Forty-five years ago, while traveling the world aboard a wooden sailboat, I spent a couple months in a Spanish fishing port, Tarragona.
It was, and still is, a small, friendly place little visited by tourists. We spent our days working on the boat and our nights at the raucous, sailor-friendly bars that ringed the harbor.
Tarragona, once a major center of the Roman Empire, is now a world heritage site with aqueducts, ancient walls and a 15,000-seat amphitheater. The grandeur surrounded us, but we never bothered to look. Too bad, because we might have learned something useful — and it may be that Tarragona has something to teach Colorado Springs. Tarragona reached its zenith 1,900 years ago. Its population, now 155,000, was several times that in the 1st century A.D.
The world changed. Tarragona survived, but hardly thrived. Great cities like Barcelona, Madrid and Grenada came into being as Tarragona declined.
Did its leaders anticipate such a fate? Did they assume the future would resemble the past, and the growth that had so long driven the city's prosperity would resume? And when the city fell into decay and irrelevance, did they fight it with optimistic words and futile plans? Or did they just pack their bags and seek opportunity elsewhere?
To his credit, Mayor Steve Bach is a sunny optimist. Addressing a friendly crowd after being sworn in Tuesday, Bach said that "our best days are ahead of us" and invited every resident to "join me and step up" to make the city better. It was worthy of Pollyanna — but it may be that Bach should listen to Cassandra instead. What would the seeress say? What omens would she read?
Successful prophets ignore problems of the moment. Forget the city budget, the burdens of the Public Employees' Retirement Association, the cost of the workforce, the restrictions of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, and the clash of politics. Examine instead the not-so-hidden assumptions that shape our region.
• Growth will resume and continue. This long recession is just another bump in the road, a temporary pause. Developers will develop, builders will build, and people from forlorn, dismal dumps like Detroit and Cleveland will move here in droves.
• Our military presence, of which we are justifiably proud, will stay and expand. Fort Carson, NORAD, the Air Force Academy — crucial components of national security.
• Most of all, this is a great place! We're all here because we love it. We moved here, often without a job, because we're adventurous entrepreneurs. We don't just sit around and wait to be hired. We create our own jobs!
Here are the flip sides:
• Growth can only take place with drivers. We've had them in the past. Remember the first military boom during the '60s, the high-tech bonanza of the '80s (Silicon Mountain, anyone?), the manufacturers and religion-based nonprofits of the '90s (Intel, Apple and Focus on the Family, anyone?), and rising real-estate prices between 1960 and 2007 (no-doc loans, anyone?). Those drivers are either gone (Intel, booming real estate), stagnant (Focus) or ripe for downsizing (military).
• Will our local military installations shrink? The only question is how much. We've spent lives and treasure fighting two interminable Middle East wars, both winding down. Hard budget choices await; will Americans choose military funding over Medicare and Social Security? We've never had to make that choice, but we may be forced to do so. If the military withers, so will private contractors, entrepreneurs who have contributed mightily to regional prosperity. They'll lay off employees, go out of business, or move.
• Cities losing major employers can reinvent themselves, but that takes money. In Denver, Oklahoma City and Omaha, taxpayers agreed to pay hundreds of millions, even billions, in capital improvements. We don't have that choice — and not because we're at the mercy of anti-tax Bruceites. It's because we've already agreed to pay well over a billion dollars in de facto tax money for a single growth-dependent project: Southern Delivery System.
If Bach can't restart growth, we'll be stuck with SDS and water we can't use. The bondholders won't care, and our utility bills will soar, because we believed in the future. Just as Tarragona's residents believed in their future — until the Roman legions marched out of town.