Columns » Outsider



My mother was a devout fan of the Boston Red Sox. At 20, she cheered as the Bosox won the 1918 World Series; at 88, she was devastated when that ground ball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs, dashing the hopes of Boston fans everywhere.

A couple of years after Buckner's bobble, Ernest Byner fumbled Cleveland's chances away in the AFC title game. The Broncos went to the Super Bowl; Cleveland's owner eventually moved the team to Baltimore.

The point is a simple one. When the stakes are high, you've got to make the play. Good intentions don't count. Past records don't count. Making the play counts.

Last week, the so-called Red Rocks property, 720 spectacular acres on the west side of Colorado Springs, went under contract to a Santa Fe developer.

This tract of land has been available for purchase for at least ten years. Every survey of possible open space acquisitions has put this property at or near the top of the list. It's adjacent to Section 16 and Bear Creek Park, it has spectacular topographic features, and it's an important part of our mountain backdrop.

In 1997, voters passed the TOPS initiative, which, by authorizing a dedicated sales tax to support trails, parks, and open space projects, removed the financial barriers that had prevented past Councils from moving aggressively to acquire open space. The city moved quickly and appropriately to acquire the JL Ranch (in partnership with the State), and portions of the Hauck estate and the Stratton property.

It was a hopeful, even exhilarating, time. In an Indy cover story celebrating the success of TOPS, we wrote that the acquisition of Red Rocks, given the priorities of our new Council members, was a virtual certainty. Sure, Red Rocks would be expensive ($15 million), and sure, there'd have to be some reworking of the budget, but given the opportunity to add such a jewel to our park system, Council would find a way.

Instead, Council found a way to blow the deal. Led by Linda Barley, a Council majority embraced the idea that the city ought to make a significant open space acquisition in the southeast part of the city, on the grounds that the southeast had been underfunded in the past. That's a dubious proposition, but the piece of land that the city chose to attempt to purchase, the so-called Spring Creek property, was even more questionable. One open space supporter described it to me as a hay meadow next to the wastewater treatment plant; in any case, Great Outdoors Colorado, which had enthusiastically partnered with the city in previous acquisitions, denied the city's grant application.

Meanwhile, Council and Administration alike sat on their hands for months and didn't make a move to acquire Red Rocks, despite overwhelming evidence that owner John Bock was ready to make a deal with the highest bidder. When pressed, city honchos claimed that they didn't have enough money to make a deal, or that Bock's price was unreasonable, or that the presence of an old landfill on the property made much of it undevelopable, so not to worry.

In retrospect, it seems likely that the bureaucrats simply didn't want to do the deal, thinking that such an acquisition was too big, too maintenance-intensive and just too much trouble.

Council's role is a little murkier. While both Skorman and Eastburn enthusiastically supported the potential acquisition of Red Rocks, neither were willing to break publicly with their colleagues and demand action.

Having bought into the Council cult of harmony and unanimity, they opted not to use Council's bully pulpit to marshall public opinion. And as rookies, they lacked the self-confidence to challenge the administration, and force them to come up with a way to finance the purchase.

So now the spin begins. It's a private/public partnership. The developers are only going to develop the ugly part; we'll have the rest. This is better, and cheaper, than the alternative. Blah, blah, blah.

Let's be clear -- it'll be a development, and a spectacularly beautiful one at that. Good for the developer, for recognizing the land's potential. Don't blame him for the city's unwillingness to act.

As for Mayor and Council: you dropped the ball. When it counted, you didn't make the play.


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