The steady thwack of Duane Dusago's jump rope pounding against the asphalt breaks the quiet morning air. An enchanting emerald oasis near the heart of Colorado Springs sprawls out behind Dusago: 30 acres of lush grass, fanciful artwork, elaborate walkways and stunning flowers.
Dusago, 44, says he visits the park daily to work out, a routine that includes doing push-ups and skipping rope near the striking stone-and-steel footbridge that leads into the expanse of greenery.
"This," he said, "is a great park. There's nobody here. I get the whole place to myself."
Welcome to America the Beautiful Park, a vast stretch of manicured grass with an unfinished fountain and a fantastic playground for children. Bordered on the west by noisy Interstate 25, on the east by an even-noisier Union Pacific Railroad yard and on the south by a belching, coal-driven power plant, the park, just southwest of downtown, recently was built by the city with some $11 million in taxpayers' money.
And on almost any day, soldiers from Fort Carson could conduct artillery practice in this park without any real danger of hitting anyone.
Wednesday, May 29. All area schools are out for the summer. Between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., three people -- a mother and her two children -- visit the park.
Saturday, June 4. From noon to 4 p.m., 24 people visit the park. Almost all are children who swarm onto the $366,000 playground that occupies a tiny corner.
Sunday, June 5. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 16 people visit the park. There is one picnic.
Thursday and Friday, June 9-10. Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., a total of nine people visit the park. All stay in the playground area.
During 12 additional visits to the park over a three-week period, a reporter witnessed a grand total of no people on the huge grassy field, the bike paths or walkways.
"I come here with kids a few times a week," said Suzie Gasta, a summer nanny who brought 5-year-old Sophie Barnett on a recent day and encountered four other children at the playground.
"I love this place. It's beautiful. And it doesn't get a lot of public exposure. Most days there's no one here.
"I don't even think people know it exists."
Not formally dedicated
This is not exactly true, of course. The city's elected officials, who got taxpayer approval in 1999 for the $11 million bond to plan and construct the park, certainly know it exists.
The park opened last fall but, more than half a year later, has not been formally dedicated. It was referred to unofficially as Confluence Park -- a name given the project in 1997 by then-Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace -- until last week, when City Council formally named it America the Beautiful Park.
The park sits at the confluence of Monument and Fountain creeks, which are not really creeks but floodwater drainage ditches. It is accessible from either Cimarron Street or Colorado Avenue, just east of Interstate 25.
Mayor Lionel Rivera did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. On June 13, however, he led City Council in a long debate on what to name the place. That meeting was followed last week with another lengthy discussion of potential names before the formal vote. Council members long wanted to call it Olympic Park. But the U.S. Olympic Committee, based in Colorado Springs, had to give permission for use of the name and balked at the idea.
The elected officials also bandied about other possibilities, including Purple Mountain Majesties Park, Tolerance Park, Peoples Park, Independence Park and Makepeace Park, after the former mayor.
The name that council settled on is designed to honor Katharine Lee Bates, who sat atop nearby Pikes Peak in 1893 and wrote the poem that would become the famous song.
From Councilwoman Margaret Radford: "When she wrote the poem, she called it 'America the Beautiful' but she also referred to it as just 'A the B.' If people are worried that the name 'America the Beautiful Park' is too long, we could simply call it 'A the B Park.'"
A the B Park?
Haven for the homeless
Before construction began in 2003, the area was a haven for the homeless. People lived in tents and cardboard structures in the field and along the tree-lined banks of the creeks.
Old habits die hard. Today the park remains a hangout for many homeless people. A high-ranking member of the Colorado Springs Fire Department, which responds to occasional calls concerning intoxicated people at the park, says there's another name for the place formerly known as Confluence Park.
"We call it 'Under The Influence Park,'" the battalion chief said.
The idea of having a park in the area south of downtown surfaced in the late 1980s. Talks continued into the early 1990s but were silenced by tax limitation laws sponsored by current El Paso County Commissioner Doug Bruce and approved by local voters.
Facing huge cuts in general operating funds because of the decline in tax revenues, the city appeared to abandon plans for the park.
