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Hearing Motor City echoes

City Sage

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Let's compare Colorado Springs and Detroit, two superficially dissimilar American cities.

In 1910, Detroit was a prosperous, progressive home to 465,000 people. Two wars, the Great Depression and the explosive growth of the automobile industry would remake the city, which came to symbolize American economic might.

During World War II, the Motor City became the arsenal of democracy. Ford's Willow Run plant was retooled in months to produce B-24 bombers. At the war's height, a B-24 rolled off the production line every hour, an industrial feat without precedent.

In 1950, Detroit's population peaked at 1.86 million. The postwar boom brought continued prosperity, sustained by the Big Three automakers. The world's leading car manufacturers all operated out of Detroit, which held two-thirds of a rapidly growing international market. The future looked bright.

But it wasn't. The automobile accelerated white flight from Detroit as racial tensions mounted. Automakers clashed with unions, and the finned, chrome-laden turnpike cruisers of the '50s didn't appeal to growing foreign markets. The chaos and change of the 1960s boiled over in the Detroit race riots of July 1967, a watershed event from which the city never really recovered.

It wasn't Henry Ford's city anymore, where hard work on the factory floor was rewarded by a lifetime job and a decent pension. It was dangerous, unstable and decaying — a place to avoid. American automakers used political muscle to limit imports, but foreign automakers countered by establishing non-union manufacturing facilities in the South. Detroit was literally hollowed out, as people and jobs left in ever-increasing numbers.

And now? Detroit's population is below 700,000. It's literally bankrupt, plagued by racial strife, decades of misgovernment, the slow-motion collapse of its major industry, suburban flight and simple bad luck. American plants generated not even 20 percent of the cars produced worldwide in 2013. Detroit isn't the Arsenal of Democracy — it's the Armpit of America.

In 1960, Colorado Springs was a prosperous, progressive city of about 70,000. Today, we have 440,000 residents, having benefited from the growth of the military-industrial complex and the continuing flight of population and capital from the de-industrializing Midwest to the West and Southwest.

Like Detroit in 1950, as much as half of our local economy depends on a single employer — in our case, the federal government. Like Detroit, we have our share of blue-collar workers, although ours wear khaki uniforms. Our employer's future is uncertain, and as in Detroit, local leaders make noise about diversifying the economy, but nothing much happens. As in Detroit, our fate will be determined by decisions made elsewhere — and as in Detroit, we imagine that our employer's services/products will always be essential.

But what if they aren't? What if our next president, say Rand Paul or Hillary Clinton, chooses to rebuild America and let the Middle East simmer by itself? What if a drastically restructured military decides it can do without Fort Carson, and can shrink other local installations?

Then it's all up to us, and 25 years' worth of chickens will come home to roost. We won't be brought low by venal politicians and racial strife, but by crumbling infrastructure and lack of community investment. Colorado Springs residents voted for the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and local tax limitation in 1991, which has contributed to our present troubles.

We once hoped to be Silicon Mountain, but today we deserve another title: Pothole Capital of America.

Midwestern cities we once scorned, such as Omaha, Des Moines and Columbus, have eclipsed us. Will we ever get our act together?

In 2013, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison on multiple charges of corruption. The year before, TABOR author Douglas Bruce went to jail for tax evasion. There's a certain delicious symmetry there, of cities sold a bill of goods by once-trusted leaders.

The message? Just as Detroit couldn't trust the Big Three, we can't trust Uncle Sugar. It's been a great ride, but we may be about to learn a hard lesson.

As all trust-funders know, eventually the money runs out — and it's time to get a real job.

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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