Updated: August 3, 2008 at 12:00 am
Nevada Avenue, several blocks south of downtown Colorado Springs, is a blue-collar mix of fast-food restaurants, banks, convenience stores, pawnshops and motels, the likes of which can be found in several other parts of town.
South Nevada, however, has businesses that other areas don't: drug dealing and prostitution, which some local merchants say are the byproducts of a few seedy motels and their residents. Those problems contribute to South Nevada's reputation as a rough-edged part of town.
"South Nevada has an image problem, and it has a real problem," said Bill Kenline, owner of the Rodeway Inn and Suites along the corridor and the head of the South Nevada Merchants Association.
A transformation might be coming, however.
Nevada, from roughly Mill Street to East Cheyenne Road, is the latest Springs corridor targeted by city officials for redevelopment, a movement that's gained momentum in recent months. The vision includes a more attractive mix of stores and restaurants to replace some of the aging motels, used car lots and other businesses, along with new apartments and lofts.
Local merchants have met regularly over several months with city officials and police to talk about ways to resolve crime problems. Developers, meanwhile, already have purchased land in the area, saying South Nevada and South Tejon Street - which parallels Nevada - have untapped potential because of their location. And the Springs-based El Pomar Foundation, one of the state's largest charitable trusts, has donated the time of three of its interns, who are researching problems in the area and will present a report on conditions along South Nevada to city officials by summer's end.
"It's a huge, multiprong attack, trying to turn the area around from blighted and crime-ridden and downtrodden," said City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, whose council district covers the area.
"We're not turning it into Rodeo Drive. We don't want all new businesses. We want to support the ones that are already there."
The idea of turning another Springs area from shabby to shiny has a familiar ring to it.
Some redevelopment projects can be successful; a new Costco Wholesale Club will be part of a facelift now under way on a stretch of Nevada, north of Garden of the Gods Road.
Other projects, however, never seem to get very far. More than a decade ago, city officials targeted Platte Avenue in the center of town for an overhaul, and little change has taken place. Southwest downtown's makeover has been on the drawing board since the City Council designated the area an urban renewal site seven years ago. And last year, city officials took aim at central and South Academy Boulevard, although it's too soon to see if the effort will lead to major upgrades.
What makes South Nevada different? Plenty, say city officials, merchants and developers.
Assets other blighted areas lack
South Nevada is a short drive from downtown and from upscale neighborhoods near The Broadmoor hotel on the city's southwest side; it's also next door to Ivywild, a historic area of attractive older houses and mature trees.
The South Nevada corridor also has scenic views and a mix of thriving brand-name businesses - such as Wells Fargo, McDonald's and Conway's Red Top - that other redevelopment areas lack.
South Tejon, just a block west, has a mix of restaurants and small merchants, some of which are located in older homes converted into businesses. Tejon shows the type of corridor that South Nevada could become.
"You can't question the location," Springs developer Mark Morley said. "You have great access off the interstate. You sit between The Broadmoor and downtown. This is truly creekside, unlike anywhere but maybe Manitou (Springs). There's nothing else that offers creekside, which, in our vision is really important."
Morley and business partners Sam Guadagnoli, owner of several downtown nightclubs, and Robert Aertker, a local commercial real estate broker, have purchased about 12 acres - and have an additional 3 acres under contract - in the triangular area between Nevada and Tejon, south of Brookside Street. Cheyenne Creek runs through the area, and the developers envision razing existing buildings and constructing four- to six-story residential structures, shops, restaurants and cafes that would back up to the creek, Morley said.
The project still is being designed, and construction wouldn't begin for at least two years, he said.
More developers making plans
Farther south, along Cheyenne Road and west of Nevada, Springs developer Danny Mientka Jr. has bought about 2.5 acres and is in talks to acquire another 2.5 to 3 acres. His property is west of the existing Southern Cross Shopping Center and northwest of the Broadmoor Towne Center.
Thousands of vehicles that travel Nevada daily make the area attractive to developers, and popular area businesses - such as the Blue Star restaurant on Tejon Street - already serve as anchors, Mientka said.
He envisions his Cheyenne Road property as a transition between the existing big-box stores in the Broadmoor Towne Center and the single-family and multifamily neighborhoods south of downtown. There's room for smaller electronics, jewelry and home furnishing stores, he said. Mientka, like Morley, says several buildings would need to be razed in the area.
Griffis/Blessing Inc., a longtime Springs real estate company, has purchased property farther north along Tejon, near Las Vegas Street, including the former Nemeth's El Tejon Restaurant that's been transformed into a small retail building.
Chief Executive Buck Blessing said he's targeting Tejon, not Nevada. Every great city has strong development on the fringe of its downtown core, Blessing said, and he sees South Tejon as ripe for new housing and retail. Interstate 25 access from the new Cimarron Street bridge will bolster the area, and two-way traffic on Tejon through downtown will make it easier to reach areas south of the core, he said.
