Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Quality of life report: Same challenges linger for Pikes Peak region

By Jakob Rodgers Updated: October 24, 2013 at 8:39 am

A sluggish economy left aimless and without a base of young professionals.

Surprisingly alarming obesity rates. A dearth of doctors.

A population that's aging fast.

Each was highlighted in the 2013 Quality of Life Indicators Report for the Pikes Peak region, a detailed snapshot of El Paso and Teller counties by the Pikes Peak United Way.

The first such report was released in 2007 as a means to provide the region with "reliable, objective" information. The 2013 report offers 144 pages stacked with statistics.

It touches on nearly every aspect of society. And one thing is clear: Many of the issues remain unchanged since the last report in 2011.

Childhood poverty, a physician shortage, a high suicide rate and lagging services for the disabled all remain, as does a lack of young professionals seen as key to lifting the economy.

There were bright spots these past two years - particularly, a swell of civic engagement (such as massive voter turnout in the 2012 election), volunteerism and philanthropy. Often, the latter were in response to the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires or the flash flooding.

The key is in leveraging that kind of energy to deal with the chronic challenges facing the community. For instance, while the outpouring helped fire recovery efforts, observers say a larger community conversation is needed on the implications of having thousands of residents living in a wildland urban interface.

In the past, that kind of change has been slow to come.

"QLI is not about providing answers," said Dave Munger, a member of the report's executive committee. "We're really about identifying problems. . In lots of places, we probably haven't had the conversations we need to have yet."

Economy

Chief among the report's findings: The Pikes Peak region's economy didn't take off as it did in other areas resembling Colorado Springs.

Low wage growth, "middle-of-the-pack" gross domestic product growth and persistently high unemployment proved particularly troublesome in the Pikes Peak region. The Albuquerque, Denver, Austin, Texas, and Omaha, Neb., metropolitan areas all boasted lower unemployment rates in 2012, while El Paso County's wage growth dropped to its lowest point in 10 years.

Many of the region's economic woes can be traced to two main issues: a lack of jobs - particularly with 21st century industries and startup companies - and the area's persistent inability to attract young professionals, observers say.

A report by The Gazette in September found those problems can feed off each other.

The region appears stuck in the computer chip manufacturing and electronics industries, rather than reeling in jobs centered around the biotechnology, nanotechnology, cellular and molecular sciences industries, said Paul Rochette, an economist with Summit Economics who helped write the quality of life report.

The growth at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs could help, especially given its increased focus on the medical sector, Rochette said. But the region also needs to change its approach to young professionals.

The percentage of residents ages 25 to 44 dropped from 31 percent in 2006 to 27 percent in 2012, the report said.

"I just don't think we have that locus for nightlife and things to do that interest millennials," Rochette said.

It's not a universally shared sentiment. Jon Severson, who has started five young professionals groups across Colorado, pointed to the opening of Bristol Brewing Co.'s new location at the old Ivywild Elementary School as a sign things might be turning around.

"There's really no shortage of anything to do," he said. "It's just taking the initiative to go out there and do it."

Report authors also hailed a couple of economic bright spots: a housing market with residential building permits that doubled during the past three years and declining foreclosures.

Despite the post-recession workforce woes, the city's standing among some of the most influential business indicators remains strong.

The city ranked 57th in the Milken Institute's 2012 ranking of the 200 biggest metropolitan areas in the nation, jumping 42 spots in two years, the report said.

The key, observers say, is to turn around the economy before it inflicts deeper pain elsewhere.

There is lingering poverty threatening one in six kids and increasing demand on assistance programs.

"We have made some progress in the economy since 2011," Munger said. "But that, to me, is the most troubling thing. . Why are we not doing better? I don't have a good answer for that. I wish I did."

Health

The picturesque views of Pikes Peak, the labyrinth of trails and sunshine create the image of fitness across the region.

But it might be time to rethink that mindset, report authors found.

Obesity - particularly among children - ranks as a growing challenge for health care professionals in the area. More than one in four children in El Paso County are overweight or obese, as is more than half of adults, the report found, citing a 2012 El Paso County Public Health assessment.

"That's too many," said Carol Bruce-Fritz, Community Health Partnership's executive director and a report author. "And we look good to when we compare ourselves to the rest of the country, but it's not a good comparison anyway.

"Just because the rest of the country tends to be heavier doesn't mean we should accept that for our kids."

Health concerns ranked among the more troubling aspects of the Quality of Life Indicators report.

The region's suicide rate remained frustratingly high at 18.6 suicides per 100,000 residents - about the same as the state's rate but far above the national average of 11.9 per 100,000 people.

Observers say that despite the presence of two strong hospital systems, a shortage of primary care physicians and psychiatrists only threatens to stunt efforts to address those concerns.

El Paso County has only one such physician per 1,782 people - leaving each physician to care for a patient base that's 67 percent above the national benchmark, the report said, citing a 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study.

Colorado Springs has only 9.1 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, well below the national average of 14.5 per 100,000 people.

The lack of psychiatrists is apparent at the National Alliance on Mental Illness' local office, which receives about 200 calls a month from people seeking help finding mental health services.

"They're so desperate that even if they do have insurance, they will pay out of pocket" for psychologists out of their insurance network, said Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, the local chapter's executive director. "It doesn't change the scenario for them."

The issues are widespread, and the solutions may take time, said Noreen Landis-Tyson, the Community Partnership for Child Development's chief executive. But the key, she said, is at least starting a conversation.

"The purpose of the report is to motivate people in the community," Landis-Tyson said. "It's to bring the community together around the data to decide what's next."

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Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

Facebook Jakob Rodgers

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TO VIEW THE REPORT

The Pikes Peak United Way’s report will be available 
mid-Thursday morning at www.ppunitedway.org.

REPORT SNAPSHOTS

The 2013 Quality of Life Indicators Report also included noted:

• Funding for the $900 million stormwater needs across El Paso and Teller counties is “insufficient.”

• On average, 10th-grade reading and math scores proved particularly troubling across El Paso and Teller counties.

• Sprawl has left a “comprehensive public transit system virtually unsupportable.”

• The number of people ages 65 and older is expected to increase 179 percent in the next 30 years, to 172,394 people.

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