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Political hostility hurts Colorado Springs, many say

By: monica mendoza
April 29, 2014 Updated: April 29, 2014 at 8:16 am
photo - Rich Harwood 2014. Courtesy photo
Rich Harwood 2014. Courtesy photo 

A commercial real estate broker is told by a restaurant chain owner that he would not consider expanding into Colorado Springs because the political climate makes doing business too risky.

A young entrepreneur gets shot down by an out-of-state investor who alludes to the Springs political acrimony as a red flag.

Hundreds of citizens attending Pikes Peak United Way community meetings say the No. 1 reason why planned programs are stymied is because of political rancor and too much focus on personal agendas.

The constant wrangling among elected officials has reached the ears of land buyers, restaurant builders, site selection firms and investors, local business and nonprofit leaders say. It is costing business and progress, they say. And they've had enough.

Community members are not planning a coup, but they are serious about changing the city's image. In business circles, in neighborhood meetings, in coffee shops where entrepreneurs meet regularly, people are talking about focusing on shared goals and getting the work done. They cannot wait for political fighting to stop, they said.

"We need to take charge of the situation and remind elected officials they work for us," said Tom Neppl, Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance board president and owner of Springs Fabrication manufacturing company. "Enough people have had enough."

Community conversations

About a year ago, Pikes Peak United Way staffers and board members started hosting community meetings in yoga studios, community centers and small businesses. They wanted to hear from the community about its priorities on such things as workforce development, housing and safety.

People have a lot of ideas, said Jason Wood, Pikes Peak United Way president and CEO. But after about 50 meetings with about 10 people at each, it became apparent that there is an overwhelming sentiment that progress is at a standstill because of a disconnect between political leadership and community desires. There is a lack of trust, community identity and connectivity.

"The divisiveness prevents success from happening," Wood said. "If there is a lack of trust, there is an unwillingness to come into the public square."

People are tired of agendas being pushed on them, Wood said. They don't want to be told the grand plan that is going to solve homelessness or spur economic development. They want to be asked how to solve the problems and they want to rally around shared aspirations, he said.

"It has to be all of us - nonprofits, business and government - at the table wanting to go around these issues to make a difference," Wood said.

It might feel like citizens cannot effect change other than through elections, said Rich Harwood, president of The Harwood Institute, a Maryland-based firm that helps communities address challenges. But in cities across the country - Battle Creek, Mich., Spokane, Wash., and Toledo, Ohio, to name a few - citizens have forced politicians to change their attitudes.

"You've got on the surface political acrimony, and there is a deep yearning to move beyond it," Harwood said. "That is where there is opportunity."

Harwood was invited by Pikes Peak United Way to help the organization plot its action plan. He is the keynote speaker at a Pikes Peak United Way luncheon on Thursday. He also will head an afternoon workshop on how community members can move from "aspirations to action." His campaign is called "Reclaiming Main Street."

"Where I have seen communities make progress, is they first refocus the public discourse on shared aspirations for the community," Harwood said. "People are tired of change being imposed on them."

Change begins with one small project, he said. That victory attracts more people to get involved and then they work on a second project, he said. Battle Creek residents rallied around creating programs for a growing Burmese population. They built a community center, community gardens, added school programs with mentors, and included the Burmese community in choosing a new city manager. And then something else happened, Harwood said.

"City politics shifted when they saw the community demanding a different behavior," he said.

"In Colorado Springs, when the community gets moving around shared aspiration, that is what will change political leaders."

Tipping point

Mayor Steve Bach said the discourse between the elected officials has taken a turn for the worse in the past year.

"I talk every day with employers and they express deep concern to me over the dysfunction of city government," Bach said. "One of our great challenges is attracting and retaining young professionals."

In the past year, the city's executive and legislative branch have agreed publicly on one project: a tax-free zone around the city's airport to attract aeronautical business.

But the two branches have clashed on every other issue, including City for Champions and paying for stormwater and drainage projects. There have been dueling press releases and press conferences. The word collaboration is used by elected officials and then a political storm is played out in the media. One example is the recent debate about spending money for pothole repair.

"The political fighting is leading to our inability to move forward on things like stormwater," Neppl said.

"Everything is politicized, even something like potholes, which shouldn't be an issue."

The hostile political climate has become the city's brand, said Tim Leigh, a commercial real estate broker and former City Council member.

Leigh brokers deals in five states. He recently tried to persuade a restaurant owner to expand his chain into Colorado Springs, he said.

"Those guys said there is too much risk to go into a market like Colorado Springs," Leigh said. "There are too many moving variables, which is a direct result from contention in the political environment. People pay attention."

Bach said much of the clash between the executive and legislative branches is due to a new form of government and a city charter that is unclear and often presents conflicting rules. He wants a citizens review committee to go through the charter and clear up the inconsistencies and delineate the duties of the mayor and the council.

"We're way off track in terms of our focus," he said. "We need to get the economy going and get people to work."

But there is more to the story, said Laura Muir, Pikes Peak United Way board member and president of Momentum Advertising and Public Relations. There is a perception that solutions, for example solving homelessness, are coming from the top down, she said.

"They are coming from the right place in their hearts," Muir said. "But what they are missing is talking to the homeless community."

Muir, who grew up in Colorado Springs, said the community has lost its trust in elected leadership, and the result is stalemate.

"People have voiced their frustrations," she said. "What I've heard is they want more collaboration, more connectivity - they want to feel connected."

Muir believes the United Way community conversations are the beginning of changing the city's brand.

"Just from a public relations standpoint, I feel we need to talk more and get out the word of all the positive things going on," she said.

"I'm really hopeful that things can change. I think we are closer than we've been in five years."

In recent months, talk in the coffee meetings of local entrepreneurs has shifted from business to politics, said Nick Lee, board member of Peak Startup and managing member of Lee Spirits Company.

"Us in the business community have been working really hard to break down silos, and we are starting to collaborate," he said.

"Over that exact same time frame, there has been a creation of silos in government."

Lee said he believes the political climate has inspired some entrepreneurs to get involved in community decisions. There have been meetings about possible candidates for City Council and the mayor, he said.

"The real answer is getting young people involved in local politics," he said.

Neppl said the community has reached its tipping point.

"There are a number of conversations going on all over the city about doing something.

"It's time for the community to coalesce around the problem and take charge of the situation."



Rich Harwood of The Harwood Institute will lead community discussions on how to take aspirations to action from 1:15 to 4:15 p.m. Thursday at The Pinery at the Hill, 775 W. Bijou St. Call 955-0748 for details.

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