2016 was a pretty good year for Colorado Springs and El Paso County Parks systems, both seeing an increase in tax funding, or at least no decreases. Both were still benefiting from voter-approved referendums that allowed the city and county to keep excess tax revenue to complete specific park and trails improvements. El Paso County commissioners approved a revamped set of rules and regulations for the county parks, allowing security officers to write tickets for a variety of violations, most notably out of control dogs. The Manitou Incline received another million dollar-plus upgrade, bringing more needed improvements to the perennially popular attraction. The county completed Phase 1 of the new Falcon Regional Park, and Colorado Springs started work on Venizia Park at the north end of the city, too.
Sustainable funding for parks departments has been a subject of discussion in some circles over the last year. Parks departments have historically been among the first to face budget cuts during economic downturns — understandably so, when up against infrastructure and public safety priorities — and are among last to get funding reinstated. While money decreases, parks use does not, and a growing population adds to the wear and tear on the parks and trails. The city and county departments find themselves working through a seemingly endless list of repairs and maintenance, leaving little in the way of budget or manpower to satisfy an almost insatiable desire by residents and visitors to use their facilities.
There were controversies in 2016, too. The most notable was the land swap between the city and the Broadmoor, a battle that continues.
Manitou Springs attempted to reduce traffic and noise due to the use of the Incline, Barr Trail and the Ute Pass Trail by raising parking on Ruxton Avenue to $20 per hour, far higher than any other city in all of Colorado, and fees were increased at the Barr Trail parking lot. Although there was an angry backlash, it's not clear if the higher fees did anything to fix the complaints of Ruxton Ave residents. A new parking plan, announced at the reopening of the Incline, will make it all but mandatory for incline users to take the free shuttle offered by the city, and will make the Barr Trail parking lot available (presumably) only to users of the trail and enable them to park for multiple days.
Now a part of the county parks system, work in Jones Park is being contracted by the U.S. Forest Service. The project there is not without its critics, with many users citing dissatisfaction with the quality of trail construction. And a plan to build a new trail to Mt. Kineo ran into trouble when the contractor found the rocky terrain too difficult to deal with — that part of the Jones Park/Bear Creek project is on hold.
So what does 2017 hold for our local parks systems? The county parks department has seen a modest increase in its budget and will be able to add staff to maintain the parks. Efforts to repair flood damage and erosion continues on the New Santa Fe Trail, and work on the section of the Ute Pass Trail through Cascade and Chipita Park will continue. 2017 will also bring the purchase of land on "Elephant Rock" in Palmer Lake and add it to the parks system. Colorado Springs will complete Venizia Park on the north side, bringing the long-awaited project to an area short on parks.
A group representing various city parks stakeholders is exploring the feasibility of asking city council to present voters with a referendum for the April election to increase funding for parks by way of a sales tax increase.. While a short-term solution, Colorado Springs City Councilor Bill Murray has floated on his podcast the idea of creating a combined, independent, county-wide parks special district that would be funded by its own property tax, much like school and library districts. While it sounds easy on the surface, it would be a complicated affair that could take years to implement. We may hear more about combining the departments in the coming months, but don't expect it to happen overnight, if it happens at all.
Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: email@example.com.