But in the late 1990s, the city's economic future seemed brighter and officials placed on the April 1999 ballot a request for $11.5 million for the park. Voters approved it.
Riches to rags
From the start, the planners' vision for the park was fantastic. There would be an enormous "millennium fountain." There would be a children's water adventure play land, a kayak run in the nearby creek, a towering pyramid, a promenade, a carousel, a rock-climbing wall and an amphitheater.
Even the name of the public meetings to get citizen input -- as chronicled in a January 2000 story in the Independent -- was special. The high-priced consulting team charged with gathering residents' opinions refused to call them meetings.
They were called "design charettes."
The grand scheme called for the park to be part of a monstrous urban renewal project in the area, which would include a convention center and even an urban baseball park for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, the Colorado Rockies' Triple A affiliate. The centerpiece would be Confluence Park. City leaders said it would be built in several phases and eventually would cost more than $50 million.
City Council, however, killed the urban redevelopment plan. Talk of building a convention center has died. The Sky Sox, who play their games east of Powers Boulevard, are not moving. Without any money to pay for them, the carousel, amphitheater, rock-climbing wall, kayak run and other bells and whistles are, by all appearances, on hold indefinitely.
Today the park sits hard between the busy highway, the sometimes-ear-shattering rail yards and the power plant smokestacks. Recently, the federal Environmental Protection Agency detected rising mercury levels in the ash that spews from the stacks of the city-owned electric plant.
Few events are held at the park. On occasion, the Colorado Springs Dachshund Meetup Group gathers. The little dogs seem to enjoy the seemingly endless sea of lush Kentucky bluegrass.
"I've been down there," said councilman Larry Small. "I've seen small groups of people, and sometimes I've seen kids on the playground equipment.
"But to be honest, there isn't a horrendous number of people visiting the park at this point in time."
Rising from the ashes
Politicians, of course, still dream. Despite countless news stories on local TV and in local papers about the park for the past few years, park supporters say a lack of awareness is the problem.
"People don't know about it," said Small. "We've postponed the dedication for almost a year now because of the name thing, but finally we've gotten to the point where we have to let people know it's there. We need to dedicate it and recognize all the business that contributed money and recognize the taxpayers who approved the project. We need to work to relocate the railroad switching yard. I'm trying to recruit 1,000 new jobs into that area. We need to put jobs into that area and revitalize the whole place. Then people will use the park."
Councilwoman Radford, too, believes the park one day will be the focus of a revitalized area.
"I guess that the park isn't particularly well-used at this precise moment doesn't surprise me," said Radford in an interview before council adopted the new name. "Confluence was conceived as a part of a bigger and broader vision that has yet to be realized. At the moment it's a lovely downtown park in the middle of something that isn't done yet.
"A new name would assist it. A new name would give it a new purpose and a clearer purpose. A new name with a new mission would make it a great asset to this city. But the defeat of the convention center has thrown a wrench into the entire downtown urban renewal zone. Now we have to figure out how to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes."
Some problems can't be ignored
Others are less optimistic.
Natalie Cochran visits the park about once a week. She brings her 6-year-old daughter, Anne, to play on the playground.
"The problem, I think, is that the park is in a terrible area," Cochran said. "I mean, there's those smokestacks putting out those clouds of whatever it is, and the freeway noise and then the freight trains full of coal come by so close.
"I can't imagine why they put a park in a place like this."
Richard Skorman, a city councilman and downtown business owner, pauses when asked to talk about the park.
"The name 'Confluence' was never really very attractive," the councilman said, also speaking before last week's formal vote to change the name to America the Beautiful Park. "There's just something about that word. Something named Confluence Park, well, it just doesn't make you want to drive down there."
Skorman, echoing other council members, says the park can become a focal point of the city if the massive urban renewal plan gets back on track. He concedes, though, that such a revitalization is perhaps 10 years away. At least 10 years away.
"There was a big plan that involved the park," he said. "The plan seems to have died.
"And Confluence Park, or whatever we name it, was, maybe, a park built before its time."
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