Fountain of Ages 

"New York Times" taps southern Colorado city as America's model for the millennium

Many people think of Fountain as that sleepy community south of Colorado Springs where ranchers and farmers coexist with urban sophisticates and high-tech workers who commute to their jobs in nearby Colorado Springs.

It is.

It's also where military brass and enlisted personnel from nearby Fort Carson play golf at the Lee Trevino-designed golf course while poor families on low-wage earnings can actually afford to live in and participate in shaping their community.

The Fountain Valley is the only place in El Paso County where a Democrat can actually get elected mayor. It's a place where far-right Republicans also hold office.

It's where hot-air balloons flying overhead spook the horses. It's where a man recently constructed a basement full of homemade bombs in his booby-trapped home. It's where people move to grow tomatoes.

It's where the train still rolls through town 40 to 50 times a day.

Not far from the 450-acre pristine Fountain Creek Regional Park -- home to at least 255 species of birds -- is the city's main commercial strip, with a Wal-Mart, a Blockbuster and all the fast-food conveniences of modern America.

Fountain's a place where landowners are passionately opposed to a major thoroughfare -- Powers Boulevard -- being carved through the community to connect with Interstate 25 to the west.

It's what people all over the world see when they tune in to ESPN and see Robbie Knievl jumping his motorcycle over 25 trucks at the Pikes Peak International Raceway.

It's where you can look west to Pikes Peak and to Cheyenne Mountain, home of the North American Strategic Air Defense Command. Look east past a huge grain silo, grazing horses and new treeless tract-housing developments and follow the contours of the eastern prairie.

It's where rural kids who have never left the state -- and rarely the county -- go to school with Army brats who have lived all over the country and the world.

Fountain's where the original Marlboro Man lived; it's also the place where a gourmet and specialty shop can be, appropriately, named Cowbells. Greasy diners have been city staples for decades; now, a non-smoking restaurant also thrives, and there will soon be a local espresso joint.

It's a city whose logo depicts a natural water fountain, though none exists.

It's where, in the city's park, equestrians happily coexist next to

skateboarders and baseball and basketball enthusiasts.

In short, it's a place that the New York Times has decided exemplifies Americana at the brink of the millennium.

Message to the Year 3000

City Manager Gregory Nyhoff said the Times initially contacted them in August, when a visiting reporter posed the question, "If you were to select one item to place in a time capsule which could symbolize to people in the year 3000 what everyday life was like in the year 2000, what would you select?"

The reporter posed this query to residents, business and community leaders, students, farmers and ranchers, gauging their opinions.

After a weeklong visit, the reporter returned to New York. With the help of Andrew Beveridge, a sociologist from Queens College, the paper eventually identified Fountain as a community that closely mirrored the makeup of the overall mix of the United States In its statistical analysis, the newspaper considered everything from overall composition of the city and surrounding area, the proportion of college graduates and divorced couples, the size of families as well as the age, income and race of Fountain's citizens.

The city will be featured in the paper's sixth and final issue of the magazine's millennium series this Sunday. The series, titled "The Times Capsule: A Message to the Year 3000," will appear in the glossy Times Sunday magazine. At 214 pages, the issue will be the largest in the newspaper's history, Nyhoff said.

In addition, as part of the millennium project, those items Fountain residents identified as representing American culture will be included in a time capsule to be displayed beginning this Saturday, Dec. 4, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Both Nyhoff and Mayor Ken Barela are in New York this week for the unveiling of the capsule.

"You can imagine, we're all pretty excited about this; it's a really big honor," Barela said.

Mysterious explosions

With 18,000 residents, the city of Fountain is the second largest incorporated city in El Paso County. Founded in 1903, Fountain grows along the banks of the juncture of Fountain and Jimmy Camp creek, about 15 miles south of Colorado Springs. Long before the city became known as Fountain, the site linked the Cherokee Trail with the Old Santa Fe Trail, used by Native Americans, explorers, trappers and gold seekers.

One thousand years ago, Plains Indians cohabited with other tribes in this fertile valley. It was a time when the mysterious Anasazi Indians began what would mark 300 years of dominance in Colorado. Though mostly associated with the southwestern corner of the state, Anasazis also had a presence in the Fountain Valley, according to the Historical Atlas of Colorado.

In the 1850s, white settlers laid down roots at the banks of Fountain Creek and began to grow crops and raise cattle.

Fountain's early leaders even pinned hopes on becoming the state capital in 1859, when the first meeting to organize a state government was held in the newly-settled city. Some 30 years later, a delegation visiting state-capitol candidate towns never made it past Colorado City because a mysterious railroad explosion occurred -- some say not coincidentally -- cutting off access to Fountain. Colorado City, which has long since been annexed by the city of Colorado Springs, subsequently became the territorial capital until Denver permanently took over in 1867, nine years before Colorado became a state.

The melting pot

Now, Fountain's a place where the mayor and the city manager will happily chauffeur a reporter around for hours, pointing out the high points of their city.

Mayor Ken Barela explains how he grew up here, moved away to college and then came home when his dad got sick in the late '80s. After serving on the school board for two terms, Barela got elected mayor three years ago. Uncontested, he was awarded a second term this fall.

Barela, an energetic and compact man, likes to tell this little story to sum up the diverse sense of community exhibited in Fountain. One day, he and his wife were walking their new baby Matthew down the street. A biker on a Harley drove past, and just as Barela was admiring the bike to his wife, he noticed the biker did a U-turn, drove past them a second time, then U-turned again and stopped directly in front of the mayor and his family.

