Colorado Springs should focus on attracting more young people if it wants its economy to grow.
That was the first of several suggestions offered by Gov. John Hickenlooper during an interview Thursday with The Gazette editorial board, when asked how the state could help the Pikes Peak region recover from the recent recession.
“If you look at the money that Fort Collins or Durango have invested in bike paths and things that are more youth-oriented, there’s an argument to be made … that your ability to attract young people has a lot to do with where businesses want to come,” Hickenlooper said. “These new economies are based on young people.”
The governor said he suspects Colorado Springs isn’t getting its share of the 25- to 34-year-old demographic that’s been migrating in droves to Colorado in recent years. And that may be why the local unemployment rate has stagnated at roughly 9 percent, while the state’s rate got down to 7.8 percent in November.
Hickenlooper also suggested that Mayor Steve Bach (who had been a guest of Hickenlooper’s Thursday morning at his State of the State speech) could put together a task force to come up with other possible ways to bolster job growth.
The best thing the state can do for Colorado Springs, Hickenlooper said, is leave the city alone.
“It’s, how can the state help the Springs help itself,” the governor said. “You don’t want the governor to come down and start trying to do everything for you. What you want us to do is cut red tape and get out of the way.”
There may, however, be highway construction jobs on the way, Hickenlooper intimated.
When asked about transportation funding to help decrease congestion on Interstate 25 between Monument Hill and Castle Rock, the governor said there may be additional state money available in coming years. Not only is the state spending $300 million more per year for the next five years on transportation, but there are also cost-saving changes in the works.
The Colorado Department of Transportation will re-evaluate its priorities for road repairs this year. CDOT records are often inaccurate, Hickenlooper said, because highways more than 25 years old are automatically categorized as a top priority for repair, even if they don’t need work. Some of the changes in priorities could equate to new construction jobs for El Paso County.
Colorado Springs could team with other cities to lobby the Legislature on transportation projects such as I-25, Hickenlooper said, since congestion problems stretch up and down the Front Range.
“I think you guys would be wise to reach out to the mayor of Fort Collins, and say, ‘Hey, you have the same problem we do. Rather than fighting against each other, let’s sit down and put pressure on the General Assembly and see if we can get a plan to solve the entire issue,’” Hickenlooper said.
Mayor Bach said the governor “has a lot of great ideas,” but said his administration is way ahead of Hickenlooper. One of the first things Bach said he did when he got into office was put together an “economic vitality” task force to brainstorm ways the city can help the private sector. Bach said his administration also is working hand-in-hand with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance on creating jobs.
The city also puts aside a portion of funds from every bike sale into a fund to help build bike paths, Bach said. And he’s working on what he calls a “downtown renaissance,” to make Colorado Springs more of a draw for younger generations.
Bach said he’s going to speak with Hickenlooper on Friday, at a local forum put on by the Business Alliance, about the idea of partnering with Fort Collins on transportation funding. But, he pointed out, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority already works in conjunction with CDOT.
The governor also discussed gun control, coming recreational marijuana regulations, the military presence in El Paso County, and energy issues.
During his State of the State address Thursday, he said he supports universal background checks on gun sales, and wants to reform the state’s mental health system to better keep guns away from the dangerously ill. But he told The Gazette that he isn’t ready to support a ban on high-capacity firearms magazines, as many Democrats are calling for.
The governor also said he doesn’t oppose arming teachers, something El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa would like to do.
“If the training is sufficient, and they’re not spending much money on it, and if the teacher wants to do it, I don’t see the harm,” Hickenlooper said. “I wouldn’t fight that.”
There will be strict regulations handed down by the Legislature on marijuana sales that will begin next year, the governor predicted. The most important thing, he said, is keeping the drug away from kids.
“It should be even harder for kids to get marijuana than for them to get alcohol,” Hickenlooper said.
At the close of the interview, Hickenlooper put to rest speculation that he may make a run for the White House in 2016. He said he rather focus his full attention on making Colorado a leader in health care reform and education excellence.
“Besides, it’s such a long shot. What are the chances someone like me could get elected president? One in a thousand, maybe,” he said with a laugh.
Contact John Schroyer: 476-4825
Facebook: Gazette John Schroyer