as 10 tough dogs penned up together will fight for food, dominance, safety, attention and fun, our freshly elected officials will be snapping and snarling at Mayor Steve Bach and each other before summer arrives.”

 

Summer: The new City Council’s evolution

At first it was all sweetness and light. Shortly after council retreats at Glen Eyrie, Councilor Jill Gaebler marveled at how well the six newbies had meshed with the three veterans.

“We work together very well,” she observed. “And I think we all really like each other.”

Within months, Council had devolved into a sometimes bitter 5-4 split, united only in their dislike of Mayor Bach and their evident desire for more power and authority in city government. That dislike contributed into Council’s refusal, alone among regional elected bodies, to endorse Bach’s transformative “City for Champions” proposal.

Testifying before the Colorado Economic Development Commission, Gaebler characterized the project’s opponents, which included five of her colleagues, as “blinded by ideology.”

Several of the six new Councilors had benefited from support from both the coal industry and a Colorado Springs Utilities employee group. Such support may have factored in their decision to nix a proposed  third-party analysis of CSU’s electrical generation facilities.

This was our take:

 

“The case for keeping CSU intact as a four-service utility provider is simple and straightforward. CSU is conservatively and carefully managed, provides utility services at competitive rates, and allows the city to control its own destiny. Rates are determined by our elected City Council, not faceless bureaucrats at the Public Utilities Commission. CSU transfers more than $30 million annually to the city general fund, more than any private utility would pay as a franchise fee. If Xcel bought CSU’s electric generation and distribution facilities, rates would go up and hundreds of CSU employees would lose their jobs. CSU wouldn’t be a part of our community — corporate chieftains in Minneapolis would make the decisions, and they’d be slow to respond to the needs of local residents and businesses.

“The case against keeping electric generation and transmission is even simpler. Electric utilities are increasingly businesses of scale. CSU’s customer base is too small to fund system upgrades, such as replacing Drake. Cheap gas and a tougher regulatory environment threaten CSU, just as Wal-Mart threatened traditional retailers a generation ago. We’re living in a fool’s paradise. The politicians on Council are pandering to their constituents, afraid to even ask for an outside opinion.”

Council’s affection for city-owned coal-fired generating facilities didn’t extend to private solar power vendors. Reversing a decision of the previous Council, they canceled an agreement with locally owned community solar provider SunShare.

Egged on by Council President Keith King, Council voted 5-4 to kick SunShare to the curb.

That’s fine if you believe nothing could be better for economic development than driving fast-growing companies out of business or out of town.

Whether or not the decision made sense for ratepayers and/or regional economic development, it worked out for SunShare.

Forced to look elsewhere for opportunity, the company won major contracts from Xcel and other investor-owned utilities to build and operate “solar gardens” in other cities. The company retains an office in Colorado Springs, but has located its national headquarters in Denver. In a joint announcement with SunShare and Xcel, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock characterized SunShare iass the kind of growing, youthful, cutting edge company that Denver especially welcomes.

 

May: Regional Tourism Act

But the year’s biggest business story would surface on May 31, as rumors swirled around the city’s possible application for funding under the provisions of the Regional Tourism Act.

“Several months ago, the Colorado Springs City Council approved a $75,000 supplementary appropriation to prepare an application for funds that might be available through the Colorado Regional Tourism Act.

“Sounds boring enough, but we’re talking real money here. The act creates ‘a mechanism for a Local Government to undertake a Project to attract out-of-state visitors/non zone residents, to create a Zone in which the Project will be built, and to create an Authority or to designate other Financing Entities’ that would benefit from sales tax revenues to help fund a project.

“In other words, the city can create its own project, or choose one created by the private sector. The city and project sponsors must then make their case to the cold-eyed business people on the Colorado Economic Development Commission. If approved, the project can tap an agreed percentage of the projected increase in state sales tax levied in the Zone, which would be defined as the city itself.

“Those revenue flows could in turn finance project construction — and given that the EDC can approve up to $50 million in annual incremental revenue for such projects in any given year, the opportunity is huge.

“The program has been in effect for several years, but local governments have never bothered to submit an application. They had a wake-up call last year, though, when Pueblo’s application to build a Professional Bull Riding Hall of Fame and make multiple improvements to its ongoing Arkansas Riverwalk project sailed through the long, convoluted approval process.

