When Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach came to office, he noticed a problem. Downtown wasn't as vibrant as it could be, and some colorful characters were scaring the heck out of potential customers.
So Bach hand-selected a Downtown Solutions Team to brainstorm. Next, he began implementing suggestions that group had made in back-room meetings. Despite public objections, City Council gave initial approval to part of the team's plan, voting to bring in more cops, surveillance cameras and a sidewalk cleaner come summer.
Up the road in Manitou Springs, about 1/70th the size of its neighbor, Mayor Marc Snyder has noticed a similar problem in Soda Springs Park, on the west edge of downtown. But Manitou is dealing with its issue differently: by hashing it out in a community setting and targeting bottom-up solutions.
Interim Police Chief Richard Myers noticed immediately when he began his job in January that Soda Springs Park created a lot of community angst. Teens and young adults who crowd the bridge to the park from Manitou Avenue (adjacent to Maté Factor Café) are often intimidating to tourists, seniors and folks with children. Some of the young people use drugs or alcohol and act belligerently — last summer, a senior citizen was slashed with a knife by a man hanging out in the area. Others nap in sleeping bags on the park stage, curse loudly near the newly designed playground, or spray-paint the park's structures.
It's a year-round issue, but the crowds get bigger when the weather is warmer, which is also when the tourists flock. So Snyder wants to address the problems before they get out of hand. At the same time, he says, he doesn't want to bully teenagers who are just hanging out or playing hacky sack.
"You don't want to be a police state," Snyder says. "You don't want to be heavy-handed, but at the same time the reputation of a community, particularly a tourist community, is important. So you're constantly trying to find that balance."
Myers responded by hosting meetings with stakeholders, then picking representatives to serve on the Soda Springs Safety Task Force. (The new police chief, when appointed, will take over leading the process.) The group meets in public and takes public comments with the goal of finding solutions that will work for the whole community. Some of the young people who frequent the park have shown up to meetings, as have seniors, and many in-between.
"As I have seen many times in my career in policing, all too often it is easier to define a true community problem as a 'police problem' even when it's much broader than that," Myers writes in an e-mail to the Independent.
The task force meets again at 5 p.m., Wednesday, April 11, at Manitou City Hall, 606 Manitou Ave. Snyder notes that everything from surveillance cameras to a change in park hours and a community-watch program have been discussed, though group co-chair Roger Miller, of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce (iManitou), says there aren't any specific strategies yet.
However, Laurie Wood, the other co-chair and director of Partners for Healthy Choices, which works with the area's schools, says she's already noticed a positive impact from the meetings. She remembers one instance where a senior spoke about being scared by the perceived unfriendliness of the young people. The youth in the audience were taken aback, and apologetic.
"The majority of the young people there were really affected by that," Wood remembers. "...That, in and of itself, was a powerful moment, just people becoming more comfortable with each other."