When dangerous Texas fugitives were discovered hiding out in Woodland Park in January 2001, a law-enforcement army swarmed the city.
The national media followed, knowing they had a good story. They were a little fuzzier about Woodland Park itself. One network TV reporter described it as "a campground near Denver." Others thought Woodland Park was simply the RV park where four of the "Texas Seven" had been caught. The city was labeled a "religious enclave," an "upscale suburb of Colorado Springs," and "a hamlet of frozen lakes, retirement cottages and upscale subdivisions."
Residents took both the crime drama and identity crisis in stride. Scott Downs, owner of Eaglefire Lodge and Conference Center, told the media repeatedly, "This is that little slice of America that everybody else is looking for."
But the more Woodland Park grows, the more its leaders seem to want to make it into something different.
Bigger is better?
For years, residents have sparred over issues related to growth.
In 1994, citizen and business groups proposed four options to reroute U.S. Highway 24 and ease congestion, but couldn't achieve consensus. Wal-Mart approached the city a few years later with plans for a superstore at the edge of town, spurring some residents to protest; while it was built in 2007, others expressed frustration with the way the approval was handled.
Over the past 20 years, Woodland Park's population has grown from 4,610 to 7,600. Residential streets have been paved and a chamber of commerce has moved in. A new middle school's been built and the high school's gone through a major renovation. There's a new library a sprawling soccer and baseball complex, and even the area's first hospital, Pikes Peak Regional. Five stoplights now control a traffic flow that can approach 40,000 cars a day some weekends.
"My husband grew up here, and he says there's a whole different feel from when he was here before," says Erin Street, who's raising a 3-month-old son in the city.
And that's before Woodland Station moves in. In 2003, voters living within a special district approved a $30 million bond referendum that included the Downtown Development Authority's proposed redevelopment of 21 central acres with motels, shops and restaurants. Proponents enthused about a "Breckenridge" style of village that would propel Woodland Park into the future.
The plan has since been downsized to 10 acres and slowed by economic conditions. Plans now call for mixed use with commercial ground-level properties and some form of housing, says DDA director Beth Kosley, but any ribbon-cutting is still years away.
Meanwhile, the Breckenridge comparison has been used by both opponents and fans of growth. Foes worry the city's rustic appeal would be overtaken by blocks of upscale lodges. Fans want to spruce up the place, and welcome building regulations that have made even Wal-Mart (almost) fit in against the mountain backdrop.
"We have to remember that we don't have a ski resort and we don't have a river," cautions Steve Randolph, the city's mayor. "So we will never be Breckenridge."
Still, Randolph sees the city growing into a major hub for the 25,000 residents of the region, stretching to Deckers, Lake George and Cripple Creek. He also feels the city must appeal more to three groups.
"There are the people who live here already — we need to find new ways to get them shopping in local businesses," he says. "There are also the people who drive through. They are on their way somewhere, but we need to find new ways to get them to stop. Then there are people who won't come here without a reason."
Weekend that was
It's the city's challenge to give them reasons, as happened this summer for one big weekend.
On July 11, Woodland Park celebrated completion of Mainstreet Makeover, a downtown street-side renovation project made possible by DDA grants and low-interest loans from Park State Bank. Shoppers could hear strains of live music coming from an unrelated nearby concert, where arts booths filled the lawn near the stage. Elsewhere in the city, more than 900 baseball players, 200 coaches and their families were coming and going from a national baseball tournament. The topper was a fireworks show with pyrotechnics left over from a rained-out Fourth of July event.
More than 5,000 people filled the sidewalks and crammed into retail shops and restaurants for those different events. With traffic crawling through, the city did look a bit like Breckenridge.
"It was just serendipity," says Beth Kosley.
She adds: "Could we repeat that kind of day again? I think so. But we have to continue to work at it."
Woodland Park remains a resort spot, with more than two dozen campgrounds nearby and easy access to National Forest land. Having more than 300 days of sunshine validates the slogan, "City Above the Clouds."
Debbie Miller, Chamber of Commerce president, says people are noticing: "When I started here in 2005, about 4,700 people walked through our door at the visitor center. We are close to 8,000 people this year."
Miller believes the city's biggest challenge is selling residents on buying local. With more than 40 percent of residents driving to jobs in Colorado Springs and Denver, "there's a lot of business done outside Woodland Park," she says. "But people have made the choice to live here because of the quality of life. ... The challenge is how to get them to spend their money here."
Randolph calls that money the city's "economic engine." Jenny Gawlowski, a Ute Pass native who left for California but returned two years ago with her husband Matt, hopes the engine doesn't grow too powerful.
"We love the small-town atmosphere," she says. "We like the fact that just because of the obvious geographic limitations, it will never get that big."
How big is too big?
There's enough space and water for about 12,900 people, says planning director Sally Riley, "so that's our target for growth. ...
"We will always be a bedroom community to Colorado Springs, but we are becoming more self-sustaining all the time."