Not all the City Council members copped to Colorado Springs' image as an exclusive and unwelcoming place. But every one of them took a small step Tuesday to change that perception by agreeing to co-sponsor a downtown cultural festival in August.
The event, created by the Diversity Forum, will be the first fair to be held annually to unite various ethnic and cultural groups from around the city. Included in the lineup and the subject of several council members' alarm is the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a large local grantmaker.
Nearly three weeks ago, when Diversity Forum representatives first petitioned the city for support, three council members spoke out against the event. Darryl Glenn, Margaret Radford and Tom Gallagher expressed qualms regarding gay and lesbian involvement, saying their presence would inherently politicize the fair.
"I'll be blunt," said Glenn at the initial meeting. "What I see happening is an expansion of the definition of marriage. And a display of an event like that, that's a political issue."
Council's unanimous vote Tuesday to support the festival represents a compromise on the part of some members. But it doesn't erase years of anti-gay rhetoric and votes from current and past councilors. Nor does it clarify why some council members doubted the intentions of the Diversity Forum, of which the city was an inaugural member.
Founded two years ago to combat the city's intolerant image, the Diversity Forum counts among its members several large local players, including Colorado College, the Economic Development Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce.
When Glenn's own diversity initiative flopped last year after he failed to invite gays, disabled people and women, the council looked to the Diversity Forum as a surrogate.
"I know that all my colleagues and I have been invited to every meeting," says Jerry Heimlicher, the singular council member to argue against Radford and Glenn's comments.
"I am the only one who has attended, to my knowledge," he says. "For Mr. Glenn to say he was unaware of this group is rather ludicrous. We all agreed this was the way to go."
The Diversity Forum based its definition of "diversity" on the city's description. Several city staffers, including City Manager Lorne Kramer and spokeswomen Sue Skiffington-Blumberg and Becky Farrar, have been active in the organization.
"I was surprised at the reaction there seemed to be, especially since council had been briefed on the forum," says Kramer.
The Gay and Lesbian Fund was one of the first of several organizations to sign on to the Diversity Forum, and the council has known of its association for at least seven months (since an earlier Forum presentation). The Gay and Lesbian Fund, which aims to promote equality in the region, donates to area nonprofits including the American Red Cross and Big Brothers Big Sisters; it has invested more than $5 million in the community.
When the group celebrated its 10th anniversary last winter, director and former mayor Mary Lou Makepeace petitioned council for a resolution of appreciation. But the request was denied.
"I don't think it makes the council look particularly leaderful," says Makepeace of recent council members' comments. "I don't think it makes Colorado Springs look particularly welcoming to people, and I don't think that it reflects the perspective of the majority of Colorado Springs."
A standing ovation
In addition to council's recent bumbling on the Diversity Forum, city leaders in recent years have excluded gays and lesbians. In 2003, council abolished a same-sex partner benefit plan for city employees. The next year, Rivera withheld a proclamation to support PrideFest, an annual Pikes Peak Gay & Lesbian Community Center event. He hasn't endorsed it since.
At Tuesday's council meeting, community leaders posited the Diversity Forum vote as an opportunity for the city to change course.
"The discussion today is one of those defining moments for our city," said Chamber of Commerce CEO Will Temby, speaking on the economic growth that accompanies diversity.
Local business owner Jay Patel commented on the "Welcome to Colorado Springs" signs that flank the city boundaries, saying, "If you put those signs up, City Council, I ask you to prove nationally and internationally that you mean it."
He asked sponsorship supporters in the audience to rise, and nearly everyone in the council chambers stood up. Council's vote was met with a standing ovation.
The multicultural festival will cost the city around $10,300 in police fees and rental costs for Acacia Park, the City Auditorium and the Show Mobile (a stage on wheels).
As the Diversity Forum prepares for the Aug. 18 event, city leaders may be coming to grips with Colorado Springs' sometimes-rancid reputation. They may even understand their own role in creating it.
"During the [recent city election] campaign, people would ask me, "Is this perception true?'" Vice Mayor Larry Small said Tuesday. "It doesn't matter. If it's a perception, it is something we have to deal with."
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