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Grow or go broke

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Hope that you took time to read Dan Wilcock and Rich Tosches' clear and eminently readable dissection of the Pueblo reservoir pipeline project in last week's Indy. It's a fascinating account of our city's often-desperate attempts to secure additional water supplies to support future growth. For me, one remark, from Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings, just leaped off the page:

"[Colorado Springs is pushing the project] for the benefit of the 500,000 people who they hope, for some ungodly dumb reason in my view, to increase their city to a million people."

Well, yeah, of course ol' Bob's right. It's not that we necessarily want to double or triple in size -- it's just that our local economy is driven by growth.

Don't think so? Think again. Imagine the city if growth stopped, if the construction of new homes slowed to a trickle, if new commercial space went unoccupied, if existing businesses stopped hiring and no new businesses were formed. What would it be like if city tax collections shrank radically, developers left town for greener pastures and national chains removed Colorado Springs from their lists of attractive expansion sites?

I can imagine it, because, like everyone who was here in the late '80s, I experienced it. And for those of you who didn't, a few of the high points:

For the first time in the city's modern history, out-migration surpassed in-migration. Thousands of people left town, thousands of houses for which there was no demand hit the market. Foreclosures soared to record levels, values plummeted, and many homeowners simply abandoned their now over-mortgaged homes to lenders.

Thanks to the triple whammy of a highly leveraged local commercial real estate market, the national collapse of the Savings & Loan industry, and a severe regional economic downturn, Colorado Springs had no safety net. We became known as the Foreclosure Capital of America. How the mighty had fallen!

For a lot of us, the discovery was painful and personal. I had a few rental properties, and a decent income as a real estate broker. My tenants left town, and I couldn't find new ones. Real estate sales dried up -- I could have had 100 listings, but since there were no buyers, they were worthless. Thanks to a high-earning professional spouse, our family hung on; but lots of friends and acquaintances lost everything and had to leave town.

So what did we do? As a community, we put aside our differences and tried to get things going. We'd seen the no-growth economy, and it had been a disaster. We yearned for growth, and we applauded every sign of a recovering economy.

But Colorado Springs wasn't always so dependent on growth; indeed, from 1920 to 1960 the city's population grew quite slowly. My memories of Colorado Springs in the 1950s are of a pleasant, slow-paced little city, a slice of paradise nestled at the foot of Pikes Peak. But my parents, and their friends, saw things a little differently. A childhood friend's mom, now deceased, shared her memories with me some years ago:

"Nobody had any money, and we all just lived paycheck to paycheck. We never went out -- a movie was a once-a-month treat. I had a garden, not for flowers but for food. I made most of our clothes. On Saturdays, we used to walk downtown and just look in the store windows. I took the kids to the library every week -- we'd return books, and get new ones. We finally took a family vacation one summer -- we drove to Mesa Verde and camped out -- it was wonderful."

I mourn the disappearance of the small town of my youth, replaced, as if by some malign sorcery, with today's chaotic metropolis. But we can't go back, and we can't change the ruthless dynamics of our local economy. Grow or go broke; grab water or die!

And you know something? It's not all bad. Do you like martini bars, watching hockey at the World Arena, listening to the Philharmonic at the Pikes Peak Center, choosing which of a couple of dozen movies to see, sending your kids to PPCC or UCCS, hanging out at a gourmet coffee shop, or shopping at an organic grocery? Absent growth, you wouldn't have those choices.

Not to mention reading the Independent ...

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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