Our municipal economy is built upon growth and upon the anticipation of growth. For the city to prosper, we believe that it must continuously grow and expand. New businesses must replace the old; new residents must replace and outnumber the dead or departed; new buildings must rise from the ground; new roads must be built; new water must be found to nourish new lawns — and most of all, new money must be found to finance all this stuff.
Why are we so confident? Why do we believe that God will bless us and keep us, and that we will stay “Forever Young”?
Because we have grown in the past, and there’s no reason to believe that things will change in the foreseeable future. Elected officials will do what they have to do.
And what does “have to do” mean?
It has often meant confusing, optimistic forecasts, ignoring long-term costs and assuming everything will work out.
Here’s the city’s philosophy, expressed in one particularly hopeful master plan:
“The plan… is based on the conclusion that the Colorado Springs region will continue to experience significant, but not extreme, rates of growth resulting from tourism, military, space and related high-tech activities, as well as further diversification of the regional economy… a major sports complex and Olympic Museum are currently planned.”
It could have been written yesterday — but it wasn’t. It’s excerpted from the Banning-Lewis Ranch master plan, presented to the Colorado Springs City Council on April 15, 1987.
The plan’s authors predicted full build-out of the 20,000-acre site by 2015. Rolling prairie would give way to a new city, one with 142,000 inhabitants occupying 33,202 single-family units and 23,568 multi-family units. Nonresidential uses would occupy 5,632 acres, including 55 million square feet of commercial, industrial and office space. By then, El Paso County’s population would be close to a million — and those of us fortunate enough to stay the course would be rich, retired and spending the winters in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Didn’t happen. The rolling prairie is still there, and we’re still waiting for the Olympic Museum and the downtown sports facility. But despite such setbacks, we’ve done fine. While Detroit’s population fell from 1.2 million to 677,116 between 1980 and 2015, ours increased from 215,105 to 456,568 during the same period. Like many Eastern industrial cities, Detroit peaked in 1950, when 1.8 million Americans called the Motor City home.
Back in the ’40s and ’50s, when Detroit was the majestic symbol of America’s industrial might, business, political and labor leaders assumed that the good times would just keep on keepin’ on — so they concentrated on divvying up the spoils of success.
Can the same thing happen to us? Sure.
Our unplanned 1960s-era urban model depends upon a stable military presence, new businesses and residents, cheap personal transportation and low urban density. It’s also defined by low taxes, inadequate infrastructure maintenance and short time horizons. Massive city improvements such as South Academy Boulevard become functionally obsolete within a few decades, creating unanticipated costs and problems.
We all remember the last recession, when City Council turned off streetlights, stopped irrigating park land and slashed departmental budgets. And many of us remember the post-Sept. 11, 2001, downturn, when our tech boom became the tech bust.
And here we are — right in the middle of a steadily accelerating boom, one that promises to eclipse anything that has gone before. Should we invest in the city’s future or cash out while we can? Sell our suddenly liquid houses or refinance and use the cash to buy a couple of rentals?
Green lights: low energy prices, continuing international tension with U.S. leadership, higher military budgets, no legal marijuana or clean energy rollbacks, a massive nationwide infrastructure rebuilding program and continuing wise leadership by local elected officials.
Red lights: China replaces America as the world’s political and economic leader. Strained by the forced deportation of millions of residents, incessant state/federal squabbling, gridlock in Washington and increasingly burdensome entitlement costs, the U.S. withdraws from trade agreements and military alliances, reduces military spending and trims budgets across the board. Military contractors close their doors, Fort Carson hemorrhages personnel and even the Air Force Academy sees massive force reductions. Goodbye, Colorado Springs.
But instead, maybe we’ll be looking at a once-in-a-generation buying opportunity. Look around you — wouldn’t you rather be broke here than rich in… Detroit? If so, buy those rentals!