“Applications for the next process are due June 13. You’d think, with so much on the line, the noise would be deafening.

“We’d know all about the project: what it is, who’s backing it, where it’ll be built, how much it’ll cost, how much the city would invest, how much the state would kick in, and whether any private funders have committed to help. We’d have architectural renderings, glowing Gazette editorials, and the usual suspects would offer a supportive amen chorus.

“Instead, silence.

“Here’s the city’s official line, in response to a CSBJ query: ‘The City is giving careful consideration on whether to submit a Regional Tourism Act application. Further information will be provided once a decision has been reached.’

“The Big Dogs may have marked their territory, but the public still isn’t in the loop. Yet one thing is certain: An application will be submitted. Mayor Steve Bach’s administration isn’t about to blow $75,000 and delay a major economic development project. So what can we expect to see?

“Many local projects might qualify: a new Air Force Academy Visitor Center, a downtown baseball stadium, upcoming UCCS sports-medical projects, the Pikes Peak Summit House, the proposed children’s and science museums, and (drum roll) the Olympic Hall of Fame museum.

“The Summit House (disclosure: I was involved earlier with a feasibility study) is a non-starter, because it won’t generate enough verifiable incremental revenue. The science and children’s museums will attract mainly local visitors, so they could be add-ons. That leaves three lead dogs: the Olympic Hall of Fame, the AFA Visitor Center and a downtown stadium. “Don’t count out the UCCS part, either.

“The Olympic HOF has topped the regional wish list for 30 years. Given the possible availability of primary financing, supplemental funders would line up immediately. El Pomar and the Anschutz foundations would be on board, as would the Daniels Fund. Corporate supporters would want a piece of the action.

“And a new AFA facility at the north entrance is a no-brainer. It’ll provide a vastly enhanced visitor experience, as well as improved safety and security.

“Packaging those two guarantees a successful RTA package, particularly in the rumored absence of strong competition from other jurisdictions.

“Worthy as they are, both projects are designed to capture “sedentary tourists,” folks who want to look at things, not do things. They were also conceived and created by the beating heart of the Colorado Springs establishment.

“Who are these decision-makers? Let’s call the roll: A is for Philip Anschutz, B is for two Steves and a Scott — Bach, Bartolin and Blackmun, C is for Dick Celeste, H is for Bill Hybl, M is for Chuck Murphy and his colleagues on the Colorado Economic Development Commission, and Y is for what the rest of us soon will likely say …

Yes, sir!”

The rumors would soon be confirmed, as the city filed its application, grandly titled “City for Champions,” a few weeks later. C4C would return to our pages many times during the year,

 

July: Old Colorado City braces for Kum & Go’s large invasion

Ever visit a Kum & Go?

They’re to convenience stores what Costco is to retailers. They’re big, efficient and customer friendly. Pumps are widely separated and easy to access.

The stores are spacious and welcoming, offering fresh pizza and pastries, and many locally sourced products.

The privately owned Midwestern chain has entered the Colorado Springs market with a vengeance, with eight stores already in the city, and one in Monument. The company plans to have 20-25 locations in the region in the near future. In fact, they’ve just contracted to buy a couple of rundown commercial buildings not far from downtown, demolish them and put up a sparkling new Kum & Go for the convenience of all.

So what’s not to like? It’s not about the store — it’s about the location.

Now owned by Goodwill Industries, the proposed Kum & Go site covers nearly the entire city block bounded by West Colorado Avenue, 23rd and 24th streets, and Cucharras.

That’s at the gateway to Old Colorado City, the restored Victorian commercial district that narrowly avoided the wrecker’s ball 30 years ago.

Now a National Historic District, Old Colorado City is literally irreplaceable. By definition, no Victorian commercial structures have been erected since Jan. 22, 1901, when the “Old Queen” breathed her last.

Benighted property owners in our city’s once-resplendent downtown ripped down iconic Victorian buildings such as the former Antlers Hotel and Burns Opera House during the 1960s, but Old Colorado City still stands.

It has been a lively, vibrant place for the past three decades. Locally owned wine bars, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, jazz bars, art galleries and other small retailers occupy storefronts along Colorado Avenue and down the side streets. It’s been a success — but the area needs some upgrading.

Consider Manitou Springs, which has transformed a dowdy downtown into a sparkling gem.

Private investment has gone into the restoration of existing buildings and the construction of compatible new ones, complemented by publicly funded streetscape improvements.

