Board of El Paso County Commissioners Chairman Stan VanderWerf

Board of El Paso County Commissioners Chairman Stan VanderWerf talks with attendees before Thursday's annual State of the Region address. (Debbie Kelley/The Gazette)

With a population of 737,000, El Paso County has surpassed Denver County as Colorado’s most populous, and it’s time for people to realize “we are no longer a small county,” chairman of the Board of El Paso County Commissioners Stan VanderWerf said Thursday at the annual State of the Region lunch.

“We need to use our political and economic power for the greater good,” he told about 430 business representatives, nonprofit leaders and others in attendance at the Boot Barn Hall. The presentation also was live-streamed.

The event had been rescheduled from December, after VanderWerf tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before it was to be held.

In this new year, he encouraged residents to “embrace growth” and continue the spirit of collaboration the community has become known for.

“There are communities that are suffering because they don’t cooperate,” he said in his address titled “Doing the Next Right Thing.”

“Our region is different from others across the country — we work together despite the challenges we’ve faced,” he said. “We can and must remain friends.”

El Paso County’s cities and towns of Colorado Springs, Fountain, Monument, Calhan, Green Mountain Falls and Manitou Springs, and areas such as Security-Widefield, Hanover, Ellicott, Rush, Yoder, Peyton, Falcon, Black Forest and Cascade — recognize the value of working together on important issues, VanderWerf said.

Because in the end, “We all want the same things — safe neighborhoods, good schools, job opportunities and a great place to go on Saturday night.” 

Hosted by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, the event highlighted 2021 accomplishments of county departments such as human services, criminal justice, transportation and economic development, and offices of the assessor, clerk and recorder, coroner and sheriff.

“The state of the region is stronger than ever,” VanderWerf said. “Our region has survived unprecedented challenges due to COVID, and our economy remains robust. Most of our companies have survived and many are thriving, and El Paso County has and continues to remain open.”

Partnerships with organizations such as Mt. Carmel Veterans Center, which assists military veterans, and Hope & Home, which works with children needing foster care and adoption services, also help the county help its citizens, said Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr.

The county divided up $140 million in American Rescue Plan funds last year to stimulate the economy and address needs such as mental health resilience, VanderWerf said.

A “smart work” initiative announced last year to manage the county’s remote workforce saved taxpayers $60 million by eliminating the need for additional facilities, he said.

Growth is inevitable, he said, with population projections of 1 million residents by 2050. How to achieve thoughtful growth while maintaining the community’s defining characteristics is being studied and debated.

In looking forward, El Paso County’s five commissioners are working on a rural broadband initiative to expand high-speed connectivity and upgrade access to homes and buildings.

“None of our children should have to do homework on a borrowed Wi-Fi signal in a restaurant parking lot,” VanderWerf said. “That’s why it matters.”

Movers and shakers are “taking a stronger leadership role” to keep Space Command in Colorado Springs, he noted, and also are working on reusing water the county already owns, pushing for the region to have its own federal court district because using Denver District Court is “expensive and may not deliver a jury of peers,” adding more affordable housing and “protection of our freedom,” among other focuses.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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