PlanCOS misfires on venue choice for southeast event, strategizes better outreach 

Inclusion from afar

click to enlarge plancos_survey2_zipcode_5_10_17.jpg

The City of Colorado Springs is doing some long-term urban planning.

The effort, called PlanCOS and considered long overdue, "will [set] forth the values we want to realize as the city changes over the next 20 to 30 years and ties those values to land use, economic development, community design, and infrastructure upgrade strategies and recommendations," according to an official description.

Now, less than a year in, planners want all the public input they can get before the 18-member PlanCOS steering committee heads to the drafting table to craft the final document. That input takes the form of an online survey (coloradosprings.gov/plancos), citizen-led focus groups and community meetings. So far, the number of survey responses, almost 4,800, is a good showing compared to other cities, according to the city's contracted consultant. But spatial mapping (see PDF version below) shows the responses are concentrated in certain areas of the city, namely the west and north.

Lacking are responses from residents of the southeast — consistent with that area's tepid voting habits. (District 4 voters posted the lowest turnout in the last municipal election.)

People may not take the time to answer a survey if they're otherwise focused on the basics of making money, staying safe and taking care of family first. Such may be the case in the southeast, given that a quarter of families along the South Academy Boulevard corridor live at or below the poverty line, according to an Urban Land Institute report conducted last year that also found a higher unemployment rate, more crime and worse health outcomes there compared to the rest of Colorado Springs.

That the area needs improvement is all the more reason for residents to get involved. Thus, the PlanCOS team will host a community meeting specifically to solicit their participation. Sounds all well and good until you hear the venue: Initially, the "Heading Southeast" event was to be held at the El Pomar Foundation's Penrose House by the Broadmoor Hotel with a business casual dress code.

"We thought it'd be a great place, since it's so nice," says Eric Phillips, the city's planning commission chair, PlanCOS steering committee member and El Pomar's Black Advisory Council member. "But then we started hearing, 'If it's labeled as a southeast event, shouldn't it be in the southeast?'" So the event was canceled, and is now tentatively rescheduled for July 20 at the Southeast & Armed Services YMCA. "We took it back so quickly I don't think people had the opportunity to be upset about it," Phillips added.

click to enlarge Every resident has a dog in the fight. - CHRIS RUSSELL
  • Chris Russell
  • Every resident has a dog in the fight.

Comprehensive planners know how this looks. In fact, they're actively seeking ways to counteract biases inherent in the process. Since there are no "co-creators" (citizen liaisons between the planners and a constituency or region) from the southeast, head planner Carl Schueler says they've sought more "on behalf of" type representation — staffers from established organizations in the area like Atlas Preparatory School, Deerfield Community Center or the Sand Creek Library, who can relay the community's wants and needs.

"We have to get strategic and focus where we know there are gaps," he told the Independent, including young professionals and housing providers. There are also ways to apply sample-wide findings to specific areas. For example, in general, survey respondents expressed desire for more and better transit options, so planners can infer southeast residents want that too.

But inclusion goes beyond methodology — it's also a matter of perception.

"I think of diversity as not just ethnicity, but also income, sexual orientation, accessibility — and we're pretty cognizant that the [steering] committee, on its face, is kind of lacking," says Conrad Olmedo, the only other full-time city employee working on PlanCOS, in reference to the PlanCOS steering committee. All appointed by Mayor John Suthers, committee members include representatives from City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Trails and Open Space Coalition, and the defense industry, as well as lawyers, consultants and real estate developers. The group is two-thirds men and mostly white — a neat swath of the city's elite.

Phillips, who's black and on the committee, isn't bothered by its makeup. "Is it diverse? I don't know if Colorado Springs is diverse!" he says. "These people, they bring the level of technical expertise we need."

Olmedo adds, "That said, there is still the opportunity for people to engage at the co-creator level." (Those interested can call 385-5621.)

These growing pains may be healthy in the long run. At least that's how Taj Stokes, the only southeast resident on the steering committee, sees it.

Raised on Chicago's South Side before moving to the Springs, Stokes hustles for his community as a pastor, a business coach for southeast entrepreneurs and a go-to liaison between his side of the city and the powers-that-be downtown. Enmeshed in both PlanCOS and the community that's so far spurned it, he thought the original event venue was a befuddling choice. "When I first saw that email, I was like, 'What the hell?'" he remembers. "But I feel like they get that they don't have a relationship, so they're trying to build one, and I applaud the attempt."

With or without PlanCOS, the southeast is on the up — there's Stokes' popular business incubator, Thrive Colorado Springs, new funding for area nonprofits from the El Pomar Foundation, and a bill passed this session (sponsored by our own Rep. Pete Lee and Sen. Bob Gardner, along with Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village) that will reduce sentencing on parole violations to reinvest money saved in community development programs.

"The energy's changing and people are noticing — not only in, but around and about the community," Stokes says. "Yolanda [Avila] winning (a seat on City Council) is also a reflection of that."

Ultimately, he says, coaxing more civic participation out of the southeast will come easier once the rest of the city starts to connect and relate better to its residents. "It's all about face-to-face," Stokes says. "Never once have I opened up the grill, thrown up a bounce house and the community not come out."


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