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GUEST COLUMN: Strong neighborhoods don't just happen

By: Thomas E. Cronin and Robert D. Loevy Special to The Gazette
November 11, 2017 Updated: November 12, 2017 at 12:11 am
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Paula and Dave Munger have done research on their house in the Old North End. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

What makes for a healthy, vibrant neighborhood?

Safety is typically the highest priority. Preserving home values and enhancing the attractiveness of the area come next. Traffic reduction and noise control are surely on the list. A quality neighborhood school is similarly important.

Add in parks, trees, and nearby places to bike or walk a dog. Also needed is a Neighborhood Watch organization where neighbors look after each other's homes and report suspicious activity. A neighborhood internet messaging system can warn about intruding bears, squatters or drug dealers.

Our region's Council of Neighborhoods and Organizations, better known as CONO, devotes much time and creative energy to encourage neighborhood leaders to meet together, prepare neighborhood strategic plans, and take on the many challenges that neighborhoods face.

Challenges like putting a cement plant in the middle of a residential area, locating a high-density apartment building next to a low-density housing development, or converting a quiet residential street into a four-lane expressway.

Executive director Dave Munger has been the driving catalyst behind CONO's many successes over the past decade. He is retiring from the job, leaving behind an organization that is now a major player in what happens to neighborhoods in Colorado Springs.

Dave moved to Colorado Springs in the early 2000s after a successful career as a higher-education administrator at Indiana University and American University in Washington, D.C. He and his wife bought a home in the Old North End, and Dave was quickly caught up in the work of the local volunteer homeowners' association - the Old North End Neighborhood.

Dave was elected president. His first job was to overhaul the financial structure, taking the annual operating budget from about $2,000 per year to nearly $40,000 per year. This provided the money for a long list of future projects, such as historic-looking street-name signs and historic stone entryway signs. It also permitted hiring a private security service (aided by off-duty Colorado Springs police officers).

During Dave's presidency, historic-looking streetlights were installed on 10 blocks of North Tejon Street in the Old North End. He started a neighborhood tradition of holding an annual garden party. His biggest accomplishment, however, was ending North Nevada Avenue's designation as a truck route, thereby diverting heavy trucks off North Nevada and out of the Old North End onto I-25.

This track record led Munger to be conscripted to serve on a number of boards, ranging from the Citizens' Transportation Advisory Board (CTAB) to the Penrose Hospital Board of Directors.

The presidency of CONO was next. CONO is now an organization of 900 neighborhood and homeowners' associations in Colorado Springs and El Paso and Teller counties.

Its major mission is to empower neighborhood volunteers to advocate effectively for their neighborhoods. CONO is a civics education training resource. It holds regular seminars encouraging neighborhood leaders to build their social capital, learn how to make their case effectively before city and county agencies and governing boards, and to develop master plans - that have the force of law - that help them achieve their neighborhood aspirations.

CONO receives and inspects every proposed zoning and land-use change that is proposed by Colorado Springs or El Paso County. It alerts neighborhoods to what is going on and helps them to respond appropriately.

Dave Munger is especially pleased that CONO has won the respect of city and county political leaders and has helped make a number of government practices "more open and transparent." He is justifiably proud that the CONO staff has gone from one volunteer to a paid staff of five.

Under his leadership, the CONO budget has expanded from $4,000 annually to $350,000. Most of the money is donated by foundations and local corporations wanting to expand citizen participation in local government.

Munger said a city's strength and vitality come from its communities and how they can creatively resolve disputes. "Conversation, collaboration, and compromise take time," he notes " but they are essential for neighborhoods to flourish."

He concedes that more affluent neighborhoods such as the Old North End and Patty Jewett (west of Patty Jewett Golf Course) have an easier path in building community. He points to Ivywild as a middle-class community that has done a splendid job of strengthening its neighborhood, particularly by turning the old Ivywild School building into a community center.

CONO, Munger adds, is now at work assisting southeastern Colorado Springs neighborhoods. These are lower income and low voter turnout areas where "neighborhood empowerment" is all the more important.

Kudos to Dave Munger for his civic leadership and his championing of the "small democracies" that are our neighborhoods in the Pike's Peak region. Neighborhoods now have a respected seat at the table at City Hall and similar public agencies. Munger deserves gratitude as he steps down from CONO's leadership.

Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.

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