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TOPS celebrates 20 years protecting the outdoors

A Colorado legacy

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Red Rock Canyon Open Space - BETHANY ALVAREZ
  • Bethany Alvarez
  • Red Rock Canyon Open Space
More than two decades ago, in the midst of a development boom, a band of citizens saw a need to protect the beautiful open spaces in Colorado Springs, and decided to do something about it.

Together they created a ballot question for the Trails, Open Space and Parks dedicated 0.1 percent sales tax, otherwise known as TOPS. When it was first put to voters in 1995, the proposal failed. But after revisions, amendments, better outreach and the threat of development in the area that is now Stratton Open Space, voters approved the tax in 1997, with the stipulation that it sunset in April 2009. It helped that this time around, advocates brought many in the development community — those most likely to oppose TOPS — on board, by showing that open space was an economic driver.

Voters liked TOPS so much that in 2003, they renewed the tax with overwhelming support through 2025. Now, TOPS supporters are honoring the program’s 20th year of funding the purchase and maintenance of local outdoor spaces.

The movement to pass TOPS was led by community advocate Annie Oatman-Gardner; Richard Skorman, a small business owner who went on to win a seat on City Council in 1999 and later serve as vice mayor (he was elected to the Council again in 2016 and is currently City Council president); and Independent owner John Weiss, among others.

“We were in the middle of the ’90s growth boom. We were watching all these special places get developed by property owners,” Skorman says. Stratton Open Space, a scenic hiking location at the foot of North Cheyenne Cañon, was TOPS’ first purchase, made with the help of other organizations and donors. The largest purchase to date, and one of Skorman’s personal favorites, was Red Rock Canyon Open Space, in 2003, a 789-acre city park that cost $12.5 million.

Now, Skorman says, “It’s so heavily used. People love it, I can’t tell you how many compliments I get.” That’s true with most people involved with TOPS, says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, noting “it was going to be a golf course and houses. ... When you walk through it, you just can’t imagine not having access to it.”

And that’s just one special spot for which the community can thank TOPS, which has produced a total of 37 parks, built nearly 50 miles of trail, and acquired 4,723 acres of open space, according to the city. “It’s a huge economic driver,” Skorman says. “We have 300 days of sunshine and a population that’s really into health and fitness.”

The city’s Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services department and the TOPS Working Committee manages TOPS tax money. “The funding is broken down into categories, with administration and maintenance coming off the top,” says Sarah Bryarly, the former manager of design development and TOPS.
Sixty percent of TOPS funds are put toward open space acquisitions and stewardship. As of January 2016, $97,063,178.83 has been spent on TOPS projects. Over $17 million of that went to trails, $58 million on open spaces and $20 million has been spent on parks.

Because the TOPS budget depends on how much sales tax is generated, the annual TOPS budget has increased from about $6 million to $8.2 million over the last decade, improving following the economic slump. But the increase, Bryarly says, doesn’t provide as much additional support as it may seem.

“We are receiving more money, but [the] cost of construction has increased also,” she says. But when financing a new park is not possible, TOPS can support building new facilities in existing parks. Bryarly says many trail, park and open space projects are 100 percent covered by TOPS.

“The challenge is not capital dollars — it’s the maintenance,” she says. Skorman explains that increased water rates are also a major cost for the parks department: “Half of our park bill in the summer is the water bill.”

When the recession hit, the city slowed construction on new projects because there was less money for maintenance. “There have been times where we were less careful than we should be about creating parks that we couldn’t maintain,” Skorman says. As a result, purchasing was put on hold for several years.

In Red Rock Canyon alone, for example, there are six seasonal staff employed through the stewardship program to help with trail maintenance and education. Bryarly says those employees are not solely involved with Red Rocks, but move through the whole system.

John Venezia Community Park, which recently opened in Briargate using TOPS dollars, will have two full-time employees and four to five seasonal employees. There are also an estimated 3,800 volunteers the park system relies on to continue maintenance on the land, according to the 2016 Volunteer Review for Colorado Springs.

Future TOPS projects include land acquisition for the Legacy Loop, Rock Island and Sand Creek trails. And Skorman has his eyes on the 18,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch land, which is owned by Nor’wood Development Group, and slated for development. “It would be great to have that, [as] a buffer to massive development,” he says. “There needs to be that public open space.”

Skorman hopes TOPS will help create greenways, connecting large sections of the city to each other, allowing for uninterrupted paths for bikers and hikers. “Any new opportunity we can create is exciting for the future.”

As part of celebrations throughout 2017, the city has invited the public to volunteer at a series of BioBlitzes, intensive field studies in areas like Jimmy Camp Creek and Ute Valley Park, to record “all living species” and help biologists as they evaluate how well the spaces are doing. The dates for the remaining two Blitzes are Sept. 15 and 16; locations will be inside Ute Valley Park.

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