Columns » Outsider


Are we toast?


If you're a community leader wannabe in Colorado Springs, there are two proven ways to waste your time, spin your wheels, look like a fool and be remembered as an ... is "idiot" the word we're looking for?

One's obvious: Join the decades-old Church of the Taxpayer-Funded Convention Center. You'll work, you'll pray, you'll try to cajole the non-believaz into joining, but in vain -- no convention center for you!

And the other? It's equally simple: Rustle up some statistics and predict economic catastrophe for the Pikes Peak region.

I actually have a little experience in that, I'm sorry to say. Back in the day, when I was a fresh-faced collegian majoring in government, I landed a summer grant to study local government in Colorado Springs. I spent the summer -- when I wasn't drinking 3.2 beer at Giuseppe's -- interviewing power people, reading dull government handouts, looking at census data and thinkin' deep thoughts.

My conclusion? We were headed for a prolonged period of economic stagnation, owing to our unsustainable dependence on military spending and tourism, not to mention our lack of any traditional economic base.

I noted with approval Pueblo's thriving economy (yeah, this was a long time ago), based on agriculture, manufacturing and steel. After all, military bases could close and disappear, and new destinations across the West were competing with us for the traditional car-based tourist, but we'd always need iron and steel.

So I was young, I was callow, I was stupid, and I cut myself out of any number of insanely lucrative real estate deals that could have propelled me, with my geezer pals, down our 50-year boom to Easy Street.

So isn't it time to abandon youthful misconceptions, catch the last train out of the station and ride the tail end of the boom to Big Money? We've gone from 60,000 souls to over 500,000 in half a century; aren't we well on our way to 1 million? And think of the money to be made when those newcomers pour into town -- it'll be like Las Vegas without the sleaze!

Well, maybe, but I still think we're in for a bit of a rough patch.

Aside from tourism and the military, our economy's a stool with one leg: real estate. Without intense, sustained population growth and the economic activity that it generates, we're toast.

The economic impact of annually building thousands of new homes, not to mention the commercial structures that service new residents, is immense. We need those homes and we need those structures because we've got jobs for the thousands of people who arrive here, or grow up and stay here. Absent job growth, we're going down.

Over the decades, we've had a couple of severe local recessions, one in the early '70s, and another in the late '80s. Each was triggered by the collapse of the new home market, as local job growth stalled.

Is another recession on its way? Consider the convergence of several trends, local, regional and global.

Our local utility rates will rise sharply over the near term, making us less competitive nationally.

A dispersed, sprawling city is expensive to maintain. That means either broken-down infrastructure or higher taxes -- choose your poison.

Two of our largest school districts -- 11 and 49 -- are in turmoil.

Higher gas prices = fewer visitors.

Most importantly, the relentless march of globalization means that we're competing for jobs and companies not just with Austin, Tucson and San Diego, but with hundreds of Asian cities. The universe of companies that might relocate here has shrunk dramatically -- and it's still shrinking.

We've dodged the bullet so far, thanks mainly to extraordinarily low interest rates, which have fueled first-time homebuyers and move-up buyers. And we can count on another pop as our warriors return home from the Middle East. But both of those are temporary phenomena, masking long-term negatives.

Don't think so? Then why are the canaries leaving the coal mine? Economic Development Corporation director Rocky Scott has left town, and Colorado Springs Utilities boss Phil Tollefson retired at the ripe old age of 54.

Makes you think they know something we don't.


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