Nearly everywhere you look, Colorado Springs is booming — downtown is thriving; the city is growing to the north, east and west. Unemployment is down; housing prices are up. Foreclosures are largely a thing of the past, more a remnant of the last recession than a statement about the current economy.
It seems the city’s economy has finally turned a corner, except in one area: southeast Colorado Springs. In those neighborhoods, people are struggling to find jobs, to build business, to create affordable housing. They are working against perceptions of high crime, low education and increased poverty. Unemployment in southeast Colorado Springs is 8 percent, much higher than the 3.8 percent for the city overall.
The trends cannot continue. The southeast part of the city deserves support — or the problems there will only grow worse.
The area needs a concentrated effort from more prosperous parts of El Paso County to create jobs through workforce development, better educational opportunities, investment in existing businesses and aid in starting new ones. We have to meet the community where it is now, understand its issues and create solutions that the residents in southeastern Colorado Springs have a part in developing.
There are some efforts already underway, supported by a $350,000 grant from El Pomar Foundation. Called “Possibilities: Southeast Colorado Springs,” the coalition with El Paso County Public Health is designed to help transform the area where one in four residents lives in poverty. The steering committee for the project is made up of community leaders, families and business owners from the southeast side of town. The El Paso County health department will provide child care, healthy snacks, transportation and translation services where needed.
The Business Journal and its sister paper, the Colorado Springs Independent, have helped as well, lending their combined voices in creating a business plan competition last year. The winning business launched this spring. The publications plan to conduct another business competition in 2018, once the first business is on a firm foundation.
Silver Key moved into southeast Colorado Springs last year and the city completed the Deerfield Community Center as a way to bolster solid community ties in the area. The city has spent a total of $1.8 million in the area, used to improve public transportation options. It also designated South Academy Boulevard — with its boarded-up shops and closed strip malls — as an economic opportunity zone.
And still more people are stepping up. The Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce will create a committee dedicated to building a healthy economy. The YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region is planning a panel on healthy families and the Council of Neighbors & Organizations will work with residents to build a more inviting community.
All that has been widely reported, and it’s all good news.
What’s missing is a commitment from the larger business community in Colorado Springs, which needs to get involved with capital improvements and local investment. At a recent UMB breakfast event, Henry Allen, the volunteer executive director for the Springs chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the area needed more assistance to grow to its full potential. His organization, a chapter of the organization associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was created to organize the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Most chapters are in the South, but the Springs has had a chapter for a little more than a year.
Allen told the group at the April 19 breakfast that he and a group of local business volunteers were determined to move the needle on economic development in the area. A former soldier and El Paso County sheriff’s deputy, Allen said the city needed to act quickly to keep the southeast from declining further.
“We owe this to our neighbors,” he said.
He told a story of patrolling in the area as a deputy, and seeing children run at the sight of his car.
“I look like them,” he said. “They shouldn’t run when they see the police. But there is a lot of distrust there. So we worked on it then, and we’ll continue to work with the community now.”
Allen is right — and it’s time all these efforts coalesce into one larger effort that benefits the most diverse region of Colorado Springs. It’s full of rich culture and identities, and opportunities for business investment are no less varied.
Efforts to improve downtown’s prospects have been positive, popular and successful. The southeast can have the same kind of renaissance and become the neighborhood Allen moved into when he transferred to Fort Carson in 1974. Back then, it was an area with promise. Its tight-knit community believes it still holds that same promise. And thanks to El Pomar, there’s a chance it could see the kind of economic development and jobs assistance it needs to improve.
But it’s time the rest of the city’s business community gets involved. If we can all work together to aid southeast Colorado Springs, then we all benefit from a city where every resident has equal opportunity and a chance for success.