"We are on the cusp of a renaissance, and it starts downtown. In 20 years, we truly could be the envy of the world."
With those fantastical yet heartfelt words, developer Chris Jenkins voiced a new kind of challenge for Colorado Springs — though he was making this assessment 1,300 miles away in the Great Northwest. You might not know Jenkins, arguably the most powerful figure today in the Springs business community, perhaps in the city as a whole. He certainly has a full-time challenge as president of Nor'wood Development Group, with more than 1.8 million square feet of commercial space under its control.
But he has put himself in position to influence our area's long-term future. It's also true that Jenkins, at 43, should have the longevity and energy to make his dreams happen.
For three nonstop, mind-stretching days last week, Jenkins joined 50 men and women from the Pikes Peak region who descended on Portland, Ore., looking for ideas and strategies that might translate in some way to help create a brighter future for our metropolitan area.
It's called the Regional Leaders Trip, put together by the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC's Center for Regional Advancement. The group included many civic and business people, including publisher John Weiss and myself from the Indy, four city councilors and two county commissioners (who definitely were not wasting taxpayer money), others from government and promising young professionals.
This wasn't about trying to reproduce everything that has enhanced Portland's quality of life, especially in the areas of mass transit (light-rail trains, streetcars and buses blanketing the city) and support for the arts. When you have 2.4 million people, compared to our 600,000, you have a lot more resources.
In fact, the most valuable lesson from the Portland contingent had nothing to do with creating a better city. Instead, Lesson No. 1 was all about timing.
Ready for the boom
Around 1990, as Portland faced troublesome problems without clear solutions, people began coming up with innovative ideas, and unified efforts led to improvements and attracted newcomers. Large companies brought thousands of good jobs, and the arts community quickly became a mecca. Old warehouses and acres of old railyards turned into revitalized residential and business districts. Portland State University mushroomed into a major presence.
The point is, Portland was ready when that boom hit, with refocused priorities on smart planning, sustainability and mass involvement.
Now it's 2012, with the country finding its way out of recession, and Colorado Springs has its issues. Mass transit has shrunk, affordable housing is deficient, various ideas have floundered, and community leaders lack unity. Amid all that, the city faces infrastructure problems, including major stormwater-related needs.
We also have one big difference from Portland in the early 1990s. There, residents were willing to pay higher taxes for modernization. Here, most ideas for new taxes are widely scorned, though we do have exceptions.
Against that backdrop, the trip attendees gathered for dinner at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, one more ingredient that makes Portland special. The headline speaker was developer John Carroll, regarded as the guiding force and "change agent" behind Portland's enormously successful downtown streetcar system. As Carroll put it, voicing a subtle challenge: "Don't be afraid to chase these things far enough to start getting money for them."
Preceding him was Jenkins, who sponsored the dinner and thus had first shot. He was billed as the Springs' own change agent, and he sounded like one, pulling together what has worked in Portland and what might become reality in Colorado Springs.
Jenkins called it a "tale of two cities," describing Portland's turnaround born two decades ago, then insisting "Colorado Springs is at the beginning of our own 20-year time. ... As a citizen, I'm really jazzed to talk about what it could look like."
The pathway to that renaissance here isn't clear. But we can learn this from Portland: It's not about just a single leader like Jenkins, or a semi-secretive group meeting behind closed doors, making big plans and then informing the public. Portland reinvented itself by having all interested players at the table, young and old, visible and obscure, affluent and not, political friends and adversaries.
The first task is convincing much of Colorado Springs that the foundation for change should be downtown. Jenkins and others (including most on the Regional Leaders Trip) believe it, but they have to sell the idea better.
Perhaps that means combining the best and biggest ideas into one package: turning Monument and Fountain creeks into a massive playground, perhaps including a lake, with restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and more; possibly a museum district, since we have several in the idea-development phase (children's, science and Olympics); some kind of major venue (Mayor Steve Bach wants a baseball park; there are multiple options); streetcars combining with buses to move people around the central city and to connect downtown with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; abundant new housing, particularly for younger adults, and more.
We've heard such ideas before, but nothing has happened. We need a common vision, with priorities that create a consensus of support and a realistic time frame for turning ideas into reality. We need to have all the right people involved in the conversations and decisions, not just a select few. We need solutions for the short and long term, some leading to others. And we need the willing change agents, like Chris Jenkins, to work alongside large groups of everyday people in blazing the trails.
That's how Portland and other cities have done it.
So why not Colorado Springs?