The gathering debate over the City for Champions project really boils down to a single question: How do you build a city?
Some conservative stalwarts on City Council have an answer: You don't. Ripping down junky buildings in southwest downtown and replacing them with gleaming new structures is up to the private sector, they insist. The public sector locally should stick to providing core governmental services. Residents ought not to fund projects such as a stadium or Olympic museum.
Let someone else pay! Spencer Penrose gave us the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Alice Bemis Taylor and other private donors built the Fine Arts Center, El Pomar put up most of the dough for the World Arena and the federal government built the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, NORAD and Schriever Air Force Base. It's all good — taxes are low and guv'mint jobs are plentiful (especially if you wear a uniform).
As for our liberal neighbors to the north ... what's the matter with them? Denver-area taxpayers have coughed up megabucks for a gigantic airport, a new library, a convention center, baseball and football stadiums, a contemporary art museum, a regular art museum, and a renovated Museum of Nature & Science.
Private donors and foundations have helped, but local government funding has been critical to most. Those projects, and other smaller ones, created the infrastructure of a great city.
How do you define a great city? One measure is the power to attract new residents, to lure those who can live anywhere they choose.
At my 50th college reunion a couple of years ago, one of my classmates told me of moving to New York. "We lived in the city when I was a resident at Mount Sinai," he said. "We paid about $150 a month for a fourth-floor walkup. We were glad to leave, move to Connecticut, raise a family and have a great life. But we're moving back — we just bought an apartment. We paid more than a million bucks for a place about the size of our first one, but what a city! We love living there."
Remember "Twelve Thirty," by the Mamas and the Papas? "I used to live in New York City/Everything there was dark and dirty." That was then. Today's New York is the capital of the world.
Gallery-hopping in Denver recently, we stopped at the William Havu Gallery for a show featuring Tracy and Su Felix, once fixtures in the Manitou Springs arts scene. They moved to Denver more than a decade ago.
"Things are going really well," said Tracy. "Su sold 56 paintings this year, and I'm doing well too." Scores of their paintings, many already sold at prices of $2,500 to $7,500, adorned the walls of Havu's spacious gallery.
A dozen former Colorado Springs residents were at the opening, and/or at another one a few blocks away at the Sandra Phillips Gallery.
"I love it here!" said Elayne Gallagher, who lived in Colorado Springs for three decades. "I've got a great apartment in the heart of the city, and travel is so easy."
Jan and Bob Winkler, longtime former Colorado Springs retailers who owned and operated Canterbury Cheese on Tejon Street, were also at Havu.
"I only have one complaint about living here," said Bob of Denver. "There are so many things to do and see that I don't have enough time to do them all."
None miss Colorado Springs, and Denver's alleged tax burden never enters the conversation.
Will City for Champions' projects by themselves spark a downtown and near-downtown renaissance? No. In Denver, the tax-funded Scientific and Cultural Facilities District has injected more than $800 million into the nonprofit sector during the past 25 years. Other public and private funding has totaled in the billions.
But we have to start somewhere, and we need to face the facts:
Nobody rides for free.
Thirty years ago, Denver's Golden Triangle area was dark, dismal, dirty and a little scary. Now it has become what our downtown might yet be, a lively home to cool restaurants, art galleries and low-rise loft/condo buildings.
It may also be the preferred destination of Colorado Springs refugees, searching for the city that we refuse to build.