Most high-profile cities boast a healthy and vibrant downtown. But even some of downtown Colorado Springs’ most ardent supporters would concede the area has a ways to go.
Transforming downtown into the energetic, live-work-play environment that backers envision will be one of the challenges for Susan Edmondson, who takes over Monday as president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership, the area’s leading advocacy group. She succeeds Ron Butlin, who left the organization in October.
Edmondson, 47, served for 10 years as executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation, which supports nonprofit arts groups in the Pikes Peak region. Before she joined the foundation, Edmondson spent 12 years at The Gazette, including seven years as arts and entertainment editor.
She’s been active in numerous downtown and civic organizations, including serving on the boards of the Downtown Development Authority, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Pikes Peak Region and Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. She’s also a co-founder of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region.
Question: How would you describe the current state of Colorado Springs’ downtown?
Answer: Downtown is poised. We haven’t experienced the extreme challenges and blight of many older cities, but we haven’t quite taken ourselves into the 21st century either. We have what we need in place: unique retail, good parks, solid cultural assets, committed political and civic leadership. We’ve been “good” but we need to take ourselves to “great.”
Q: What is downtown’s greatest strength?
A: Our strength clearly is the people. We have dedicated shop owners, committed employers, artists who are keeping things fresh and fun and stakeholders with a great “can do” attitude when it comes to helping downtown. Just since my hiring was announced, I have been so gratified by the literally scores of people — not just those from the downtown core — who want to get involved and help make our downtown thrive.
Q: What is the Downtown Partnership’s view on decommissioning the Martin Drake Power Plant?
A: We think it’s essential to take a rigorous examination of Drake and the appropriate time for decommissioning. Drake is essentially at the front door of our downtown and our entire city, at the confluence of Interstate 25 and Highway 24. At the very least, I think we can all agree that if you were to build a city and a downtown from the ground up, you wouldn’t put a steam-emitting behemoth at your front door.
Q: Over the years, various plans — from the Downtown Action Plan, to Imagine Downtown, to the southwest downtown urban renewal project to last year’s Urban Land Institute advisory panel report — have proposed grand visions for all or portions of the area. But we’ve seen few dramatic changes. Has downtown underachieved? Are these big plans still realistic or do we need to take smaller bites of the apple?
A: These plans are solid. The timing has been rough. Certainly nobody anticipated a recession of this degree, but we’re starting to see things pick up again. Look at the Mining Exchange hotel that opened last year as one example — what a fantastic addition to downtown that has been. I think it is essential that we move on parallel paths: pushing forward on major, catalytic projects that sometimes take years to come to fruition, while simultaneously working on improving the day-to-day experience through quality events, new and enhanced retail, public art, improved trails and pedestrian access.
Q: You’ve no doubt heard the criticisms: Downtown has too many bars and nightclubs, too few traditional retailers and too many panhandlers, while suburban shopping centers and restaurants have more convenient parking. What do you say to people who don’t want to come downtown and how do you encourage them to come to the area?
A: It’s personal for me. My life is better and more interesting because of downtown. I find unique items in locally owned shops, I prefer local restaurants to chains, I have experiences that aren’t generic when I’m downtown. All of that improves my quality of life. As far as parking is concerned, I usually have to walk farther in a mall parking lot than I do when shopping downtown. I also know that when I spend my money downtown at a cultural event or locally owned shop or restaurant, that money is staying in the community longer and helping our city’s economy.
Q: What are some of your favorite downtowns? What makes them special?
A: San Luis Obispo, Calif., where I went to college, is a great small-town downtown; it has a terrific renowned weekly farmers market that brings the whole community together. For midsize cities, I like the scale and attributes of Alexandria, Va.; Portland, Ore.; and Fort Worth, Texas. For large cities, you can’t beat Chicago: the architecture, the water orientation, the shopping, the arts and culture. Millennium Park is a brilliant civic gathering space. I try to go to that park every time I am in Chicago. Finally, in Colorado, Fort Collins is doing a lot of things right. All of these downtowns are great because they are people-centered.
Q: If you could change one thing about Colorado Springs’ downtown, what would it be?
A: I want to see more residential — mixed-use residential. When we have more people downtown 24-7 because they actually live downtown, everything gets better. Safety concerns improve because there are simply more people activating public spaces, retail and restaurants thrive because of greater demand and downtown hums with energy.
Questions and answers are edited for brevity and clarity.
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