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What Colorado Springs is — and isn't — all about

Insider 2017

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There are more active progressives in the Springs than you think. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • There are more active progressives in the Springs than you think.

Look, we know you have probably made a few assumptions about our city. Some of them are true. Some of them, not so much.

But here's an idea: Rather than relying on appearances, or what you read about Colorado Springs back in the '90s, why not get to know our city a little bit? The Springs may have a few personality flaws, sure, but we think it has enough fine attributes to win you over.

Consider the following a sort of civic speed dating. And don't worry, we'll be completely honest.

1. How did Colorado Springs come to be?

Civil War hero Gen. William Jackson Palmer came here in 1869, fell in love with our scenery, founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and purchased the land that would become Colorado Springs. Palmer's influence can still be felt. Along with Spencer Penrose and Winfield Scott Stratton, Palmer gifted our first parks and saw to the construction of fine buildings and the creation of nonprofits. Here's an interesting little nugget: The Springs was originally famous for its tourist attractions — duh — but also for its shiny metals and fresh air. The Springs was a gold rush town (the Victor gold mine is still churning out the precious metal to the west of us) and was thought to be a great place to recover from tuberculosis.

2. How Republican is this place?

Welcome to red-ville. According to the El Paso County Clerk & Recorder's Office, the county had 387,263 registered voters as of February 2017, which makes it third highest in the state, behind Denver and Jefferson counties.

Of those, 162,423 are Republicans, or 42 percent. Democrats represent 22 percent, with 84,240, while unaffiliated voters account for 34 percent with 132,105. The remainder are smaller groups such as the Green or Libertarian parties. Voters in the city of Colorado Springs reflect a similar breakdown.

3. How do I get involved in progressive activism?

When it comes to organized activism for social change, you've got options. Choosing what to throw yourself into depends on your particular passions and skills, so find what that is for you, then build connections across movements for maximum impact.

Here's a start: There's a new, catch-all progressive organization in town, Unite Colorado Springs, that regularly plans actions to protest federal policies. Back in February 2017, the group had already rallied against President Donald Trump's Muslim ban, Republican promises to obliterate Obamacare, and Trump's fast-tracking of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Another tip: Local iterations of the national Indivisible movement are particularly focused on resisting the Trump agenda — and holding our congressional representatives accountable for their role in it.

To zero in more specifically on issues of race, check out the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Colorado Springs Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Planned Parenthood volunteers and Colorado Springs Feminists lead the way in the realm of gender/sexuality. The Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission has a broad focus, and the group seems likely to realize greater impact under newly energized leadership. For environmental issues, check out the Colorado Springs Council for Justice, the local chapter of 350.org and the Green Cities Coalition. The Colorado Springs Anti-Fascists, "antifa," and Socialist Discussion Group can meet your more radical needs. Happy pickin' and picketing!

Republicans still have the numbers. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Republicans still have the numbers.

4. What do city and county government do?

You'll find road repairs, snow-plowing and stormwater work being handled by both city and county governments. You'll also see sheriff's deputies and city cops writing traffic tickets and chasing down bad guys in their respective jurisdictions. The county runs the jail.

The city and county oversee separate park systems, which are pretty different from one another. The county has a system largely composed of regional parks, which cover hundreds of acres, including Black Forest Regional Park, Fountain Creek Regional Park, Bear Creek Regional Park and the Fox Run Regional Park.

The city's stable of recreational properties runs the gamut from small pocket parks found in neighborhoods to the larger community parks to big regional parks, such as Memorial Park just east of downtown, or John Venezia Park, which was nearing completion on the far north side at the time of this writing in early 2017. The city also tends to 105 miles of urban trails, 48 open space areas, two public golf courses, five sports complexes and two public cemeteries.

The city conducts its own election during odd-numbered years in April. The county holds elections in November that include issues and races in school districts, special districts and the county; occasional city issues; as well as state issues and offices and federal offices. The county's Clerk and Recorder's Office also registers vehicles and issues tags. County officials also assess how much property is worth for tax purposes, and then collect taxes on that property.

Tens of thousands of residents obtain public assistance via the county's Department of Human Services, including SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. The county also runs the workforce center, which provides job training and helps employers link with job seekers.

