“Colorado Springs,” we’d answer, with steely eyes.
Look, this was not our first rodeo. We knew what you were going to say and we were ready for it.
No, not everyone from the Springs is a gay-bashing evangelical. Yes, that whole Ted Haggard thing was weird. And funny. In a weird way. No, our city isn’t sinking into a pit caused by its own fiscally conservative policies. Dobson, his name is James Dobson, and yes he’s still around. No, everyone does not open carry. And on and on.
We learned to accept our bad reputation back when Taylor Swift was still in nappies.
But guess what? While the rest of the world thought we were a city of oddballs, we were enjoying low housing costs, a cozy scene, fantastic restaurants and the best open space around.
Of course, it looks like the rest of you have finally learned our little secret. Johnny-come-latelies with beards and ear plugs are everywhere — hiking our beautiful parks, clogging our wide downtown avenues. Yeah, we see you over there. Nice septum ring.
So you know enough about our city to be here, but we’re guessing you haven’t figured out all of its nuances. Consider this a primer.
- Courtesy of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum
- William Jackson Palmer with puppy and dogs at Glen Eyrie, ca. 1903
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 Western Railroad, and purchased the land that would become Colorado Springs (tinyurl.com/CS-Gen-Palmer). His 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.
(Side note: Our city got hit hard by the urban renewal trend of the ’60s and ’70s, so a lot of our beautiful historic buildings are gone, including the much-mourned Burns Opera House and the historic Antlers Hotel.)
Here’s an interesting little nugget: The Springs was originally famous for its tourist attractions, but also for fresh air and for processing shiny metals. It was a gold rush town (the Victor gold mine still churns out the precious metal to the west of us) and was seen as a great sunny place to recover from tuberculosis.
2. How Republican is this place?In a word: Very. El Paso County is ruled by Republicans, who outnumber Democrats nearly two to one. As of January 2018, of the 377,268 registered voters in El Paso County (second in the state behind Denver), 154,503 are Republicans, and 80,226 are Democrats. The unaffiliated account for 134,354 voters, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. (The rest belong to small parties like the Green Party and Libertarian Party.) Voters within the Springs reflect a similar breakdown. As of this writing, every elective county office is held by Republicans, as are all but three state legislative seats with districts that lie within the county. School board, City Council and mayoral races are nonpartisan.
3. What do city and county government do?Road repairs, snow-plowing and stormwater work fall to both city and county governments. Similarly, 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: The county’s is largely composed of regional parks, which cover hundreds of acres, including Fountain Creek Regional Park, Bear Creek Regional Park, Fox Run Regional Park, and Homestead Ranch Regional Park at Black Forest’s edge.
The city’s stable of recreational properties runs the gamut from small pocket parks found in neighborhoods to larger community parks to big regional parks. Highlights include Memorial Park, just east of downtown; John Venezia Community Park, which opened in 2017 on the far north side; or the Westside’s Garden of the Gods Park, which attracted 6 million visitors last year. (That’s a whole lot of people pretending to hoist Balanced Rock over their heads.) The city also tends 105 miles of urban trails, 48 open space areas, two public golf courses, five sports complexes and two public cemeteries.
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.
The center of county government is the Citizens Service Center, 1675 Garden of the Gods Road, with additional offices at Centennial Hall, 200 S. Cascade Ave (the county website is under construction as of this writing). The county also has various satellite offices for certain services. 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, 107 N. Nevada Ave.
4. What does school choice mean?Remember your parents worrying about the quality of your neighborhood schools? In Colorado, that’s not such a big deal. If you have dependable transportation and a schedule that allows you to drive your child to school, your kid can likely attend any public school you choose.
State law allows parents to “choice in” their kids to any public school, though parents are generally responsible for transporting their child. Because neighborhood kids get first priority at their assigned school, students who want to choice in may be turned away if there’s no room.
For alternatives to traditional public schools, Colorado allows parents to home-school, or send kids to a private, online or charter school. Public charter schools are public schools that don’t have to meet all of the same requirements as regular ones. That freedom allows charters to be more experimental, either with the focus of learning (like a school that focuses on STEM education) or the structure of the school (like a military-style school). To learn more, check out the Colorado Department of Education’s website.
