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City sitting in neutral, not sure of next direction

Fri, Dec 28, 2012

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Colorado Springs in the 1950s wasn’t much like today’s straight-laced, rule-bound, bureaucratic city, especially if you were an adventurous teenager.

Did you want to go to a downtown bar and have a couple of beers after high school? No problem, even if the bar owner, the beat cop and everyone else in the bar knew you were a year or two away from legal age. My friend Billy and I thought we were pretty cool, but we didn’t realize until years later that the cops had checked with our fathers before OKing our furtive sipping.

“Won’t hurt the boys to have a beer or two,” they might have said. “Just don’t tell their mothers!”

Colorado Springs was a relaxed, can-do kind of place, unconstrained by Pecksniffian regulations, and notably hospitable to initiatives of all kinds. It was a city built by bold speculators and shaped by gold mining magnates. It was transformed from a town to a city by folks who made their own rules — by Joe Reich and Chase Stone, who brought the Air Force Academy to town; by Bill Smartt, who jump-started suburban growth to the east; and by the other young dynamos who built a new city between 1960 and 2000.

And now? We’re stuck in neutral. We’re not building stuff. We’re making repairs.

Imagine a big, quarrelsome family living in a broken-down Victorian house. The poor old dump needs a paint job, new roof, foundation repairs and a new furnace. Their credit’s fine — so why don’t they borrow the money, fix it up and move on?

They can’t, because the family doesn’t agree on anything. Do they spend too much and earn too little? Is it all Grandpa’s fault, since he let the place fall into ruin and now they’re stuck? Or are they looking at things the wrong way?

If they sought professional advice, a financial consultant might tell them to focus on opportunity, not obstacles. She might suggest selling off the adjacent lots and using the dough to fix up the house, or put them on a strict budget. Or she might make the obvious suggestion: sell the old dump and let someone else deal with it.

Just as drafty old Victorians have to be maintained and improved, cities require continual reinvention. Smart cities create their futures — dumb ones crumble.

We’ve been smart and successful for so many decades that it’s difficult to recognize the signs of decay, even when it’s right in front of our noses.

Consider the Martin Drake Power Plant. To retain it is to live in the past, in an era when downtown coal-burners were necessary eyesores, not symbols of cramped, myopic leadership. We have to junk it, for the same reason that North End homeowners junked coal-burning furnaces 60 years ago.

Look at the city’s infrastructure. Despite PPRTA, the state and the valiant efforts of our underfunded city government, it’s gradually falling apart.

Look at our economy. It’s heavily dependent on military spending, which is likely to implode in coming years.

Look at our politicians. Many, like U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, seem strangely detached from a growing national consensus about global warming, immigration reform, assault weapons, tax policy and overseas adventurism. Like Carter and Dukakis a generation ago, ultra-conservative Repubs may find themselves (and those they represent) consigned to the dustbins of history.

Finally, look at us — the Colorado Springs business community. We’ve done some great things in the past few years. Gold Hill Mesa and the Mining Exchange Hotel were imaginative, risky, paradigm-shifting deals. University Village and Copper Ridge are equally bold ventures, but that’s about it (unless you want to count Phil Anschutz adding The Gazette to his holdings.)

Does this mean that there are only four bold entrepreneurs in the city, only four people with the imagination, tenacity, and moxie to pull big projects out of the ground? Kevin Kratt, Bob Willard, Gary Erickson, Perry Sanders — is that it? If so, we’re screwed.

We know how to build small and think small, but we need imagination. We don’t need logos and mission statements — we need a downtown high-rise, a Colorado Avenue trolley line, a vast new museum of contemporary art.

We need the big, daring projects that the naysaying sourpusses of the do-nothing establishment will never get behind. We need Buck Blessing and Chris Jenkins to partner with Perry Sanders and build a vast, gleaming 60-story apartment building at Cascade and Colorado.

I’m ready to sign up for the penthouse duplex — as soon as I can sell that dilapidated Victorian.

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Rick Wehner Says:

    John:

    Us old duffers may not really understand how things work ie: your comment – - – drafting mission statements seems to be what you do when you fail to perform. Kind of like reaching for Viagra

    “We know how to build small and think small, but we need imagination. We don’t need logos and mission statements”

    Writing ‘mission statements’ – along with ‘visioning and dialoging’ is a basic local cottage industry as evidenced by the time just spent creating yet another one:

    “The group spent most of 2012 working to revamp its mission, set goals and create a vision of the region in 2035 — all of which will be revealed in 2013.”

    http://csbj.com/2012/12/27/business-alliance-leaders-expecting-year-of-action/

  2. Phil Says:

    The Springs is stuck in neutral because too many of its residents like it that way. Mass transit, central planning, higher taxes, and green energy are for the “liberals.” I’m about ready to just move to Denver. The fact that our wonderful mayor decided to cancel FREX this year was just one more factor pushing me north.

  3. Not Sure That We'll Stay Says:

    I’ll tell you what has to happen. All the “organizational” creation is fine, but its overhead. The reality is in the $$$

    Colorado Springs has one shot- it needs to get high tech start ups and what they call innovative jobs. It needs to split the types of labor with Boulder and essentially have the same types of workers and the same types of jobs. One way to do that is to use UCCS in the way Austin Texas did, and get rid of these “Hummer and Guns” type of workforce- They aren’t going anywhere but the poor house.

    Saying you want x number of jobs, any jobs, has been shown to be damaging to a community as many of the worlds poor actually have jobs and do work. They just have bad jobs. I think the Mayor means well, but he’s not studied the latest on what “any” types of jobs really means for a community. You don’t want that unless there are no other options.

    I’m afraid bad jobs are what Colorado Springs is in for unless they wake up and get with the program. If the town doesn’t get it’s act together, all the structural forces of the new economy will be fully against it. You’ve got a very small window here, i believe.

    There is any reason Colorado Springs can’t be a shining star in the new economy. However, often the biggest obstacle to success is your damn self.

  4. Daniel Freysinger Says:

    Colorado Springs is in a time of transition. This city has been downing pints of war lager and now it is time to sober up. The growth of this town is artificial. Now it is time to let defense spending level out and see where the city stands. The military population is going to decrease and we will end up with a town full of empty houses. When all is said and done, it will probably be blamed on the homeless like every other problem in this city.

  5. Frank Kennedy Says:

    John, you’re part of the problem with this City. You live in nostalgia, promote the old players that haven’t done anything worthwhile in decades, and write if Colorado Springs is when you were on Council. Go retire with your wife and dog and let the City grow up being led by the younger generation.