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Parks belong to the city’s citizens, not tourists

Your Turn


Let’s imagine that you bought a big house on a quiet street in an idyllic Western city a few decades ago. You soon figured out that you could make a few bucks by renting out the basement apartment. That went well, so you started an in-house event business, hosting weddings, family reunions and the like. Along came Airbnb, and you built a dwelling unit in your side yard to rent out to visitors. The money was good, but your beautiful house wasn’t really yours anymore. You had to cater to the visitors, the customers and your staff, as well as constantly attend to marketing — how did it all get so crazy?

So you called it quits, and transitioned to a quieter, more modest lifestyle. The world was suddenly peaceful; you adopted a couple of shelter dogs, worked from 9 to 5 and never looked back.

Does this sound strangely familiar? Many of us came to Colorado Springs to get away from the frenzied bustle of cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Dallas or Chicago. We were sick of traffic, of constant noise, of crime and congestion, of ambitious pols and high taxes. We wanted a sparkling new place to live, one where residents understood, treasured and protected their beloved little city — so we came to Colorado Springs.

The city grew apace, while retaining much of its charm and beauty. But now we seem to be at an inflection point, entering a time in our city’s history when we may lose that which is precious and irreplaceable in the ceaseless pursuit of visitor dollars.

Look at Garden of the Gods Park. It’s one of the most notable small landscapes in the world, a place that attracts virtually every visitor to the Pikes Peak region. For decades, we’ve obligingly provided visitors with unlimited free vehicular access, including expensively maintained roads and parking lots. Now the city is proposing to build a 400-space parking lot just west of the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center on land that’s part of the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site. The lot would theoretically serve a new shuttle, and would be intended to mitigate vehicle congestion within the park.
But imagine the park without private vehicles, a quiet place for hikers and cyclists. Imagine the pristine view of the park unmarred by a vast mall-scale flat parking lot. This is our city park, guys — not a visitor magnet to monetize but a place for residents to visit and enjoy. It could be done, but at the price of making the park less accessible to visitors and their vehicles. We saw how wonderful the park became when vehicles were banned for a few hours one recent spring morning — so why not expand the ban?

A few miles to the south, the well-meaning folks at the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department recently released the final draft of the North Cheyenne Cañon Master Plan, which was approved by the city Parks Advisory Board. It’s a thoughtful document, but one flawed by one of the plan’s seven “guiding principles,” which states that: “Access to the park’s rich natural resources and facilities is available to and convenient for all. Park roadways and parking areas meet user demand and ensure the safety of all users.”

It’s clear from the context that the 1,800-acre park is not seen solely as a civic amenity, but as an underdeveloped visitor asset.

As Sue Spengler, who lives near Cheyenne Cañon, noted in a recent Facebook post, “You guys, it’s so much worse than that goddamn blue sign, but it’s part of the same problem: a city that thinks its job is to brand itself for tourists.”

Twenty years ago, the city undertook the painful and long-deferred step of removing commercial buildings and enterprises from Garden of the Gods. Philanthropist Lyda Hill built a lovely visitor center on privately owned land east of 30th Street, and the Garden was improved, preserved and revitalized.

Colorado Springs isn’t lame anymore — we’re as dynamic and successful as any Western metropolis. It’s time to deal honestly with both the costs and benefits of growth-based prosperity, and manage the city for the benefit of residents, not transients.

Yet if home prices continue to increase, we can cash out and move away to a fun, quiet, enterprising and undiscovered little city somewhere in the West just like Colorado Springs in 1981.
Good luck finding one!

— John Hazelhurst

This column first appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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