Both the city and county have offices of emergency management. City and county governments are overseen by elected board members.

The center of county government is the Citizens Service Center, 1675 W. Garden of the Gods Road, with additional offices at Centennial Hall, 200 S. Cascade Ave. The City Administration Building, 30 S. Nevada Ave., houses most city government functions and the mayor's office. City Council hangs its hat at City Hall, at 107 N. Nevada Ave.

5. How far can I take my urban farm?

An old adage comes to mind: "It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission." So, take your urban farm as far as you like — this is a town saturated with small-government ideology, after all — but be prepared to deal with the (minimal) consequences.

Here's the situation with agriculture from a legal standpoint: You can grow a garden in your yard, of course, as long is it doesn't infringe on your neighbor's. You can start a community garden — a plot where a bunch of your neighbors all grow food (as long as you don't sell the food). If you want to sell the food, you can raise crops, graze and ranch on agriculturally zoned land. Also, urban farmers can distribute their produce in a number of ways, including at farmers markets, through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and, as of recently, from the comfort of their own front lawns. Apply at the City Planning Department for a home occupation permit to sell veggies and homemade food items outlined in the Cottage Food Act from your very own farm stand.

The Springs allows you to keep 10 chickens, but no rooster. You can keep a private stable of up to four animals, including horses, mules, ponies, donkeys, goats, sheep, llamas, alpacas and potbellied pigs (as long as the property is at least 37,000 square feet). You can have two goats, so long as they don't have horns or weigh more than 100 pounds. Only up to two potbellied pigs are allowed, and they have to be spayed or neutered, under 100 pounds and microchipped. You can have four total pets including dogs, cats and goats. You can only have one beehive (yes, it's dumb).

Last tip: It's always better to own the land or have an easygoing landlord.

The Air Force Academy is a temporary home to 4,400 cadets. - COURTESY AIR FORCE ACADEMY
  • Courtesy Air Force Academy
  • The Air Force Academy is a temporary home to 4,400 cadets.

6. What does school choice mean?

In Colorado, your child does not have to attend the neighborhood school. State law allows parents to "choice in" their kids to any public school (though parents are generally responsible for transporting their child). Of course, schools can turn away kids if they're full, and neighborhood kids get first priority at their assigned school.

A lot of people also think of alternatives to traditional public schools when they hear the term "school choice." Colorado, for instance, allows parents to home-school their children, or send them to a private school, an online school or a public charter school. Public charter schools are public schools that don't have to meet all of the same requirements that regular schools do. That freedom allows charters to be more experimental, either with the focus of learning (like a school that focuses on STEM education for instance) or the structure of the school (for instance, a military-style school). To learn more about different education options, check out the Colorado Department of Education's website at cde.state.co.us.

7. What are our higher ed choices?

Colorado Springs is home to one university you've surely heard of: The United States Air Force Academy. Located on the northern edge of the city, the beautiful base is home to a 4,400-member cadet wing. Being a cadet means adhering to strict, regimented routines designed to produce the officers of tomorrow.

For the rest of us, there's the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, which is the fastest-growing of the four campuses within the state system. UCCS has about 12,000 students and offers 39 bachelor's, 20 master's and five doctoral degrees.

Looking for something smaller? Colorado College, located just north of downtown, is a historic private college with about 2,000 undergraduates. CC is famous for its block plan, in which students take a single, intensive class for 31/2 weeks at a time.

Finally, there's Pikes Peak Community College, which offers multiple locations, convenient hours, and affordable prices. PPCC has 158 associate degrees and certifications in career and technical fields. In addition, Colorado Springs has the normal bevy of technical schools and private colleges.

The city allows you to keep two goats... but they can't have horns. - SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock
  • The city allows you to keep two goats... but they can't have horns.

8. What are our economic drivers?

The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC lists our key industries as: aerospace and defense, health care and medical technologies, information technology, cybersecurity, manufacturing, and sports. This last shouldn't come as a surprise given our many military bases, outdoor sports/healthy lifestyle, numerous colleges and universities and the fact that we're the home of the United States Olympic Committee. While it didn't make the official list, tourism is also pretty huge here, and the Springs has a history as an artists' town.