"I was a little concerned. I'm thinking, 'Hmm, what's going on here?' I said, 'Can I help you?' and he said, this big guy with a beard, 'Are you the mayor?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' And he said, very soft-spoken, 'I think you're doing a good job,' and that was it. He rode off again on his Harley.

"We don't distinguish between people, we just function as citizens."

Barela said The New York Times reporter was also struck by Fountain's melting-pot perspective -- where rich and poor, blue collar and military, farmers and ranchers, high tech and college educated and working poor, white, black, Hispanic and Asian all coexist without delineation

"We knew that intuitively," Barela said. "In fact, after growing up here, when I went to college, the biggest shock to me was that people out there in the rest of the world delineated between races and ethnic groups.

"All of a sudden, I became more aware that I was Hispanic than at any time in my life. We had never differentiated; we were all just friends."

One little cloud

Similar stories about hometown Fountain abound during the four-hour looping tour of the city.

The first stop is the fire station on Highway 85/87, a few blocks inside the city's limit. There, Fire Chief Bill Owens (no relation to the governor) recalls the biggest blaze in recent history. Back in '95, a lightning strike hit an old tire dump, igniting a tire fire that burned a good 27 hours.

"There was one little cloud in the sky on Sunday about noon," Chief Owens said. "Out of that one little cloud came down one little lightning strike that was observed by one of the deputy chiefs at the police department who, at the time, was coming into work.

"That one little spark turned into a big old blaze."

Luck had it that 13 bulldozers were sitting on loaded flatbed trucks at nearby Fort Carson, and those bulldozers came right over and buried the fire.

Still, as tire fires can burn for a long, long time, Chief Owens explained,"we kept getting some smoke coming up for about a week. We were real lucky."

Next stop -- after admiring the landscape for a while, seeing fields and wooded areas and subdivisions with street names like Barn Owl Drive, Candlestar Street and Clogger Lane -- is the golf course. Some of the houses on the course feature shrubs and trees cut in Dr. Seuss style.

The only thing not allowed in the golf club, according to a sign posted outside, are golf clubs.

Food and beverage manager Gil O. Montoya, who I'm told makes the best eggs and green chile in the valley, retired here after he spent 31 years in the military.

One good thing about the Fountain Valley: You can fall in love here. "It's in the water," Montoya said.

"The best thing that happened since I moved here is, I got my divorce. The second best thing is I met another lady."

From the golf course, we drive through country and city again and end up visiting Fountain's newest business-government collaborative effort. It's a donated former public elementary school, which will eventually house the YMCA, offices for the county health and human services, a community center and an alternative school.

Over at city-owned Metcalfe Park, diversity is on display. There are horses, baseball diamonds, hoops and a kick-ass skateboard park. "We actually accommodate people who want to skateboard," the mayor said in mock terror. "Well, we should accommodate them."

In the middle of the park is the public bathroom.

"It's where we all come together," explained City Manager Nyhoff.

Then, it's on to the high school, where Superintendent Dale Gasser is waiting with a smile on his face. Financially times are hard, he said, but his student's test scores are improving at award-winning rates. Like the city, the district builds its facilities with cash, not credit. And, with an interesting combination of 55 percent of the students coming from Fort Carson, and the rest being locals, the student mix is supremely unique, Gasser pointed out.

"One of the more interesting points is our diversity, not only the ethnic mix of our student population but of students who come here after living all over the country and the world," he said. "We recognize and celebrate those different experiences."

Downtown Fountain

It's clear that the mayor and the city manager are proud of their city. The big question, though, is what they, and the citizens, want their city to look like as it grows.

In the past 20 years, Fountain has more than doubled in size. Last year, the city hired a new manager, Gregory Nyhoff, and launched a major effort to incorporate a comprehensive plan to create a blueprint for how the sprawling city should grow. In recent years, the city was considered little more than a bedroom community to Colorado Springs with a reputation of being a hotbed for hoodlums. That rap, city leaders say, is a mistaken one.

"The goal of what's going on here is that when people enter the city they say this is a nice community," Nyhoff said. "Both those who live here and who visit here."

Will they lay down restrictions to ensure that their beloved city and surrounding landscape are not compromised by the same sort of Everytown USA design employed by corporate chains? Some cities, including the resort towns of Aspen and Vail, have design restrictions requiring homes and businesses to adopt a compatible look.

But that won't happen in Fountain.

"[The chains] are all going to come in, and that's OK to have those areas," Nyhoff said. "But our emphasis is on downtown as far as the character of what we want our city to have."

Downtown Fountain is two blocks long, run down and void of traffic. The city's leaders want to change that. Next year, with heavy emphasis on a historic architectural look, they plan to begin construction on a new city hall and work to jump-start economic revitalization of the city's core.

One place that has already become a sort of institution is Gold Tooth Annie's, specializing in home-cooked meals. Owners Leila and Michael Hudgins opened the place after moving to Fountain four years ago. Michael Hudgins had grown up in Colorado Springs, but never dreamed he'd ever call Fountain home.

"When I was growing up in the Springs, there were a lot of negative feelings about Fountain," he said. "People said it was the boonies and was economically depressed; I would have never considered moving here."

Of all things, it was the tomatoes that drew him and his wife to Fountain after living out of state for several years. Specifically, in addition to the restaurant, they bought a greenhouse and have since added three more to their collection.

His friends who remain in Colorado Springs still think the same thing they've always felt about Fountain.

In turn, the Hudgins like their little secret -- which they ruefully point out won't be so secret after The New York Times weighs in.


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