The result: more businesses, more visitors, pedestrian traffic, tax revenues, more jobs, higher property values. It’s called a virtuous circle, which can’t occur without close collaboration among government, businesses, residents and property owners.

Followup: Faced with strong community opposition, Kum & Go withdrew from the deal. Goodwill has yet to make a deal on the property.

April-May: Incoming Tide, history of area floods

In a sadly prescient three-part series, the Business Journal examined the history of floods in the Pikes Peak Region, noting with particular emphasis the danger posed by potential flash flooding in Manitou. An excerpt:

Flash floods, so called because they occur after relatively short, intense rainfall events that send sudden flood crests down streambeds, are “the most common natural hazard” in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region.

“Flash floods tend to occur from May through September,” according the city’s office of emergency management, “and are usually caused by thunderstorms that are out of sight and hearing range of people downstream. Runoff from the mountains can quickly cause the water levels of small creeks and dry streambeds to rise to unsafe levels. These walls of water are fast moving and can easily reach heights of 10-20 feet.”

Because afternoon thunderstorms tend to intensify and gain energy as they migrate from the mountains to lower altitudes, flash flooding in waterways such as Jimmy Camp Creek and Sand Creek has been more common than in Manitou or western Colorado Springs.

That may no longer be the case, thanks to the Waldo Canyon fire, which charred more than 18,000 acres of heavily forested mountain terrain above the city. Restoration work has been underway for months, but wildfires create hydrophobic soils, almost impervious to water. Imagine the effects of paving 30 square miles of mountain backdrop, and it’s easy to understand how flood events can threaten lives and property.

Flash floods have occurred with some frequency in Manitou and Old Colorado City during the past 150 years. While records from the 19th Century are scanty and anecdotal, severe flash floods apparently occurred in 1864, 1882 and 1885.

On June 10, 1864, Fountain Creek rose 20 to 30 feet, sweeping away “almost all” of Colorado City. Sounds impressive, but it’s worth noting that the Colorado City of 1864 was a rag-tag assortment of cabins and flimsy frame structures huddled along the creek. In 1882, a flash flood burst through Williams Canyon, killing a 14-year-old boy, followed three years later by a storm that dropped “16 inches of rain and hail” near Manitou, reportedly destroying a railroad bridge.

In the 20th Century, significant regional floods occurred in 1921, 1935, 1965 and 1999. All of them affected Manitou, especially the 1999 event. In a 2003 study done in conjunction with proposed revisions of Colorado Springs drainage criteria, Matthew Garcia wrote: “The heaviest recorded rainfall exceeded 9.3 inches over 80 hours and was concentrated within the area of the City of Colorado Springs … meteorological patterns surrounding this storm event conformed with those [of the Big Thompson flood of 1976].”

In other words, Manitou dodged a bullet.

The 1999 flood was later analyzed by the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). From the report: “Manitou Springs was flooded by nightfall on April 29 when flood waters came rushing out of Williams Canyon. Williams Creek usually runs quietly beneath the sidewalk at Canon Avenue, but it quickly became jammed with debris and broke through the pavement. A 20-ton boulder crashed into a Manitou Springs home on May 1 after being loosened by four days of torrential rains.

“On the same day, officials closed Washington Avenue for fear that the road would begin sliding down the hillside which had been badly eroded by the rains. Several roads in the town were damaged or covered with debris after the floodwaters receded. … The four-day rain total for Manitou Springs was 12.16 inches. They are the four wettest days on record for April in the region.”

 

August: After the first Manitou flood of 2013

Friday’s flood was triggered by rainfall totaling approximately 1.3 inches on the Waldo burn scar. The 1999 flood resulted from a four-day rain total of 12.16 inches, 10 times that which triggered the 2013 event.

In other words, we have yet to see the Big One. The Waldo burn scar will remain as impermeable as asphalt for as long as 10 years, heightening the possibility that a 20-, 50- or 100-year rain event could send a wall of water down Williams Creek, Fountain Creek or U.S. Highway 24, killing scores of people and destroying much of downtown Manitou Springs.

Also in our May story, we shared the 1999 work of UCCS geography professor Eve Gruntfest (who authored the Manitou Springs Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan nearly 30 years ago), who created a minute-by-minute simulation of a major flash flood. The result: 47 deaths, dozens missing, and apocalyptic property losses.