5. What are our higher ed choices?
- Courtesy UCCS
- Fast-growing UCCS is a top choice.
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 enrolled more than 12,400 students in fall 2017, 3.6 percent more than the prior record-setting year. The school offers 46 bachelor’s, 22 master’s and five doctoral degrees.
Colorado College is a historic private college with about 2,000 undergraduates. It’s famous for the block plan, in which students take a single, intensive class for 3.5 weeks at a time. Next, Pikes Peak Community College offers multiple locations, convenient hours and affordable prices. PPCC offers more than 150 associate degrees and certifications in career and technical fields and serves more than 19,000 students annually. Starting in fall 2018, PPCC will offer its first Bachelor of Applied Science degree in emergency services administration. In fall 2019, PPCC hopes to unveil a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing.
Also, the Springs hosts a bevy of technical schools and private colleges.
6. What are our economic drivers?Tourism’s a biggie, but the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC lists our key industries as: aerospace and defense; health care and medical technologies; information technology and cybersecurity; manufacturing, and sports. This list shouldn’t come as a surprise given our military bases, outdoor sports/healthy lifestyle and the fact that we’re home to the United States Olympic Committee.
7. So, I can 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 public school grounds. Hanover School District 29 in rural El Paso County was among the first in the state to allow teachers and others, including bus drivers, to carry concealed weapons if they train quarterly. El Paso County Sheriff’s Office oversees the concealed handgun program. As of mid-2017, about 45,000 residents had a permit, believed to be more than any other single Colorado county.
8. How’d we come by all this open space?
- J. Adrian Stanely
- North Cheyenne Cañon in winter.
Some of our bounty of open space came from historic gifts (like Garden of the Gods and North Cheyenne Cañon), but a big reason we have all these beautiful spaces is because in 1997 voters approved 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 going toward maintenance. TOPS was renewed in 2003 until 2025. It 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 so that no Springs resident has to travel too far to enjoy the great outdoors.
That’s a good thing, because tourists and locals are over-loving many spaces: Garden of the Gods primarily, but also North Cheyenne Cañon and The Incline trail. The city and key players are currently trying to figure out what to do about the crowds.
There is one open space that isn’t overcrowded — because you’re only allowed into it on guided tours. The recently expanded Corral Bluffs, located about 4 miles east of Powers Boulevard, won’t be open until a master plan is developed. The major issue: The beautiful canyon park is full of paleontological treasures.
9. Why does the Springs have a large homeless population, and what are we doing about it?Our homeless population has surged in recent years. The camps of our less fortunate neighbors now occupy creekside areas and open spaces. No one’s entirely sure why so many more folks are living on our streets, but consider these factors: Colorado has a strong economy so it’s likely that some have moved here seeking work. The Springs’ housing costs have skyrocketed, meaning some cannot afford rent. Our mild climate and legal marijuana make us attractive to many people, regardless of their status. And, while our system may seem woefully inadequate, some people may simply appreciate how there’s always a free meal and clean clothes available to a needy person, and that the locals tend to be kindhearted.
Homeless people often have other issues that contribute to their circumstances too. They may be elderly, disabled, running from an abusive home, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or mentally ill. Unfortunately, many of our returning vets in this military town experience mental health issues, while LGBTQ youth might be kicked out of their home, and trans people may struggle to find work.
Our city does have service providers and helpers like Springs Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado’s Marian House, Ecumenical Social Ministries, the Salvation Army, Urban Peak, Interfaith Hospitality Network, Partners in Housing, Greccio Housing and Blackbird Outreach.
We also have some restrictive laws. Like many other cities, ours bans camping on public property, prohibits sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks, outlaws aggressive panhandling and restricts access to certain narrow street medians where panhandling occurs. These laws aren’t exactly enforced all the time.
We’re in a bit of a crisis right now: City officials, police, nonprofits and the general public recognize that the homeless population has grown faster than our shelters and services. So, for now, those camps are probably going to stick around.
- Stacie Gonzalez
- Our homeless population is, unfortunately, growing and resources can’t keep up.
