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.