"Long term, we just think that's a really strong area for us to be owning ground, and I would envision some new buildings that would have a lot of character and a lot of charm," Blessing said.
A fourth longtime local developer, Jim Rhue, said he's eyeing the purchase of about 14.5 acres southeast of Nevada and Brookside, where he envisions 125,000 to 170,000 square feet of stores, restaurants and services.
Local governments also are part of the effort to revive South Nevada.
By September, Heimlicher said he expects the South Nevada Merchants Association to request that the city's Urban Renewal Authority and City Council declare the corridor an urban renewal site, which would allow tax revenue from future redevelopment in the area to be used for public improvements. Also, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark has agreed to ask her colleagues and state officials to expand the county's enterprise zone to include South Nevada, which would provide financial incentives for developers, Heimlicher said.
Heimlicher said he's also had talks with the Colorado Springs Housing Authority, asking the agency to assist South Nevada residents who might be displaced if some smaller motels and homes change hands and are razed as part of the redevelopment effort.
A year ago, Mayor Lionel Rivera identiffed South Nevada as one of several areas that needed improvement. Also, the city's longterm, strategic plan has made the revival of declining retail areas a priority, said Colorado Springs Planning Director Bill Healy.
"You have all kinds of demands on city services in declining areas," Healy said. "Crime rates are usually higher. Calls for service are higher in these areas. Blight breeds blight. It's in the city's overall best interest to make sure these areas have the opportunity to rejuvenate themselves instead of continuing in a state of decline."
Still some hurdles to overcome
South Nevada's makeover isn't guaranteed, however.
Much of the area southwest of Brookside and Nevada lies in a 100-year flood plain, and the area closest to Cheyenne Creek is in the more troublesome flood way that would be overwhelmed in a major storm, Mientka said. City officials, Morley and Mientka are paying for a study to determine what steps must be taken for redevelopment to take place in the ffood plain area.
Crime along South Nevada, mainly in the stretch from Brookside to Cheyenne Road, is the more pressing problem, say area businesspeople, city officials and developers.
Stepped-up enforcement by Colorado Springs police over the past few years has addressed some of the problems, say Heimlicher and area businesspeople. Ron Waller, vice president and branch manager of First State Bank on South Nevada, says he remembers seeing at least one drug deal a month in his parking lot when he started at the bank four years ago. Now, he sees maybe two or three a year.
Prostitution arrests numbered about 70 last year, but have dwindled to a handful so far in 2008, Heimlicher said.
"There's still a problem with the customer," Kenline said, referring to prostitution patrons. "The customer or the potential customer still thinks of South Nevada as a place to find a prostitute, especially young guys who are looking for that. I don't know how much longer the reputation will saddle the area."
Heimlicher said he recently secured $9,000 in pledges from area businesspeople and private donors to cover the cost of off-duty police officers to patrol South Nevada on Saturday nights and two other nights between now and the end of September.
But problems will continue as long as the Cheyenne Motel, and one or two other motels along South Nevada, continue to operate, some businesspeople say.
Police say the motel and its few dozen residents are a haven for crime - mainly drug dealing and prostitution. The Cheyenne is owned by a businesswoman who lives in Asia and has rejected offers to sell the property, said Morley, who added that he's given up trying to buy it.
Heimlicher would like Colorado Springs police and the City Attorney's Office to use the city's nuisance ordinance against the Cheyenne and other area businesses that tolerate criminal activity. With a judge's approval, the ordinance would allow the city to seize the Cheyenne and force the owner to make substantial improvements. If that happens, it's possible the Cheyenne's owner would sell the property rather than pay the costs of the upgrades.
Changes can't come quickly enough for Lynn Karnes, who owns Continental Cleaners. The entrance to his business is adjacent to and facing the Cheyenne Motel's parking lot.
Continental customers have been hassled by Cheyenne Motel residents or vagrants in its parking lot, Karnes said. But those are just inconveniences compared with shootings and violence that have taken place over the years at the Cheyenne and other areas near South Nevada, Karnes said. From January 2006 through April 20, police received nearly 530 calls, often with several police cars responding, related to complaints about drugs, sex crimes, noise and assaults at the Cheyenne, Heimlicher said.
"Get this area cleaned up," Karnes said. "If developers are a good way of getting things cleaned up and making a nicer part of the neighborhood, then that's wonderful. But if we have to take the Cheyenne Motel to court and shut them down under the public nuisance ordinance, then so be it. I don't care how this place gets cleaned up, it needs to get cleaned up."
Morley recognizes the problems, as well, but still likes the area's potential.
"It's no secret that this area has problems," he said. "But it's also no secret that it's got some really, really unique opportunities."
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