Q&A with Ron Butlin: Group's chief advocates a vibrant downtown

RICH LADEN Updated: August 27, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: August 27, 2010

As commercial division manager for Colorado Springs homebuilder and developer Classic Cos., Ron Butlin was heavily involved years ago in the firm’s proposed residential and commercial redevelopment of southwest downtown.

These days, Butlin doesn’t just worry about one part of downtown; he focuses on the betterment of the entire area.

When Classic began downsizing a few years ago because of the homebuilding and commercial real estate slump, Butlin and his bosses agreed to part ways. In October 2008, he replaced Beth Kosley as executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership advocacy group. Kosley had left for a post in Woodland Park.

Butlin, 53, is a Southern California native who worked in banking for 14 years before moving to the Springs in 1995 and joining Classic as chief financial officer. Later, as a vice president and commercial division manager, Butlin’s work on southwest downtown led to involvement with the Downtown Partnership. He also assisted with the Imagine Downtown planning effort.
Butlin graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He and his wife, Laura, will mark their 30th anniversary this year; they have three children.

Question: What’s the role of the Downtown Partnership in Colorado Springs?

Answer: To advocate for a vibrant and dynamic downtown. Our stated mission “is to achieve a world-class, vibrant downtown Colorado Springs that serves as the civic, cultural and economic heart of the city.” Part of our role is as the staff support to the Business Improvement District (BID), the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and to Community Ventures (CV).

Q: Some people think downtown is no different from Briargate, the west side or other parts of town. Why should  downtown be considered special?

A: Downtown is vastly different from Briargate or any suburb. Downtown has the largest collection of independent, locally owned businesses, both in the form of retail merchants and in small-business office users. We have the largest collection of faith-based entities, charitable entities and civic operations, not to mention the cultural assets of museums and theaters. As we compete for intellectual talent, especially in the under-35 crowd, they are often looking for the availability of an urban experience as they decide where to live and work. They are looking for the diversity and variety that tends to be provided in urban settings. The long-term health of the region is tied to the health of downtown.

Q: What do you regard as downtown’s current strengths? Weaknesses?

A: Having a large base of small, independent property owners, shop owners and business owners creates a variety and diversity that is so special, but also creates an environment where it is very difficult for them to have a voice that is heard. A wonderful strength is that many downtown business owners live in Colorado Springs, care about Colorado Springs and reinvest their earnings in Colorado Springs. Downtown also has a wonderful collection of art on exhibit.

Q: About 20 years ago, the Downtown Action Plan — a series of goals and objectives — identified the need for more downtown housing. How far has downtown come in achieving that goal?

A: That goal was reiterated in the 2009 Imagine Downtown Plan, which has superseded the Downtown Action Plan. There has been some housing developed downtown, such as the Lowell neighborhood, Giddings lofts, CityWalk and 28 West. We would certainly like to see much more, both on the edges, as well as in the core, and in a variety of price ranges. The southwest urban renewal project envisioned lots of residential, but numerous factors — including a significant housing recession — have delayed those plans. In cooperation with the city, there has been a subtle, but significant, change that we expect will make residential development smoother in the future. In late 2009, the city adopted what is known as the “form based code district,” which is a zoning district unique to downtown. Among other things, this changed residential from a “conditional use” to an “approved use.” This encourages residential use and reduces a city zoning barrier.

Q: Downtown was once home to department stores, pharmacies and other retailers you might see in a mall or shopping center. What will it take to bring more traditional retailers to downtown?

A:The event of department stores and pharmacies leaving downtown has been a national phenomenon over the past 30 plus years. We would love to see those and other retailers back downtown. Part of the challenge is that the larger retailers often focus on residential units within a certain distance and proximity to their other stores. We have done a small study that suggests that over 30 percent of the retail sales downtown come from folks working in the surrounding offices. So this suggests that we need to create more housing downtown and to fill up existing space and create additional office space. As for how retail is doing, I would say it is a challenge every day. However, when I look around at the suburban vacancies, I believe our unique, locally owned character of downtown has experienced a slightly better success rate.

Q: One downtown nightclub was the scene of several violent incidents. How much did this harm downtown’s reputation, and what can the Downtown Partnership do to overcome public perception that downtown is unsafe?

A: For the past several years, there has been a tremendous amount of collaboration between the Colorado Springs Police Department, the club owners and the collective Downtown Partnership groups (BID and DDA) investing time and effort to make downtown safe and to counteract that negative perception. CSPD has experienced a drop in calls for violent activity downtown during the summer of 2010. This is a significant change and a sign that things are headed in the right direction. There are many options being discussed and tried; just to mention a few, clubs have agreed on a code of conduct among themselves and CSPD is working to provide early support to proactively manage situations before they get out of control.  

Q: Before heading a downtown advocacy group, you spent several years as an executive with the area’s largest local homebuilders. What’s the difference in working for each?

A: In my role with the homebuilder, I spent a lot of time downtown and was able to get to know some of the individuals involved. That has made my transition easier. The biggest difference is that rather than being responsible for physically building a building, now I seem to do a lot of communicating, cajoling and facilitating. Part of my role downtown is to be the thread connecting many different boards, committees and volunteers, so that we are aware of what each other is doing and hopefully cooperating in the over-reaching goal of creating a more vibrant downtown.  
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Questions and answers are edited for brevity and clarity. Contact the writer at 636-0228.

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