Prepare for future pitches of progress and prosperity

Mon, Jun 11, 2012


It’s exciting to be back at CSBJ!


I’ve missed writing about business during the past 18 months. In Colorado Springs, the biggest stories are at the nexus of politics, business and belief — religious or secular.


Take the strange and scarcely believable saga of the Banning Lewis Ranch, which in 25 years has gone from cattle ranch to the largest annexation in the city’s history to the largest foreclosure in the city’s history to a vast undeveloped tract on the city’s eastern border to bankruptcy to—an oil and gas bonanza? An abandoned oil and gas prospect? A cattle ranch? A buffalo refuge? We’ll see.


Most of us approve of prosperity. We’d rather live in a booming, energized city than in a decaying backwater with a glorious past and no future.


That’s why business and nonprofit leaders historically have joined with politicians to push projects that are thought to promote economic growth. Such projects often involve public dollars and/or public risk. Alas, the risks are not always clear.


In 1989, city elected officials bought Frank Aries’ Banning Lewis story.


“Annex this land,” he told them, “and you’ll control your own destiny! Don’t make Denver’s mistake, and get landlocked — you’ll lose your tax base to new suburban cities, and wither away.”


Twenty years later, City Councilors listened to another pitch.


“We need to create a retention package for the USOC,” they said, “or they’ll leave town, and our city, no longer the amateur sports capital of America, will wither away.”


We’ll hear a lot of similar pitches in the next few years. We’ve already fallen for the Copper Ridge pitch (“subsidize a problematic regional shopping center 20 miles from the center of downtown, or your tax base will flee”) and the non-specific urban renewal pitch (“blighted or not, it won’t develop unless we designate it … and don’t worry about that $50 million loan in technical default”).


Pitches in progress include the Martin Drake Power Plant (“Tear it down, and they will come”), the downtown baseball stadium (“happy, well-behaved baseball fans bring prosperity and rebirth to downtown”), storm water drainage (“no designated storm water funding = mad Pueblo County Commissioners = no SDS”) and plenty more that we haven’t heard.


Worthy projects, one and all, I suppose — but I may have learned something when I went back to college last weekend for my 50th reunion.


When I left Colorado Springs for Middletown, Conn., 54 years ago, our city’s downtown seemed robust and beautiful. It was all there — the stately old Antlers, the resplendent Chief Theater, the shops, the department stores, and everything else. I took it for granted, supposing that it had always been that way and always would.


In a few years, it was all gone. Decent, civic-minded folks in government and business bought a then-seductive pitch.


“These gloomy old buildings are rundown and not worth fixing up,” the pitchmen said. “Tear them down, and modern, progressive people will build new buildings for other modern, progressive people. Downtown will boom and prosper!”


Middletown, a dismal backwater in the Connecticut River Valley, didn’t have much of a downtown. Main Street was lined with Victorian commercial buildings, many literally crumbling. There was a five-and-dime, a bar or two, and the usual shops, as well as a National Guard armory and an elaborate police station.


My alma mater, Wesleyan University, was perched on a hill a few blocks away. College Row, a forbidding lineup of severely conservative 19th-century brownstone buildings, looked like a prison. Clearly, I would have been happier at Florida State!


Half a century later, the gloomy buildings are still there — but things have changed. Wesleyan looks like a very expensive, very exclusive country club (which, with annual tuition approaching $60,000, it may well be) and Main Street is transformed.


The old armory is a lovely boutique hotel. There are bodegas and wine bars, restaurants with glowing reviews from the New York Times posted on their doors, a hardware store, two nail salons, a restored 18th-century mansion and, best of all, an actual news stand stocked with a dozen different newspapers, fine cigars and old Italian guys swapping gossip.


Benign neglect may have preserved the city. The pitchmen, do-gooders, and aggressive modernizers didn’t entirely run things — so when prosperity came once again to Middletown, there were buildings to renovate, spaces to rent, and a city to rebuild.


Best of all, the elaborate police station has been repurposed. The cops are still there — but most of the street frontage is now occupied by a noisy tavern. Pretty great — it’s as if Sam Guadagnoli took over the Police Operations Center in south downtown and started a new club.


Which might not be a bad idea — a little more revenue for the city, and we could pay off the USOC certificates of participation that much sooner.

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