Despite being within about an hour’s drive of each other, some issues facing the Tri-Lakes region, Colorado Springs, western and southern El Paso County, Teller County and Pueblo can seem worlds apart.

Barriers were broken down last week, however, as leaders from those communities gathered for the Colorado Springs Business Journal’s Fourth Annual Mayors Panel luncheon to discuss their most pressing issues. Panelists included mayors John Suthers (Colorado Springs), Nicole Nicoletta (Manitou Springs), Jane Newberry (Green Mountain Falls), Neil Levy (Woodland Park), Gabriel Ortega (Fountain) and Jeff Kaiser (Monument, see page 7), as well as Pueblo City Council President Steve Nawrocki.

And the one issue that seemed to affect nearly all represented entities to some extent, was managing population growth.

‘The die is cast’

“We’re awaiting the 2017 Census estimate for the city of Colorado Springs, but I suspect it will be about 470,000 people,” Suthers said, adding the El Paso County estimate will likely be around 720,000.

“The Springs is 146 years old,” he said. “Eighty percent of that growth has taken place since 1970. So growth is nothing new to Colorado Springs. But it’s at a pace now of growing about 2.5 percent every year — and that’s a lot.”

The task, Suthers said, “is the same as it’s always been: Make that growth as smart as possible.”

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The mayor said “the die is cast” in terms of the city’s 200 square miles of sprawling geography.

Suthers said it is the city’s responsibility to provide and manage roads and public safety services within its purview.

Damaged roads are being repaired thanks to the voter-approved 2C sales tax, he said, but there are inadequate numbers of police and firefighters to serve the current population. The city has about 14 officers per 10,000 people, while the national average for a city the same size is about 17 officers per 10,000 residents.

“Given our crime rate, I think we ought to have 16,” he said. “That number impacts response time. Critical incident response time should be around 8 minutes. Now it’s about 10 minutes and 40 seconds. We need to make sure growth pays for city services.”

Suthers pointed to development of Banning Lewis Ranch on the city’s Eastside.

“From my perspective, where we are today [with Banning Lewis Ranch] versus where we were when it was initially annexed — this is an infill project,” he said. “What you have to understand about growth is, it will happen to this entire region regardless of any particular policy of the city of Colorado Springs. We have not developed Banning Lewis Ranch. Did that stop the urban sprawl of Colorado Springs? Heck no. It just leapfrogged it.

“The busiest Walmart in [El Paso County] is in Falcon, Colorado, instead of Banning Lewis Ranch.”

The city lost about $70 million in revenue over and above costs by not developing Banning Lewis Ranch, Suthers said.

“In my opinion, the city has put together a good situation for Banning Lewis Ranch that will not only pay for those city services, but will be a net revenue [generator] to the city for many years to come,” he said.

‘A good sign’

Pueblo operates under a council-city manager form of government and doesn’t have a mayor, thanks  partly to a failed vote for a strong mayor form of government in 2009. The city may revisit the strong mayor model in an upcoming election, said Nawrocki, who represented Pueblo City Council on the Mayors Panel.

Nawrocki said while residential development in Pueblo hasn’t matched its counterparts to the north, Pueblo County as a whole has experienced growing pains.

The city of Pueblo now has an estimated population of a little more than 110,000. Pueblo West has experienced the most significant growth over the past 10 to 15 years and has unofficially surpassed 30,000 residents, Nawrocki said. Its population in the 2010 Census was 29,637.

“A few years ago, it was 4,000 people,” he explained.

The Great Recession, however, disproportionately impacted Southern Colorado, including Pueblo, he said, and that has slowed its recovery.

“But we judge everything by our sales tax, and our sales tax is improving significantly,” Nawrocki said. “That’s a good sign.”

It’s a much different situation for the city of Fountain in southern El Paso County. According to Ortega, Fountain has nearly doubled its population during a similar period of time.

“There are over 30,000 just within the city of Fountain. If you include the entire Fountain Valley — Widefield and Security — we’re closer to 100,000,” he said.

Ortega, a special education teacher for his main job, said the city government has been focused on its business environment, as well as on working with developers to build more homes.

“We’re a town that’s open for business and we’ll work with anybody,” he said.

“If it makes sense and if it benefits not just the city of Fountain, but this region, we’re all for it.”

‘A unique position’

Public safety has been one area of concern for the mayor of Manitou Springs as her community grows, but especially due to the influx of tourism.

Nicoletta said town emergency services had to respond to five Incline/Barr Trail emergencies in a single day this summer, taxing capabilities.

She added that the effort to create more affordable housing for Manitou has also taken on increased importance lately.

“We recently established a housing advisory board,” Nicoletta said. “We have a lot of folks who would like to move to Manitou Springs and the community would like to stay diverse, not only in the culture and ethnicity, but also socioeconomic status.”

Finally, Nicoletta addressed parking shortages. The city is working on turning one major parking area into a multi-level garage, and Manitou has worked with Mountain Metropolitan Transit to implement a free shuttle, which recorded 48,000 riders in June.

Farther to the north, Kaiser said his community of Monument is “in a unique position at the north end of El Paso County, situated between Colorado Springs and the Denver Tech Center.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of growth. As Castle Rock becomes more and more expensive, we’re seeing some of those residents wanting to move farther south,” he said.

Growth has been somewhat slower in Teller County, according to Levy. He said, over the past decade, Woodland Park has grown from about 7,500 to about 8,000 residents today.

“That’s not tremendous growth, but the region is growing,” he said, adding that Woodland Park has sufficient water rights to handle up to about 12,000 people.

Levy added that the most pressing issue for Woodland Park is U.S. Highway 24, which runs through the heart of town. The idea of creating a western bypass, which has come up before but never with much public support, might come back into play.

“Highway 24 will be an issue,” he said. “We’re taking a big-picture approach. What will it look like 15 or 20 years from now, and what can we do about all the traffic on Highway 24?

“Nobody wants the traffic on 24 — or in their neighborhood,” he said. “So, where do you put it?”