9. Is Focus on the Family still a thing?

Yes, but it isn't the powerhouse it used to be. When it moved here in 1990 from Pomona, California, with a $4 million grant from El Pomar Foundation, it looked as though it would take over. The center sits on 47 acres and has its own ZIP code, if that says anything.

Focus on the Family steadily expanded overseas and here in the States until about 2002. That's when it hit its peak number of local employees, 1,400. Since then, things have been going downhill for the organization. Some might say that had to do with the 2010 exit of Focus' founder, the outspoken conservative evangelical James Dobson.

But there were signs of decline before that. Focus cut about 200 jobs (and cut its budget by $22 million) in 2008, and by 2013 it had only 750 employees in comparison to the large numbers in 2002. A chunk of those lost jobs came from a restructure in 2013: Instead of continuing to use its own advertising agency, Briargate Media, to push its radio broadcast, it packed up shop and transferred that work to a California-based company. There hasn't been much news out of the organization since then that would suggest they're on their way out, but its supporters haven't been as vocal (or as financially generous) as in previous years. So is Focus fading? Maybe slowly, but it's certainly still a power player.

10. So, can I just take my gun anywhere?

Colorado does allow both open and concealed carry, but there are limits. Local government can prohibit weapons in public facilities, and you cannot carry a concealed weapon on your person on public school grounds. El Paso County Sheriff's Office oversees the concealed handgun program. Go to epcsheriffsoffice.com for details about that.

11. This place seems to have a lot of open space?

We know. And we think it's pretty great. Allow us to brag: Colorado Springs is spectacular. We have a 14,000-foot mountain seated to the west, along with what must be the most amazing city park in the country: Garden of the Gods.

The Springs is home to over 9,000 acres of parkland and over 100 miles of urban trails (check out everything from the tough-as-nails Manitou Incline trail to the Pikes Peak Greenway, a mild urban cruise).

Some of our bounty of open space came from historic gifts (that's the case with the Garden of the Gods and North Cheyenne Cañon), but a big reason that we have all the beautiful spaces that we do is because, in 1997, voters passed something called the Trails, Open Space and Parks tax. The .1 percent sales tax is used to buy new park land and open space, with a percentage also going toward maintenance. TOPS was renewed in 2003 until 2025. The tax has allowed the city to purchase treasured parcels like Red Rock Canyon Open Space. It's also ensured that as our city grows, newer neighborhood developments create open spaces of their own so that no Colorado Springs resident has to travel too far to enjoy the great outdoors.

Marijuana may be a money-maker, but it won't fix our roads. - CRAIG LEMLEY
  • Craig Lemley
  • Marijuana may be a money-maker, but it won't fix our roads.

12. Why hasn't weed money fixed everything?

Well, for starters, marijuana brings in a lot of money, but not enough to bail anti-tax Colorado out of all its budgetary woes.

Statewide, marijuana sales (both medical and recreational) generated over $200 million in tax revenue in 2016. To put that in perspective, Colorado needs $9 billion in the next decade for road improvements and traffic congestion alleviation alone. We also have an underfunded K-12 school system, a suffering higher education system and many other multi-million- or multi-billion-dollar problems, and no funds to fix them.

Voters also limited the way that our pot taxes can be spent. So the state uses its funds for public school construction, public health education, substance abuse prevention and treatment, and law enforcement. (By the way, most of that school funding goes to rural schools — it doesn't do much for our big urban districts that are in need.) If Gov. John Hickenlooper gets his way, some of the state pot tax will soon get spent building affordable housing too. Local governments get a small kickback from state marijuana sales tax, to be spent however they like.

Colorado Springs doesn't allow recreational marijuana sales, so it doesn't collect any of its own taxes on that lucrative business. (Some local officials believe that the presence of recreational marijuana would deter federal military spending, which supports about half the regional economy. That's despite the fact that a Department of Defense spokesman told the Independent in 2016 that "whatever's legal in a city or state doesn't matter.") While Colorado Springs sits out recreational sales, Manitou Springs, just to the west, has two recreational pot shops that have cornered the local market and brought in massive tax revenues for the tiny town.

