Just 20 years ago this week, I returned to our fair city at the wheel of a U-Haul crammed full of our worldly possessions, towing a '74 Jimmy pickup and followed by spouse and screaming brats in the family car.

Although born here, I hadn't lived in the Springs for two decades. Catching up, I met an old school pal at The Broadmoor one summer afternoon. He introduced me to a passerby, a man whose formal business attire (dark suit, white shirt, conservative tie) seemed oddly out of place on a blazing July day at the resort.

He was, according to Jim, the most powerful man in southern Colorado, and maybe even the state. A Pueblo-born lawyer, he controlled the El Pomar Foundation and The Broadmoor hotel; supple, intelligent, politically savvy, he had shoved aside the doddering dynasts who had run things for generations.

Jim gave me some valuable advice: "If you want to get anywhere in this town, don't even think about crossing him!"

His name? Bill Hybl.

Things don't seem to change much, do they? Hybl's still the most powerful man in southern Colorado, and ambitious young men and women still pay homage to him. Since that summer day in 1981, local politicos have come and gone by the score. But ol' Bill just seems to get more powerful, more cunning and even craftier with age ... or does he?

Hybl's bombshell announcement a few days ago that El Pomar was pulling out of the Montgomery Community Center deal, and that it was re-examining its commitment to Confluence Park projects, threw the entire business/political establishment into a world-class tizzy.

El Pomar, usually content to stay in the shadows, made a very public display of its muscle. Was it, as it seemed, a calculated power play, a means forcing dissident City Council members to toe the line? Was it a very personal message from Bill Hybl -- my way or the highway?

No. In fact, last Thursday's press conference showed how El Pomar and especially its CEO Hybl allowed themselves to be manipulated by ambitious politicians and dragged against their will into a major civic controversy.

Let's look at Confluence Park, and its companion project, the Pikes Peak Greenway. Originally conceived in the 1980s by the folks who founded the Trails Coalition, this attractively nebulous, Boulder-imitating concept found two powerful champions: then-Council member Mary Lou Makepeace and El Pomar president Thayer Tutt.

The project inched forward until 1999, when Makepeace, elected mayor two years before, engineered the passage of the SCIP bond issue, which included $11 million for Confluence Park. But before Confluence Park could become downtown's answer to San Antonio's Riverwalk, something had to be done about the shifting population of homeless men who live or hang out downtown.

The Montgomery Community Center, which would have consolidated all services under a single roof, solved that problem. It seemed like a win/win -- help the homeless of all stripes, and grease the skids for southwest downtown gentrification. El Pomar Godfathered the deal and began to provide grants to the Confluence Park project.

And then the wheels came off. The Mill Street neighborhood showed that working-class folks can play hardball politics, especially when their neighborhood is under the gun. The grandiose multi-player scheme that Makepeace had spent so many years putting together, involving Utilities, the City, El Pomar, GOCO, private developers, SCIP bonds and the Urban Renewal Authority, seemed increasingly fragile and tenuous. Once the new Council voted down the Urban Renewal Plan, the deal was all but dead.

Suddenly, it looks as if Hybl and El Pomar made a major political error. They bought into the soaring vision of a powerful, self-assured Mayor, believing that the community shared that vision. They allowed themselves to be sucked into the nitty-gritty of local politics and saw themselves being attacked and vilified (goes with the territory, guys!).

That's not where a charitable foundation needs to be, and that's what last Thursday was about -- El Pomar's withdrawal from local politics.

And now the blame game starts. Makepeace has said it's all the fault of mindless neighborhood NIMBYs and ignorant new Council members. And the three elected newbies want to know where the bond money went. And the rest of us would like to know, in the cold light of a new dawn, why we threw $11 million into Confluence Park's 30 derelict acres, and passed on Red Rock Canyon's 720 magnificent acres for about the same price.

Who knows? Maybe Council was just listening to the Dixie Chicks: "She needed wide open spaces/Room to make big mistakes ..."

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com


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