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Requiem for a death 

Twenty-two years ago, my wife and I walked arm-in-arm with Bee Vradenburg to the grand opening of the Pikes Peak Center. Under maestro Charles Ansbacher, the Colorado Springs Symphony would give its first public performance in what was then our city's magnificent new performing arts facility.

Bee, whose steely will and supple intelligence had played such a large role in the creation of both the symphony and the Pikes Peak Center, was as giddy as a teenager on her first date. Her partners in this grand community effort -- Ansbacher, Kathleen Collins, Phil Kendall and Jerry Smith, to name a few -- were just as joyful and optimistic.

The hall was packed; there wasn't an empty seat. Someone told me that every tuxedo between Denver and Pueblo had been rented, just for this gala.

I don't remember anything about the performance. I do remember, having recently moved back to my native city, being amazed and delighted.

What an achievement! To have a concert hall like this, in Colorado Springs!!??! What an opening act! Surely, I thought, we were on the cusp of a real renaissance in the arts. After all, as our city became larger and more prosperous, wouldn't our support for the arts grow as well?

Well, we all know what happened. The city grew, but supported the arts less and less. In common with many other small-city orchestras, the Colorado Springs Symphony found it difficult to maintain existing audiences/donor bases, let alone expand them. Other arts organizations, from the Fine Arts Center to the Opera, are experiencing similar difficulties.

And now the symphony's history. Forget the brave words -- it may be many years, if ever, before a new professional orchestra takes the stage at the Pikes Peak Center.

It's as if a neutron bomb has hit the arts community, destroying the people while leaving the buildings standing.

So who's at fault? Bumbling administrators, incompetent boards, greedy musicians, tight-fisted donors, or uninvolved audiences? You can parcel out blame all you want, but maybe there's a structural problem at the root of the malaise.

Let's look at how Colorado Springs has grown since 1981. Partnering with the City, the Chamber of Commerce worked hard to recruit religious nonprofits, high-tech industries, and military installations.

These efforts were successful; witness the presence of Intel, Focus on the Family and Schriever Air Force Base. Moreover, success begat success -- as Colorado Springs became nationally known as a high-tech/military/ Christian conservative city, folks who are comfortable in such a setting moved here.

The newcomers were not uncharitable, but they didn't care much about the traditional arts. Their loyalties were not to place, but to belief. They've given generously to support community facilities that are important to them.

The land where the buildings that house the New Life Church and Focus on the Family now stand was vacant prairie 20 years ago. Donors, many of them local, contributed millions of dollars to make the dreams of Ted Haggard and Jim Dobson reality.

I suspect that most of these donors had nothing against either the symphony or the FAC; they just weren't interested.

So, although the city's grown and prospered, that segment of the city that supports and funds the arts hasn't grown -- in fact, it may have shrunk.

In 1981, El Pomar still owned The Broadmoor hotel. The leading banks -- Colorado National Bank/Exchange, the First National Bank, and Colorado Springs National Bank -- were locally, or regionally, owned. Many major employers -- Looart, Western Forge, Hewlett-Packard -- were either locally owned or had strong local connections (H-P's David Packard was a Pueblo native).

Today, we're a city of branch offices and absentee owners. Companies have folded, been sold, or merged. And the activist philanthropists of two decades ago -- Marka Stewart, Dennis O'Rourke, Dusty Loo and Bee Vradenburg -- have moved on. You can visit 'em at Evergreen Cemetery.

True, young entrepreneurs, like FAC Board Chairman Buck Blessing, have taken their place. But at best, we maintain; we don't increase. On paper, we're a metropolitan area of half a million. But as far as the arts are concerned, we're a struggling little burg of 200,000 or so.

And yet ... when Bee Vradenburg and her husband George passed away, all of their considerable assets (thanks to the generosity of their son) were used to fund a foundation dedicated to supporting the arts in Colorado Springs.

So if there's ever another opening gala for a reconstituted symphony, you can bet that Bee, joyful and giddy as ever, will be there in spirit.

Phil, Kathleen, Jerry, Jeff Haney, everyone else -- the phone's for you.

It's Bee. Time to get to work.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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