In the days since the Black Friday shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, business and community leaders have spoken out against stereotypes that the city is too conservative, too religious and too crazy about guns.
The suspected shooter, a Hartsel resident named Robert L. Dear Jr., allegedly killed three people — a mother of two, an Iraq war veteran and a police officer — and injured nine more in the Nov. 27 attack, which was the city’s second mass shooting in a month (the first came the morning of Oct. 31, when a young Colorado Springs man shot and killed three people during a spree in a neighborhood just east of downtown).
Although the homicide and violent crime rates in Colorado Springs remain far lower than the national average for cities of similar size, Colorado has become known for its mass shootings (incidents at Columbine High School in 1999, Aurora Century 21 Theater in 2012 and the New Life Church shooting in 2007. were the most widely publicized).
For the most part, Colorado Springs suffered only natural disasters and maintained its reputation as a safe and family-friendly city.
But news of Friday’s shooting spread quickly to national and foreign media outlets that have since profiled Colorado Springs as a violent, gun-loving community of extremists. One such article appeared in The Guardian, one of Britain’s most prominent daily newspapers, which characterized Colorado Springs as “a playground for white, pro-gun, pro-life Evangelical Christians” with a “‘wild west mentality’ when it comes to guns.”
But business and community leaders disagree — saying that the news articles implicate the city as a cultural accomplice to the crime.
Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, described the shootings “a series of isolated incidents … perpetrated on this city, not by this city.”
“I think people, when they stop to think about it, will realize that this could happen anywhere,” he added.
Mayor John Suthers said the fact Friday’s shooting occurred here was simply coincidence — the result of Colorado Springs being a shorter drive for Dear than the haul to Denver.
Suthers, who headed a committee on gun violence as Colorado Attorney General, also suggested that there’s no connection between the city’s conservative climate and such criminal acts.
“There is this notion that because we have a healthy debate in this community [about issues such as gun control and religious beliefs] that somehow there is a correlation to this senseless violence,” Suthers said.
Suthers also said that it is not the community’s job to defend itself against people who chose to stereotype Colorado Springs amid such tragedy, but rather support the community through its own recovery.
“There are some people that will use this incident to advance a particular agenda,” Suthers said. “But our job is to do what any community would do in response to this. … We have nonprofits and religious organizations that are going to respond to help the healing process, mourn the loss of the victims, show community support and celebrate the incredible courage and bravery of our first responders.”
Draper said the RBA has not yet received any calls from concerned business owners or investors (current or prospective) related to Friday’s shooting but is personally angered by the promulgation of what he considers “an inaccurate portrayal of our city.”
“It’s a difficult issue for the business community to know how to respond,” he said. “Obviously the national [and international] media coverage doesn’t help our image.”
Both the Office of the Mayor and the Business Alliance, as well as organizations such as the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, have contingency plans for such crisis and recovery situations.
Both the RBA and the CVB are currently pausing outreach and marketing efforts, allowing city government to lead the way. Suthers said the top priority right now is recovery and support for the victims and their families.
“It’s just not the right time to be real active in our outreach,” said Draper, who is currently in talks with 15 to 20 companies considering locating in Colorado Springs. “We will reach out to them in the coming weeks, but not today.”
“When faced with challenges, we come together and stand tall as a giving, supportive and hospitable community,” said CVB President and CEO Doug Price.
During the crisis, Price said the CVB halted all its advertising and social media operations. Those operations remained on pause Tuesday.
Price said the organization is also keeping a watchful eye on search terms being used in relation to the recent shootings. Once they see terms such as “Colorado Springs shooting” begin to taper off, he said the CVB will then resume advertising and social media activity.
But what about the potential impact on people who may avoid Colorado Springs for such reasons?
“After the crisis, if there are lingering perceptions [or] questions about the area … we will address that in some way in advertising, social [media] or a press release in coordination with the city,” he said. “If we deem it inappropriate to address something directly, the best thing we can do for businesses is to follow our marketing plan and keep the region top of mind for visitors, meeting planners and event planners.”
Other local leaders, including City Councilor Jill Gaebler and other prominent residents, have taken to social media to voice their opinion that stereotypes about Colorado Springs are damaging to the community as it recovers from these events.
Suthers told the Business Journal that he believes Colorado Springs will weather the storm and shake off the bad press.
“We’re not defined by this senseless act of one person, but how we respond to it,” he said. “We’re going to get through this … and I’m convinced that people are going to continue to move here and businesses are going to continue to move here.”