Lessons still unlearned 

City Sage

How many cities have our business and political leaders visited the past few years, searching for the Holy Grail of municipal governance?

Typically under the auspices of the Regional Business Alliance, power people by the dozens have journeyed to Austin, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Portland, Omaha, Salt Lake City/Provo and, just a couple weeks ago, to Nashville, Chattanooga and Huntsville.

Ten cities, every one of 'em bursting with pride, prosperity and confidence. They boast streets unmarred by potholes, well-maintained infrastructure, thriving downtowns, vibrant economies, smoothly functioning local governments and supportive voters.

Why visit them? We do so in the forlorn hope that some of the magic will rub off. Just as thousands of eager marks flock to hear Tony Robbins and other silver-tongued preachers of prosperity, so do Springs' leaders seek inspiration from their successful counterparts.

Has it worked? Not yet. Last year our voters turned down a carefully crafted regional flood control/infrastructure repair measure, perhaps dismayed by quarrelsome elected officials. It's possible that, come November, Mayor John Suthers will lead us to a new era of good feelings, repaired infrastructure and higher taxes ... we'll see.

Meanwhile, maybe future trip participants should change their focus. Why not visit our true peers, cities that just can't get it together? Bakersfield (California), Camden (New Jersey), and Gary (Indiana) come to mind.

Going to those sad burgs would teach the travelers a hard lesson our city needs to learn: Failing cities are usually victims, struck down by changing economies, a toxic environment, decades of misgovernment or all three.

Gary and Camden suffered from lousy governance as well as economies hollowed out by the slow-motion collapse of manufacturing. Blowing dust from Bakersfield construction sites carries spores that cause Valley Fever, a particularly nasty disease endemic to the San Joaquin Valley. Those cities are like junked cars in Old Colorado City backyards: You can rebuild them at a price, but is it worth it? Might as well leave them to decay.

What's our excuse? We don't have one. Among comparable American cities, we're floundering. Our real peers are Boulder, Fort Collins, Santa Fe, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Salt Lake City — all with equable climates, beautiful settings, easy access to spectacular outdoor recreation and off-the-charts "cool" quotients. Such places succeed in spite of themselves, because we all want to live in beautiful, interesting, healthful environments.

Thirty years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on the groundbreaking for a new Digital Equipment plant in Colorado Springs. After the ceremony, the CEO's spouse wandered away from the plant's site to the edge of the surrounding forest.

"It's so beautiful here," she said, marveling at the wildflowers, the clear air, the sparkling day.

A few years later, I heard an urban development guru deliver his shtick.

"There are voluntary places," he said, "places where you want to be. Aspen, Maui and Santa Fe are voluntary places. Then there are involuntary places, like O'Hare or LaGuardia, where you have to be and want to get out. You don't want to be an involuntary city."

It took a lot of work to transform Colorado Springs from a top-tier voluntary city to an also-ran. We can blame parochial elites (El Pomar Foundation gave Focus on the Family $4 million to move here?), taxophobic voters (Douglas Bruce? Taxpayers Bill of Rights?), bumbling politicians and bad luck.

But we're not the victims here — we're the perps. We voted for the pols, we whooped through TABOR, and we blamed city government when the recession came and city services collapsed.

Here's the real question: Has the city become permanently ungovernable? Local government isn't that difficult. Our peer cities have taken different paths to prosperity, but all have depended upon the enthusiastic consent of residents. We've refused that consent.

It's easy to blame our dysfunction upon the 25 percenters, the obdurate Bruceites who oppose any initiative that might increase taxes or grow government. But they're not going to change, so it's up to the other 75 percent.

That's you, me and a majority of City Council. Whatever Mayor Suthers proposes won't be perfect, but let's stop bitching and get with the program. It's about damn time.

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