Is Colorado Springs a provincial little burg, run by a fossilized elite of a few hundred old white guys with a sprinkling of women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and "others," as the Census might put it? Or is it a vibrant, open, quintessentially Western city, welcoming to all?
Is power passed on from father to son (or mother to daughter, for that matter), or is it there to be seized by ambitious newcomers? Can you pull into town on a summer day driving a U-Haul with all your worldly goods, and be having lunch at the El Paso Club a few days later?
Yes to all those questions.
Thirty-one years ago, I had just finished unloading the U-Haul when a member of the city's power structure happened by. He jumped out of his Ferrari, shook my hand and said, "I'm glad to see you! How about lunch at the El Paso Club next week?" (I thus began my meteoric rise to ... well, not much.)
It helped that I was a Springs native and had gone to school with the Ferrari's owner. At lunch, he had some advice.
"This is still a great little town," he said. "But there's not much going on here. Look around, see what you can find, but you might do better in Denver or L.A."
A few weeks later, I went to dinner with a few friends at The Broadmoor. Jim Ringe introduced me to an amiable guy about my age.
"Bill," Jim said, "meet John Hazlehurst. He's just moved back to town, and he's trying to figure out what to do."
"There's a lot of opportunity here," said Bill. "You'll have no trouble finding something that will interest you. We need people to be involved — so welcome back!"
"What's Bill's last name?" I asked Jim later. "I didn't quite get it."
"That's Bill Hybl," said Ringe. "He's the most powerful man in southern Colorado."
Today, he'd likely say the same thing. Hybl, chairman and CEO of the El Pomar Foundation, is a Pueblo boy made good, who by dint of his considerable smarts rose to prominence in the once-closed society of Colorado Springs. He symbolizes both the city's openness to newcomers and the longevity of those who hold power in its enduring institutions.
Fifty years ago, the business world here was very different. The three largest banks — First National, Exchange National and Colorado Springs National — were locally owned. Few business leaders worked for national entities. Our two largest companies, Colorado Interstate Gas and Holly Sugar, were headquartered here.
The power structure was relatively impenetrable. But things were changing. In the early '60s, Morris Guberman owned Kaufman's Department Store on the corner of East Colorado Avenue and Tejon Street. He hired a smart young guy from the East Coast, figuring this guy would shake things up.
Steve Schuck quickly started his own commercial real estate business, succeeded, and eventually hired another smart young guy to run the brokerage. His new hire, Steve Bach, found Colorado Springs just as congenial for doing business as did his mentor and ... well, you know the rest.
In those days Colorado Springs was just becoming a city, the West was booming, and there were opportunities to be seized.
Cities are complex entities, where opportunities swirl, surface and disappear. Institutional barriers are there to be overcome, not to be artifacts of defeat. Our barriers: the El Paso Club, with its men-only policy. The GOP, with its death grip on local politics. Old white men like Hybl, Schuck and David Jenkins who cling to whatever power they have and don't go away.
Our enablers, a sampling of those creating and enabling change: El Pomar, the Independent, Colorado Springs Young Professionals, Modbo/SPQR, Douglas and Mallori Rouse, Pete Schuermann, Colorado College and the Sierra Club.
And the women: Mary Lou Makepeace, Marcy Morrison, Pam Shockley-Zalabak, Robin Roberts, Susan Edmondson, Meredith Vaughan, Brandy Williams, Jan Martin, Amy Stephens and others who came here, made their homes here, and have made/are making/will make the city a different place.
As the song says: "New York! If you can't make it there / You can make it in Colorado Springs."