Columns » Outsider




Spent last Sunday afternoon at the symphony, listening to Chris Wilkins conduct a stunning performance of Mozart's great Mass in C minor. We sat in the mezzanine and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the great hall of the Pikes Peak Center, whose world-renowned acoustics are so perfect that we might have been sitting in the 10th row center. The large crowd gave the singers and musicians a well-deserved standing ovation.

Twenty years ago, my spouse and I walked arm-in-arm with Bee Vradenburg to the opening of the Pikes Peak Center. Having just moved back to Colorado Springs after a 20-year absence, I was amazed that the Symphony's supporters had managed to pull off such a coup -- a world-class concert hall in Colorado Springs!

Twenty years later, it still seems amazing. Thanks to Bee's tireless fund raising, to the generosity of hundreds of contributors, to El Pomar's powerful support, and to the voters of El Paso County, we built (for a relative pittance) a facility that would cost at least $50 million to duplicate today.

Bee died last year, as did her spouse and lifetime companion, George. Their only child, Palmer graduate and AOL senior VP George Vradenburg III, came to the conductor's podium during a break in Sunday's concert to announce that his parents' entire estate would be used to create a foundation to benefit the arts in Colorado Springs. It was a gift of extraordinary generosity, amounting to several million dollars, and a welcome piece of good news for the local arts community.

Bee would have been delighted. Since her death, she's been transformed into this mythic "symphony lady," loftily dispensing culture to the unwashed and unworthy. The real Bee was earthy, gentle, tough and funny -- a lot closer to Mae West or Courtney Love than to Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn.

Reflecting on the afternoon, I wondered what Bee would have said about some of our current politicians (not to mention editorial writers for the daily) who are so fond of yammering about the proper role of municipal government. According to these so-called conservatives, the city ought to forget about parks, museums, zoos, symphonies and rec centers, and fund only the basics -- roads, drainage and public safety.

Well, let's look back 20 years ago, and imagine that the funds used to build the Pikes Peak Center had been dedicated to solving our east-west transportation needs. We could have added two lanes to Constitution Avenue for about three miles, which might have made commuting marginally easier (say five minutes each way) for a few thousand commuters. Fine for them; of course, we wouldn't have one of the finest small-city symphonies in the nation, nor would we have a world-class concert hall.

Similar choices confront us today. Every one of our Council members, incumbents and newcomers alike, has paid extensive lip service to the notion of preserving Red Rocks (720 magnificent acres of canyons, rock formations, forests and meadows adjacent to Bear Creek park and Section 16). Acquiring and preserving it in perpetuity is easy; just write a check for $15 million.

That may seem like an impossibly large amount, but given the various dedicated funding sources available for such a purchase, it's fairly manageable. By leveraging TOPS funds, and getting a grant from GoCo, the city might only have to commit about $2 million a year for three years.

But for our Council members to make such a commitment, they'd have to admit that a lot of their campaign rhetoric was just hot air. They'd have to recognize that there is no discernible crisis in public safety, despite all the scare talk, and that our infrastructure is not collapsing. They'd have to acknowledge that a city is more than a network of roads and drainage ditches, more than a collection of fire trucks and police cruisers.

They'd even have to come clean and admit to the truth: that we live here because of the amenities, not the necessities. We expect clean air, breathtaking views, spacious parks and abundant cultural resources. That's the "infrastructure" that brought us all here; screw it up at your peril.

In conclusion, a little advice: Your term in office is short -- before you know it, you'll be nobodies again, and all your fine new friends won't return your calls. So do something big and wonderful for the future, even if it means that a few more potholes won't get filled.

And remember basic politics -- you get to take credit for all the good stuff, and blame the potholes on the city manager.

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