10. Why don’t you have a better transit system?If you want great public transportation, go to Denver. Our system is getting better, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that light rail line to go in.
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, firefighters 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. Transit gets a little more than $22.6 million a year for its operating budget. Second: our size. The Springs is a very low-density city, meaning that our footprint is huge. (San Francisco covers 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. In the past few years, MMT has been aggressively adding service, with a big focus on increasing the frequency of buses on popular routes. Believe it or not, it wasn’t long ago most buses in our city were on an hourly schedule, with popular routes enjoying a 30-minute schedule. Now, MMT has introduced 15-minute service on top routes. That’s a big improvement. (Or as the president might put it: Yuuuge.)
Another bright spot: An innovative bike share program, PikeRide, is set to launch in summer.
11. What are the limits to my urban farm?With law enforcement stretched thin locally, the flippant answer is you can take it as far as you like, so long as you aren’t annoying your neighbors or landlord.
You can grow a garden in your yard or start a community garden with your neighbors. Urban farmers can distribute their produce in a number of ways, including at farmers markets, through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and, beginning just recently, from the comfort of their 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 own farm stand.
12. How does our municipal utility function?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, which helps keep rates low.
The most recent comparison, based on rates during the first half of 2017, shows the typical residential bill for all four services here is $221 — slightly higher than the Front Range average of $219. But commercial and industrial rates in the Springs are from 3 to 6.5 percent lower than the Front Range average.
The city gets its water from trans-mountain systems and Pikes Peak. The biggest projects in recent years include the 50-mile Southern Delivery System water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, which was activated in April 2016, and development of alternative forms of energy as city leaders debate when to decommission the coal-powered downtown Drake Power Plant. While a date of 2035 is the officially approved cutoff, as of this writing, the Utilities Board was considering moving that shut-down date up to as early as 2025.
13. What’s up with all the cranes downtown?After years of having a sleepy downtown, the city’s core is awakening. Nearly 600 new downtown residential units will be available within the next few years, including the 171-unit Eco Apartments at Wahsatch and Colorado avenues. (That project is scheduled to be complete in summer 2018.) Another apartment complex is proposed for Cascade Avenue, and the Blue Dot Place opened not that long ago on South Nevada Avenue.
A couple of hotels are also in the planning stages. The 10-story, 167-room Hilton Garden Inn is going up at Bijou Street and Cascade Avenue, while a dual-branded Marriott property with 255 rooms is proposed on the southwest corner of Costilla and Tejon streets.
The Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, slated to open in late 2019, broke ground in June 2017 at Sierra Madre Street and Vermijo Avenue. Downtown boosters say the 60,000-square-foot, $75 million facility, which will include a café, gift shop, theater and broadcast studio, will draw more tourists and give rise to more residential, office and retail development in that area.
Meantime, downtown is home to a plethora of shops and eateries, 90 percent of which are locally owned and operated. As of this writing, the city was hoping to find a location for a downtown sports stadium, but time was running out. The city was granted $125.5 million in state tax money through the Regional Tourism Act in 2013 to build four projects that were aimed at increasing tourism and economic impact. The projects are: the U.S. Olympic Museum, a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, a new visitor’s center at the Air Force Academy, and a downtown stadium.
In the years that followed, the stadium was never actively pursued. The city has until mid-December 2018 to make substantial progress on a stadium without losing out on about $27 million.
14. Where are all the minorities?Right? 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.
So, our minority communities are on the smaller side, but they are rich nonetheless. Southeast Colorado Springs is known for being the most ethnically diverse section of the city, and it’s worth a visit when you long to see the world in a little more color and delight in the flavors of a huge array of ethnic eateries. Our local chapter of the NAACP is active, plus we have the Concilio Hispano de Empresas de Colorado Springs. Then there’s the Japan-America Society of Southern Colorado, the Colorado Springs Queer 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.
If you’d like to see this city get a little less blindingly white (we’re with you), show some love. Try going to an event that puts people of color or LGBTQ people in the spotlight. Shop at minority-owned businesses. Volunteer in diverse neighborhoods.