Of course, El Paso County — including the Springs — does have more medical marijuana centers per capita than any other jurisdiction in the state and they are generating local tax revenue. That benefits government coffers by way of local sales tax and a percent kickback from state taxes. Colorado Springs brought in $1,829,121 in 2016 taxes from medical marijuana sales. But, again, that's not enough to save the city. A little perspective: Colorado Springs just committed to spend $460 million on stormwater projects in the next 20 years. And that's only for top-priority stormwater fixes.

13. Is the Springs really the nonprofit capital of Colorado?

About 2,000 nonprofits call the Pikes Peak region home, but many are small and have budgets under $100,000. There are some major philanthropic organizations, such as the $550 million El Pomar Foundation, established by city patriarch Spencer Penrose, and $200 million Compassion International, a Christian organization that helps children living in poverty worldwide.

Besides charitable organizations, Colorado Springs has an estimated 800 churches. The Indy's annual Give! campaign (indygive.com), which raised nearly $1.4 million in 2016, supports many small, local nonprofits. Despite that, nonprofits aren't one of our chief industries.

14. What type of natural disasters do you get here?

Well, let's start with the obvious: Our area has recently been home to the most destructive wildfires in state history: The 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2013 Black Forest Fire. Those two bad boys brought on another type of natural disaster that we are always at risk for: flash floods. With fewer living trees to soak up our monsoon summer rains, water barreled down hills, especially in the years after Waldo, and caused serious damage.

The Springs is also in the midst of a slow-moving landslide crisis in the southwest part of town, and we've recently been hit with super destructive wind and hail storms. This is Colorado, so blizzards happen. Occasionally, someone will even spot a nearby tornado and technically, we're even at risk for earthquakes.

But here's a little reassurance: Cyber companies generally look for places to locate with a low risk of natural disasters. And that's actually been one of the Springs' big selling points.

Urban Peak strives to help homeless youth in the Springs. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Urban Peak strives to help homeless youth in the Springs.

15. There seem to be a lot of homeless people here. Why is that? What are we doing for them?

So you've noticed that some people who live in Colorado Springs don't live in homes.

Why? It's complicated! Many people who experience homelessness have some combination of trauma, addiction, mental illness or physical handicap that impedes "normal" functioning. Combat veterans are disproportionately represented within the homeless community, as are LGBTQ people (especially trans folks and youths). There's some drug use and violence on the streets, but not every homeless person is a violent drug user — and many are crime victims.

Some people do indeed choose to be homeless. There are myriad reasons behind such a decision, but in general, "normal" society just doesn't work for everyone.

Homelessness is a deep concern in the city. Like the rest of the Front Range, the Springs has seen an influx of homeless folks in recent years. The fact that the state has legal weed is definitely a draw. But our lack of affordable housing likely doesn't help either.

There are service providers like Springs Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado's Marian House, Ecumenical Social Ministries, the Salvation Army and Urban Peak that handle survival needs like food, clothes and shelter. There are also housing assistance programs through the Colorado Springs Housing Authority, the Interfaith Hospitality Network, Partners in Housing, People's Access to Homes (PATH) and Greccio Housing. Blackbird Outreach, Cross Compassion Street Ministries and volunteers with the Point in Time Count do street outreach.

City government has had a mixed response to our homeless community. It does support some helpful initiatives, but city officials also write restrictive laws aimed at homeless people. Those include a camping ban, a prohibition on sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks and restrictions on accessing certain street medians where panhandling is known to occur.

16. Why don't you have a better transit system?

OK, so our public transit system isn't exactly the stuff dreams are made of. There's two main reasons for that. First: Our low taxes. City bus operations are funded through our city's general fund dollars — dollars that police and roads also compete for — and from a small portion of a silo tax that goes to the quasi-governmental entity, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority. All together, transit gets a little more than $22.6 million a year for its operating budget.

The second reason is our size. Colorado Springs is a very low-density city, meaning that our footprint is huge. (San Francisco is about 47 square miles. The Springs is about 195 square miles.) We can't afford to run buses — let alone light rail — down all those miles of road.

