Its inhabitants daily rejoice that they don't live in Denver, Colorado Springs, Dallas or any of the dozens of nasty, characterless cities that now make up the American West.
But there's trouble in paradise. The city's infrastructure is crumbling, and its tax base is too small to support needed repairs and upgrades. Enter the out-of-town developer, who has optioned a few hundred acres of land just outside the city limits. Annex my parcel, he says, and I have a nifty little financing scheme that will allow me to develop it.
Eventually, you'll get all kinds of tax revenues, and your troubles will be over.
The little town's city council members have a hard time understanding the details, but they're inclined to trust the smooth-talking developer who, after all, has hired some of the region's most respected lawyers and deal makers to present his plan.
So what town is this, anyway? Lake City? Telluride? Aspen? Breckenridge? Ouray? Carbondale? Crested Butte? No, it's our very own Manitou Springs.
Zydeco, the Santa Fe outfit that's seeking to develop the spectacular Red Rocks property -- whose 720 acres abuts both Section 16 and Bear Creek Park -- wants Manitou Springs to annex their proposed development.
Not only that, the developers want to finance the deal by having Manitou create an Urban Renewal Authority which would then declare a substantial part of the property to be "blighted."
This soi-disant blighted land would then receive infrastructure financing through tax increment financing, which would mean that the URA would issue tax-exempt bonds whose repayment would come from future tax revenues. It's a neat little scheme, and it'll be interesting to see whether Manitou's elected officials are dumb enough to fall for it.
The preliminary development proposal calls for 500,000 square feet of retail space, 1 million square feet of commercial space, 1,800 residential units, a resort hotel, and an 18-hole golf course. Theoretically, such a development would generate as much as $8 million in additional tax revenue to Manitou. That'd bail out the town big time.
But there's a catch. A lot of this projected revenue would go to pay off the URA bonds. Also, Manitou would eventually have to pay for fire protection, police protection, street maintenance, etc., etc. Moreover, there's no way to predict the pace of build-out in a project as large as this one.
Manitou might find itself stuck with a bankrupt, half-finished development a few years down the line, with angry bondholders storming city hall. Sound unlikely? That's exactly what happened to Colorado Springs 10 years ago, when a dozen big developments went bust. The Springs had Mayor Bob, a big tax base and big city smarts to sort out the mess; Manitou has none of the above.
There are even more catches. What about schools? Sure, you could bus kids to D-11's underutilized West Side elementary schools, but an upscale development of this size will need its own neighborhood elementary. What about water and wastewater? It'll be a cold day in hell before Colorado Springs voluntarily forks over water to support growth in neighboring communities.
And what about developer funding for off-site impacts? The Springs has reasonably tough requirements for such funding, and a smart, sophisticated and intermittently tough-minded planning staff to enforce them. And what about master plan approval?
Zydeco has hired some of the smartest lawyers and planners in Pikes Peak region to push its plan through; can Manitou planners even play in the same league with the likes of Bruce Warren, Jim Merrill and Parry Thomas?
Many of us would agree that Red Rocks ought to remain forever undeveloped, and join the JL Ranch, Bear Creek Park, Section 16 and the Garden of the Gods in a chain of urban parks and open space virtually without parallel in the United States. But if it is to be developed, Manitou would make a huge mistake in annexing it, even if the development does bail the town out financially.
Here's why: Manitou would change irrevocably. Those 1,800 residences will not be occupied by eccentric artists, massage therapists, Reiki masters and ex-hippies. The newcomers will be just like everyone else in suburban Colorado Springs. Overwhelmingly, they'll be conservative Republicans. In a few years, Manitou will be politically indistinguishable from its big sister to the east. Goodbye, quirky little mountain town; hello, Briargate West.