Such losses, especially if they came at night with little warning and slow reactions, might even resemble the toll of the tragic Big Thompson flood of 1976, which killed 144 people and injured 150 downstream from Estes Park.

Think it can’t happen? Guess again.

“There’s nothing magic about the geography of the Big Thompson Canyon that is different than the vulnerability of the Manitou Springs-Colorado Springs area,” Gruntfest said earlier this year. “We have just been lucky — but luck is not enough to count on for the long term.”

At his monthly news conference, Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach expressed regional solidarity with the city’s smaller neighbor.

“I spoke several times to (Manitou Springs) Mayor Marc Snyder,” said Bach. “I offered him every resource the city of Colorado Springs can muster. We want to be good neighbors.”

That’s a pledge that the city lived up to during the Black Forest fire and its aftermath and will certainly live up to as Manitou continues to clean up and rebuild.

Waldo, Black Forest, Manitou — what do these events have in common? All may have been confined to relatively small geographic areas, but they’re regional problems that demand a regional solution. All are linked by the common denominator of stormwater.

The region’s governments need to stop foot-dragging, quarreling, arguing over funding mechanisms, debating the scope of the problem, or threatening to go it alone.

If stormwater drainage were World War II, we’d all be citizens of the Reich. We have been utterly incapable of solving the problem, even as the consequences of our neglect multiply.

This is our region’s biggest problem. We need to solve it right now by adopting a regional solution, as proposed by the regional stormwater task force.”

Followup: Mayor Steve Bach, City Council and the Board of County Commissioners have yet to agree on a regional stormwater plan, but that’s no surprise, given their lack of agreement on most regional issues.

 

December: City for Champions

The City for Champions proposal had its ups and downs. It was endorsed by every elected body in the Pikes Peak Region – except the Colorado Springs City Council. That didn’t faze Bach, Chris Jenkins, Bill Hybl, Steve Bartolin, Dick Celeste, Pam Shockley-Zalabak and an all-star lineup of city leaders, who trekked up to Denver during a fierce December storm to pitch the project to the Colorado Economic Development Commission.

To their surprise and delight, the EDC granted the project the full amount requested; $120 million in state tax increment funding.

Supporters characterized it as an historic decision, one as significant to the city’s future as the creation of the Air Force Academy half a century earlier. Our report began:

After months of uncertainty, revisions, controversy and discordant public opinion, the Colorado Economic Development Commission decided to give Colorado Springs a chance to back up its promises.

Despite staff and third-party advice to the contrary, the commission approved full tax-increment funding via the Regional Tourism Act for an estimated $120 million to help finance and develop City for Champions, four ambitious projects totaling about $250 million, conceived to enhance the Pikes Peak region’s tourism industry.

“What a momentous occasion, knowing what this will mean for so many generations to come,” Mayor Steve Bach said at a news conference.

“This is something for all of us to celebrate.”

Other officials echoed the mayor’s sentiments, including Chuck Murphy, the area’s only representative on the state commission. Murphy, who recused himself from the vote because of his open support, compared the moment to when Colorado Springs secured the Air Force Academy in the 1950s.

“I don’t know when I’ve been more proud,” Murphy said. “A dream has become reality right here. We have made history today … and God knows we deserve it.”

The commission voted 10-0 in favor of the projects, and 7-2 to approve the full funding.

With that endorsement, local business, government, education and military leaders gave assurances they would move quickly to solidify plans for the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, the Colorado Sports and Event Center, the UCCS Sports Medicine and Performance Center and a new Air Force Academy Visitors Center.

 

2 Responses to 2013: From Council to disasters and C4C

  1. For 2014: how big an issue will jobs be? And will the need for a free-standing, non-political, professional Economic Development Organization come front and center? – - and will one be established and by whom? According to U.S. Dept of Labor stats, for 2011-2013, the numbers are interesting for new job creation:

    Colorado Springs = 688, Pueblo = 1255, Reno = 2422, Boulder = 3280.

    Richard D. Wehner
    December 31, 2013 at 11:59 am

  2. Ill believe it when i see it. This City is known for having committee, studies, plans, etc. but nun ever get done especially when people need to cough up dollars. Let’s see what the Gazette is writing about a couple of years from now. UCCS will probably be the one thing that gets done in the next 5 years.

    Dale Heeven Jr.
    January 2, 2014 at 10:06 pm