Still, the city's transit operator, Mountain Metropolitan Transit, is trying to improve the system. By the beginning of 2017, for instance, MMT had increased bus service by 59 percent over the past seven years — adding some evening and weekend service and increasing the frequency of buses on some routes.

That seems like huge strides, right? Well, it is a lot better. The problem is that the Springs' transit service was in really rough shape seven years ago. So, as of this writing, only 48 percent of the Springs "urbanized area" is within a half mile of a bus route, and half of our weekday routes only come once an hour. While there does seem to be an increased interest in mass transit, most people in the Springs are car people.

17. I see you have a municipal utility. How does that work?

Unlike most American cities, Colorado Springs owns and operates all four utilities — water, wastewater, electric and natural gas — via Colorado Springs Utilities. Rates are controlled by the locally elected City Council, which appoints the CEO. Ratepayers serve as the owners, meaning there are no stockholders who expect dividends from the enterprise, which helps keep rates low.

The latest comparison, conducted in fall 2016, shows the typical residential bill is $203, which is higher than in Denver, Aurora, Lakewood, Pueblo and Fort Collins. Commercial and industrial rates, however, are lower in Colorado Springs than most of those other cities.

The biggest projects in recent years include the 50-mile Southern Delivery System water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, and development of alternative forms of energy as city leaders prepare to decommission the coal-powered downtown Drake Power Plant.

The Springs is known for our scenery. And our wildfires. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The Springs is known for our scenery. And our wildfires.

18. The Springs doesn't have much of a downtown, is that going to change?

Oh, probably. Colorado Springs is known for its sprawl, and in the past, most of our new development has happened in "greenfields" — undeveloped areas along the city's edge. Lately, however, the focus has shifted. The region's biggest developers are now pursuing downtown projects, from lofts and apartments, to commercial buildings.

One of the drivers has been the City for Champions project. The city began pursuing the project in 2013 and was granted state money to help pay for a group of four projects: An Olympic Museum downtown, a downtown stadium, a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and a visitor center at the Air Force Academy.

At the time of this writing in spring 2017, it looked like the stadium was likely to be abandoned and possibly replaced with another project. The Olympic Museum had secured funding (or promises of funding), however, and was viewed by many developers as a needed anchor for more changes in the area.

19. Are we a first strike target?

That's probably a classified bit of information, but a hostile nation could target five installations within a couple hundred square miles. Colorado Springs and El Paso County host Fort Carson Army post; Schriever Air Force Base; the U.S. Air Force Academy; Peterson Air Force Base, where the North American Aerospace and Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command are housed; as well as NORAD and NorthCom standby facilities enclosed in a granite bunker known as Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station.

If you're a prepper, you can check the nuclear target map (tinyurl.com/zexyxrv), which, indeed, shows this area as one of the first-strike areas, along with North Dakota, the Eastern seaboard, Florida, Texas, and the California coast.

Martin Drake Power Plant is not the prettiest part of downtown. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Martin Drake Power Plant is not the prettiest part of downtown.

20. Where are all the minorities?

It's looking pretty white out there, isn't it? According to 2010 census data (the most recent), white people make up 78.8 percent of the Colorado Springs population. The Latino population reached a distant second at 16.1 percent, black or African-American people came in at 6.3 percent, mixed-race at 5.1, Asian at 3, and the rest of the census options for race at a percentage point or less each.

The point is that we do live in a predominantly white city, and it doesn't look like minorities are flocking in our direction. Not to jump to conclusions, but that could be because a lot of folks view Colorado Springs as a gun-toting, God-loving, conservative military city, and those are clear red flags for racial minorities and LGBTQ people. Moreover, our city leadership is overwhelmingly white, male and straight, and one can guess that they may be out of touch with the needs of minority communities.

But while minorities are, well, in the minority, vibrant local communities and organizations celebrate diverse identities. Our local chapter of the NAACP is active, plus we have the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Then there's the Japan-America Society of Colorado Springs, the Keep Colorado Springs Queer arts collective, The Golden Lotus Foundation and countless others that host events, political actions and meetings to connect minorities to each other and the larger community.

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