If you're a young professional in Colorado Springs, the establishment has three words for you: You don't matter.
At least, that's how several young leaders interpret the reaction to their recent attempts to engage in civic and business affairs.
"I don't think there's a grand conspiracy to shut us out," says Tony Gioia, "but in their actions, that's exactly what they're doing."
Gioia, who's starting a nonprofit to provide service dogs for people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, helped lead the "Vote yes" campaign for the ballot measure that sought to raise City Council pay from $6,250 a year to $48,000. (Disclosure: The Independent backed the measure, and publisher John Weiss gave $400 to the campaign, nearly half of the $861 raised.)
It failed by a 4-to-1 margin. In addition:
• Brandy Williams, a 34-year-old, politically moderate engineer, was defeated in her re-election bid in the southwest District 3 by former legislator Keith King, a 65-year-old staunch conservative who's since been elected Council president.
• On April 23, King's Council voted 5-4 to reverse the previous Council's April 9 approval of a tariff that would have continued Colorado Springs Utilities' solar garden program — the face and driving force of which is a 26-year-old Colorado College grad.
In recent years, the business community has promoted growth of the young professional community by hosting groups and events. But mixed signals seem to reign. Says Councilor Jan Martin, who supported solar, Williams and increased Council pay: "We say one thing and do another."
Gioia, 36, says the pay measure was especially disappointing, because Mayor Steve Bach had encouraged young professionals at a luncheon last spring to propose such a question. When they did, he opposed it, saying the issue needs to be part of a more comprehensive City Charter overhaul.
"It felt like he lied to us, and then turned around and told the electorate it wasn't something he supported," Gioia says. "He said the language was designed to trick people, but it was his lawyer [City Attorney Chris Melcher] that wrote the language."
(Bach did not reply to a request for comment.)
For Kristy Milligan, 34-year-old executive director of Citizens Project, the outcome spoke volumes.
"Our community is not doing all it can to embrace young people and create space for them at the table, especially the decision-making table," she says, adding, "The leadership gap is going to be a real problem in upcoming years. As a community, we need to be working right now to evaluate how we can start training people for leadership roles. [Older locals] don't seem to be real interested in giving that up."
Young people, she says, must create their own opportunity, and that might mean working outside traditional avenues, just like the Tea Party movement did. "They gained informal power specifically because they rejected the formal way of gaining power; they focused on finding common ground," she says. Young people, she adds, should "put their differences aside" and "build a power bloc."
Gioia says young professional groups — and there are several, ranging in membership from 300 to 1,700 — should focus on getting more young people to the polls. According to Luce Research, 76.4 percent of those who voted in the April 2011 election were 50-plus.
But Williams is cynical, even as she says attracting young professionals is critical to the city's future for tourism, business and more.
"I tried for years, working my butt off to introduce people to the idea there's a bigger, brighter world out there," she says. "Don't expect anything different to happen in Colorado Springs when all you've done is go backward."
Forming a bloc
That's not the view of Nathan Fisk, 34, former executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party and a business consultant. Looking back to the 2011 election of Williams, former Councilor Lisa Czelatdko, 42, and Angela Dougan, 48, he says, "The fact they were elected at all demonstrates Colorado Springs is willing to trust a younger person on City Council." He calls the Springs "a good environment" for young professionals.
David Amster-Olszewski had hoped that was true when Martin, State Rep. Pete Lee and former Vice Mayor Richard Skorman lured him back from California a few years ago. The 26-year-old Colorado College grad built SunShare, a solar-garden business reliant locally on incentives from Colorado Springs Utilities, which agreed to the program to add more renewable energy to its portfolio.
Two successful pilot programs helped earn Amster-Olszewski approval from Council on April 9 for a larger-scale, $20 million program; a ratepayer-wide tariff would cost $3 to $5 per year for a typical residential customer, and up to $17,000 for a large industrial user. But two weeks later, six Councilors agreed with King to hear a resolution to undo the measure.
When Amster-Olszewski appeared before Council, he was surprised by King's refusal to allow him time to present a 12-page Power-Point outline; instead, he was limited to three minutes like other speakers, then 2½ minutes later on. Those voting against him were King, Helen Collins, Joel Miller and Andy Pico, as well as President Pro Tem Merv Bennett, who had been a "yes" on April 9.
Amster-Olszewski argues that killing the program means forgoing $60 million in investment in Colorado Springs in the next three years, and another $3.2 million in wages. "The economics of energy are changing," he says over a beer in a west-side pub. "Young people are pointing out the way energy has operated in the last 100 years is not going to be the same as 100 years to come.
"You're seeing a resistance towards looking at things in a new way."
The story about Council's April 23 vote went national, appearing in California newspapers. That state is on the verge of approving a solar-garden program to generate one gigawatt of power, roughly the capacity of Colorado Springs' entire generation system, Amster-Olszewski says.
'A silly claim'
Although Council says it will revisit the issue within 90 days, Amster-Olszewski says he has to consider moving SunShare's headquarters, likely to either California or Texas. "If we sit around and wait for a swing vote to swing back again, to bet 14 people's livelihoods on that, that's not a responsible decision for me to make," he says.
"I want to be in a place where people want what we have to offer," he says. "I thought this place was that. I said, 'They're going to have to kick me out of this town,' and I think they did that. The vote on Tuesday sent a resounding message of 'We don't want you here.'"
The messengers cite opposition to subsidies. But one of the very Utilities customers complaining the loudest about solar's subsidy — Atmel — was given a $339,000 tax break last year, when Council approved rebating half Atmel's personal property tax on equipment from 2011 to 2015, according to a report in the Gazette.
Pico, via e-mail, says the Atmel tax break was not a subsidy, but rather an "incentive" of limited duration. "The concept that one person can purchase, lease or subscribe to a solar panel and force their neighbors to pay for it is not a good, fair, equitable or just business practice," he says, also noting solar subsidies are "job killers" that "have failed to produce the promised returns."
Collins says in an e-mail she's against all subsidies, and she has no sympathy for young professionals, noting their "electoral apathy."
"Your unproven assertion that 'young professionals' (neither term defined) 'felt' that those two votes went against 'their issue' is a silly and fanciful claim," she writes. "If they are 'feeling disenfranchised,' I would tell them to look in the mirror."
Bennett didn't respond to e-mailed questions by press time.