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Salvaging our shared dignity after the land swap 

City Sage

Barring a miracle, it appears Strawberry Fields, a long-neglected gem of the Colorado Springs park system, will be deeded to The Broadmoor as part of a complex land swap.

Leaving aside the passionate appeals of both supporters and opponents, let's consider how to mitigate the deal's negative effects and protect the city's parks, trails and open space.

Our park system has long been a source of civic pride. If you poll residents, the respondents support parks, support maintaining them at an appropriate level and support expanding the system to meet future needs.

Yet, during the Great Recession, parks were dramatically defunded. Thanks to our blindly tax-averse voters (so often led astray by the misstatements of the felonious Mr. Douglas Bruce), we bled the system dry. We have wonderful plans ... and no way to execute them. We have beautiful parks ... without a sustainable funding source.

And things are about to get worse.

Mayor John Suthers has moved swiftly and decisively to solve the city's most pressing problems: deteriorating road infrastructure and long-simmering stormwater disputes with Pueblo and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Capital improvement funding had been impacted for a quarter-century by the Bruce-authored 1991 initiative that phased out an existing half-cent CIP (community improvements) tax, while another Bruce initiative in 2009 effectively killed the fee-based Stormwater Enterprise.

So now we have a new 0.62 percent sales tax in place to fix the roads and a new 20-year commitment of at least $460 million for stormwater, including $390 million from the city's general fund. That commitment was essential to protect the city's $825 million investment in the Southern Delivery System and to maintain the water rights that form the basis of the system.

That leaves our parks in a precarious position, masked by a growing local economy. When growth slows, parks funding once again will plummet, pushed aside by public safety needs as well as stormwater mandates.

That means all of us who care need to unite and figure out how to create a sustainable, permanent revenue stream for parks, enabling us to acquire, improve and maintain park assets for generations to come.

Can we do it? Or has the land swap created such bitter community divisions that any such initiative would be DOA?

It has been distressing to see the collapse of the powerful, politically savvy coalition that has long advocated for parks, trails and open space. Richard Skorman in a public fight with TOSC? Hundreds of angry neighborhood activists at war with The Broadmoor and the city Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department?

Here are a few suggestions for moving on once the battle ends.

• To the city: Don't hand over the 21st Street parcel to the El Paso County Parks Department. It's a commercial parcel unmentioned in any parks master plan, so sell it and use the proceeds to fund development of the Chamberlain Trail. According to multiple sources, including veteran commercial real estate broker Tim Leigh, the property could bring as much as $3.2 million if rezoned for apartment use.

• To Mayor Suthers: A lighter hand might be better in the future. You were appropriately tough and uncompromising with roads and stormwater ("This is not optional"), but you didn't need to go all Bob Isaac on the Parks Advisory Board. We need you to work quietly and effectively on future park funding, not twist arms and bang heads.

• To City Council: If you thought the 10-hour Parks Advisory Board meeting was excruciating, wait until the May 10 Council meeting. You do this for $520.83 a month?

• To Strawberry Fields supporters: Be gracious and conciliatory in victory or defeat. You've made your case powerfully and authoritatively. And remember, it may take a year or so to complete the transaction after Council approval, so work diligently with the city and The Broadmoor to minimize and mitigate the effects of the swap.

So how do we fund parks? Not with a dedicated sales tax — at a combined 8.25 percent, we're already uncomfortably high. Mayor Suthers and Council could join to reinstate the fee-based Stormwater Enterprise, which would assume the $23 million annual stormwater funding. That would create more room for parks funding and protect the system in a future recession.

Let's do it soon ... before the Dougster gets out of prison!

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