Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Side Streets: Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace was a downtown Colorado Springs champion

By Bill Vogrin Updated: December 18, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Amid the celebrations over the City for Champions project clearing a major funding hurdle Monday, there was no mention of someone who deserves great credit for advancing the idea of downtown redevelopment with amenities such as stadiums, arenas, museums, hotels and a convention center: Mary Lou Makepeace.

Makepeace, now 73, served 18 years on the Colorado Springs City Council, the last six as mayor. And one of her first initiatives as newly elected mayor in 1997 was to launch a two-year community conversation about the future of Colorado Springs and the potential for investing tax dollars in public projects.

Makepeace was a visionary who wasn't afraid to dream big.

Better yet, she invited the public to dream with her.

And Makepeace wasn't afraid to talk taxes and dare to ask voters to open their wallets to pay for the luxuries they deemed valuable community assets.

Essentially, her Springs Community Improvements Program, or SCIP, was a citywide brainstorming session. Anyone interested was invited to participate and everything was on the table.

A starting point for the conversation was the $627 million backlog of infrastructure projects - from potholes to roads that needed widening to bridges that needed replacing to police and fire facilities and more.

There were debates about parks and open space. And transportation systems. And drainage issues.

Then the SCIP participants took all the lists, prioritized the projects and put together an $88 million bond issue to pay for 29 capital improvement projects that Makepeace sold to voters in April 1999.

The centerpiece of SCIP was $12 million to build the gem we now know as America the Beautiful Park, where families gather and children run and play in the Julie Penrose Fountain at the confluence of Monument and Fountain creeks against the stunning backdrop of Pikes Peak and the Front Range.

Unfortunately, the rest of Makepeace's dream never was realized, including a downtown stadium.

We reported in March 1999, for example, that officials of the Sky Sox minor league baseball team met with Makepeace to discuss building a downtown baseball stadium near the proposed park.

Team executives initiated the talks by approaching then-city planning official Chuck Miller to talk about the concept and the feasibility of a move downtown.

I find it ironic that the proposed City for Champions outdoor stadium, indoor arena and Olympic Hall of Fame projects will cluster around Makepeace's America the Beautiful Park, just as she and her SCIP collaborators envisioned.

So I called Miller, who went on to serve as consultant for the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority for years before retiring. Was I misremembering things, I asked?

"I think you are right on the money," Miller said. "You can trace all these elements of the City for Champions to the SCIP process and even earlier. I'd love to see Mary Lou get some credit for having pushed this 15 years ago."

He added that real estate giants Classic Cos. and Nor'wood Development Group also deserve credit for the earlier efforts.

Makepeace was flattered when I called and suggested she should be sharing some of the spotlight. And she deflected the praise to others.

"Of course, I'd love to take all the credit," she joked. "But some of these things have been envisioned many times over. The park wasn't my idea, for example. It was envisioned in the 1970s. And you can trace it back to the early 1900s. A lot of these ideas have been bubbling for years."

She was referring to a couple of major master plan efforts in the past.

In 1976, a group known as Citizens' Goals launched a grass-roots effort to bridge a divide between old-timers who cherished the Springs as a quaint resort town and newcomers who wanted good schools, roads, parks, services and entertainment options.

Citizens Goals assembled 100 people to brainstorm a plan for the city's growth. Then the group took the plan into the community, winning support at the grass-roots level.

The result was passage of bond issues to fund projects such as the Pikes Peak Center and expansion of the Pikes Peak Library District, including a $10 million bond issue in 1985 to build the East Library and Information Center.

It also convinced civic leaders to invest in neighborhood parks, implement a 911 emergency phone system, create SpringSpree and other citywide celebrations, and even the Ridefinders carpooling group, Clean Air Campaign and Partnership for Community Design.

Makepeace even credited the 1911 City Council, which commissioned consultant Charles Mulford Robinson for $2,000 to evaluate the city's design. Robinson recommended the city change up its grid and street design to accentuate focal points such as parks and playgrounds and public spaces. Leaders have been trying ever since.

"These things are kind of like building blocks," Makepeace said. "And just because you don't get everything you want doesn't mean it isn't a good idea."

The mood of the public is a huge factor in getting things like America the Beautiful Park and SCIP approved, Makepeace said. And it will be key if Mayor Steve Bach is to win approval of the public funding needed to pull off City for Champions.

So whatever happened to the SCIP bond? Here's the part I really like. Although the projects were completed in 2004, the debt won't be paid off until 2016.

Bach wants to ask voters to extend the existing bond debt for 20 more years to pay for $175 million in stormwater projects in the city.

At one point this summer, Bach considered extending the SCIP bonds to help finance the City for Champions public portion of the four tourism projects. But in October he said extending the SCIP bond program could instead pay for stormwater needs.

Either way you slice it, I think it's ironic.

"I had high hopes for what (America the Beautiful) park and urban renewal in that area would mean," Makepeace said. "It makes me feel good those ideas still have validity and are moving forward."

So let me be the first say it.

Thanks, Mary Lou.

-

Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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