What happened after the '80s? 

City Sage

Come November, it'll be 30 years since I participated in "Project 2000," an attempt to create a "Vision for Excellence" in the Pikes Peak region that would guide us for the next 15 years, and even beyond.

The project was driven by extraordinary changes in the region during the preceding 20 years. Community leaders came together, sponsored meetings, commissioned polls, encouraged input and ultimately produced a report.

I'd forgotten all about it until seeing the report in a box of papers in the basement. For whatever reason, I didn't toss it. I suspect that I never read it in the first place, but 30 years later it's interesting and deeply dismaying.

Colorado Springs in 1985 was a dynamic, booming city. The region's population had doubled in 20 years, its economy was strong and diverse, local government was efficient and capable. Compared to selected peer cities, Colorado Springs ranked in the top three in virtually every category.

The report, prepared by the Public Policy Center of SRI International, compared Colorado Springs with 10 other cities identified in John Naisbitt's Megatrends as "cities of great opportunity." The cities included Denver, San Jose, Tucson, Austin, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, San Diego, Tampa and San Antonio. Since 1985, all have experienced their share of hiccups, but they've grown and prospered in ways that we haven't.

What went wrong? Based on SRI's metrics, we should have moved from strength to strength. Instead we stagnated in multiple downward spirals.

From 1980 to 1983, the population of the Colorado Springs market increased at an annual rate of 9.1 percent, three times the national average. The 1980 census pegged the percentage of population residing in the county for less than five years at 36 percent, by far the highest in the nation.

These migrants were young, ambitious and educated. Jobs were plentiful and relatively well-compensated. Median household income, at $22,259 in 1985, was slightly below Salt Lake City and San Diego, slightly above San Antonio and Denver, and about 10 percent higher than the U.S. average.

More than 20 percent of the county workforce worked in manufacturing, surpassed only by San Jose. Our cost of living index was the lowest of the group. The city's overall financial capacity was considered strong.

"It has the authority to levy property taxes up to 20 mills," SRI noted, "and the current rate is only 11 mills [thanks to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, it's now at 4.73 mills]."

Ironically, SRI expressed concern about the city's demographic profile — we were too young! Among our peers, we had the highest percentage of people younger than 34 (63.7 percent) and the lowest older than 65 (7.1 percent). The 25-34 age group had increased by 25 percent from 1980 to 1985.

A 1984 poll showed 55 percent of those contacted identified "growth" as the region's most worrying issue. Nothing else received even 6 percent. A subsequent poll identified water and traffic as issues of some concern.

The report's authors agonized over the "brown cloud" from auto emissions, congestion on Interstate 25 and inadequate public transportation. They asked whether anything could be done to prevent future limited-access expressways and arterials from becoming "another Academy Boulevard." They didn't see the future, and neither did we.

We didn't anticipate the savings and loan crisis, the subsequent collapse of local commercial real estate, the baleful power of California migrant/TABOR author Douglas Bruce, the disappearance of the high-tech manufacturing sector, the arrival of Focus on the Family, years of politico/religious strife, 15 years of war and two more recessions.

We fell short while our 10 peers charged past similar obstacles. We never understood time was not on our side. Those eager, entrepreneurial young migrants have aged in place. Thirty years later, many are retired, taxophobic and risk-averse. Will the spiral reverse? It may be happening now.

Sooner or later youth will be served, and a new city will be born. Many who came here in the 1970s and '80s may not see it flower, but that's OK.

"That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms... An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing."

— William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

I'm ready to sing!

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