Ted Rayburn: Backs patted, let's focus on a busy new year

Ted Rayburn 11/19/15. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

One of the surest signs a city is succeeding is the vitality of its downtown. It doesn't matter whether the biggest or most profitable businesses are in the city core, but it does matter that business and city officials are united in supporting the downtown area's prosperity.

I have been pleased to see that while downtown Colorado Springs has its challenges, it is on the right track, thanks especially to some great organizations working on its behalf. And I expect that they understand they could have a long road ahead.

I look to the example I know best, the city of Nashville. As long ago as the 1940s, Nashville was experiencing suburban sprawl. Nashvillians who could afford a car and a house moved out of the city core; some of them, sadly, did so to segregate themselves from the African-American population. Stores and schools left, too. By the mid-1980s, the downtown still had major landmarks, tourist attractions and plenty of office buildings. But many of those buildings sat empty. Only a couple of thoroughfares were safe for walking. Property values stagnated.

It became so bad that the world-famous Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry, nearly fell to the wrecking ball.

Through that period, commitment to the downtown by city and business leaders fluctuated. It wasn't until a succession of three mayors, Phil Bredesen, Bill Purcell and Karl Dean, that a turnaround began. In the mayors' collective 24 years on the job, an NFL stadium, an NHL arena and a stunning new library were built, and a first-class art museum was opened in the former downtown post office.

As a result, the corporate headquarters started coming: LP, Bridgestone and others bringing jobs and investment.

Mayor Dean went all in, focusing nearly all of his efforts on downtown Nashville during his eight years, building a riverfront amphitheater, a new minor league ballpark, a massive convention center, and fostering redevelopment of shabby warehouse districts into high-rise condominiums, restaurants and shops.

These leaders understood that a city should not have a hole where its heart should be.

Working in downtown Colorado Springs, I see so many elements of a great downtown - busy offices, the nightlife on Tejon Street, historic buildings like Kimball's Peak Three Theater and The Mining Exchange - but few residences.

That may be changing. More developments like Blue Dot Place, a new apartment building just opened on South Nevada Avenue, are sorely needed.

Studies have shown that young adults now are less interested in having cars and large residences and more interested in urban, walkable neighborhoods, and it's safe to say that all ages enjoy good restaurants and multiple cultural offerings. The logical place for all of these is downtown.

Residences will by necessity draw grocery stores and drugstores to downtown, bridging the gap for people who work downtown but also want to live there. Livable downtowns attract more tourism and send the signal to employers considering relocation.

Colorado Springs' leaders, I suspect, will need the same single-mindedness that the trio of Nashville mayors shared. But if they follow through on it, I have no doubt that people will start moving downtown and restoring its former vitality.

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Ted Rayburn is The Gazette's business editor. Send him your observations and ideas on business and the southern Colorado economy. Reach him at 636-0194 or ted.rayburn@gazette.com.

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