Last summer, the Business Journal organized a different kind of event — a regional mayors panel, bringing together the area’s top elected officials for lunch and discussion.
As first-time gatherings go, that one worked well for all involved, participants and attendees, except for one glaring absence.
Colorado Springs wasn’t represented. Steve Bach, beginning what turned out to be his final year in office, decided he had other priorities and sent his regrets. It didn’t spoil the occasion, but if ever the cliché of an “elephant in the living room” was appropriate, that was the time.
The camaraderie and uniqueness of that 2014 event, though, justified a second try. When new Springs Mayor John Suthers, shortly after replacing Bach, said yes to the invitation for July 16 at Hotel Eleganté, that boosted anticipation.
No one was disappointed, as a spirit of shared hopes and fresh possibilities filled the Eleganté’s fourth-floor Summit Ballroom, which has one of the city’s best sweeping views of the Front Range.
It was obvious that Suthers took this forum seriously. We shared some topics ahead of time with all the mayors, also from Fountain, Monument, Woodland Park, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls. Suthers came prepared with assessments and ideas this group hadn’t heard before. And he was anything but condescending, hammering the point that everyone should get along and work together more effectively.
“I think it’s important for us to sit and talk about how our visions mesh,” Suthers said. Not forcing the smaller cities to accept Colorado Springs’ agenda, but finding ways to collaborate. He suggested having the other cities’ planners meet with their peers from Colorado Springs, and cultivating closer relationships in economic development and tourism.
You could sense that everyone was feeling refreshed, with solid proposals to take away and pursue soon.
You could tell how much the other mayors appreciated the gesture.
“In terms of regional development, Mayor Suthers is the big dog here,” said Neil Levy of Woodland Park. “Certainly, he doesn’t need Woodland Park, but Woodland Park definitely needs Colorado Springs.”
Suthers also supported the concept of what he called a Pikes Peak Area Tourism District covering El Paso, Teller and Fremont counties (personally, I’d add Pueblo to that mix). With some kind of LART (lodgers and auto rentals) surcharge, along with extra fees added to admissions, the Tourism District could use revenue from visitors to promote the region as much as possible.
“We need to advertise ourselves more as the Pikes Peak region,” Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder said. “That’s the future for us, to create a better sense of place.”
The lively discussion took other paths, each mayor covering matters of hyper-local importance. Rafael Dominguez of Monument spoke candidly about his city’s ongoing controversy with a methadone clinic in the downtown area, across from a park. Snyder suggested the other cities should thank Manitou for being the only area municipality to take on the regulated sale of recreational marijuana. Suthers said he expects Colorado Springs at some point to begin annexing “No Man’s Land” on the Westside, “starting with the avenue itself.”
Gabriel Ortega of Fountain traded friendly salvos with Suthers, who gently accused Fountain of taking the area’s newest Walmart Supercenter away from Colorado Springs. Ortega diplomatically responded by saying, “They told us they didn’t feel wanted.”
Levy reported Woodland Park “is fully recovered from the recession after our sales tax revenues have grown the past four years.” And Lorrie Worthey proudly described Green Mountain Falls’ new city hall, as well as a planned distillery that will use donkeys in its processes.
As time wound down, everyone was feeling refreshed, with solid proposals to take away and pursue soon. But Suthers wasn’t done, switching his focus to intangibles. He said he experienced a personal epiphany “a month or so ago,” talking to a visiting delegation from Russia.
“They said we are fortunate to live where we live,” Suthers said, and he answered by apologizing for the potholes and poorly maintained roads. The visitors stared at him and shrugged. That didn’t affect their impression at all.
“I took that message back to our department heads, and now we talk about it every time we meet,” Suthers said. “We need to be positive, positive, positive about our city and area. In fact, let’s all be more positive about the Pikes Peak region.”
It probably seems corny in print, but in person it was powerful. Snyder jumped in, saying, “We already agree on more than 90 percent on everything. And our RTA (transportation authority) is the envy of the region, even the state.” Then came Worthey: “Communication is the key, and the fires showed us how much we need each other.”
Bottom line, the panel made a convincing case that our area’s mayors want to be on the same page, starting with John Suthers. And bringing them together will be a good way to reconfirm that, every summer.