ayor John Suthers delivered a full serving of optimism in his third State of the City address, presented by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, before a packed luncheon crowd at The Broadmoor Sept. 22.
Suthers began by referencing his first State of the City speech after his election in 2015.
“Two years ago, I reported that the state of the city was good, and the potential of our city was great,” the mayor said, adding that last year the city had seen progress on the continuum from good to great.
“As for the state of our city today, I don’t believe I’m being overly optimistic, nor am I exaggerating, when I suggest that Colorado Springs, as a result of the public and private investment of its citizens, is beginning to achieve its potential and secure its place among the great cities of America.”
Addressing tough issues
Suthers discussed how his priorities have played out since his election and particularly during the past year. Among those priorities was a desire to strengthen the political climate, especially between the office of the mayor and city council.
“A constructive political environment is necessary for the community and economic development,” the mayor said.
Suthers also addressed stormwater and roadway infrastructure as top priorities under his administration, and he spoke about the city’s workforce needs and future job creation.
“These priorities were established as a response to the most significant challenges Colorado Springs had faced in the first 15 years of the 21st century,” he said. Regarding the political climate, Suthers said he was pleased with how council, which has welcomed three new members, and his office have collaborated.
“We won’t all agree on everything,” he said, “but the relationship is largely collaborative and professional. … We are addressing the tough issues that confront us.”
Suthers also pointed to efforts between El Paso County and the city of Colorado Springs in consolidating offices of emergency management.
“This would allow us to more effectively and cost-efficiently prepare for and respond to natural disasters and various other emergency scenarios,” he said.
Suthers said there also may be other areas of consolidation to explore.
Regarding infrastructure, the mayor said the city continues to make great strides.
“Improving our roads has been, very much, a work in progress,” Suthers said, adding the 2015 passage of ballot issue 2C will, via a sales tax increase over five years, raise up to $250 million for road improvement projects. “We’re working with the [Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority], Colorado Springs Utilities, local businesses and many others to maximize the impact of our efforts.”
By the end of October, the city will have paved 471 lane miles with 371,000 tons of asphalt and 372,000 lineal feet of new curbs and gutters, Suthers said.
“You’ll continue to see … cone zones, particularly in the summer months. Please see this as a sign of real progress in fixing a problem that was a long time in the making,” the mayor said.
One of the longest standing cone zones, the Cimarron/Interstate 25 interchange, will be coming to a close next month in time and on budget, Suthers said.
As for stormwater infrastructure, Suthers said the city continues to make progress in addressing its deficiencies.
The mayor reported 80 percent of the city’s growth has taken place in the past 50 years, creating a strain on all infrastructure.
“This led to significant flooding incidents, including one in 1999, in which 68 million gallons of untreated sewage made its way into Fountain Creek,” he said.
The state health department sued and the city spent millions of dollars to rectify the problem.
“This served as a wakeup call to the mayor and city council to do what other major cities had done: Create a stormwater fee and stormwater enterprise to be used exclusively to fund stormwater infrastructure, maintenance and operation,” he said.
The fee was established in 2005 with the intent to raise up to $16 million a year.
“However, in December 2009, after a campaign to stop … ‘a rain tax,’ city council voted 5-4 to terminate the stormwater fee,” he said. “This led to a drastic reduction in stormwater spending … which led to serious legal problems for our city.”
Those problems included legal issues surrounding water delivery via the Southern Delivery System from Pueblo and current lawsuits from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the city of Pueblo and the Lower Arkansas Conservancy District over water quality violations.
An intergovernmental agreement has led to a commitment from the city of Colorado Springs to spend $460 million over the next 20 years on stormwater projects.
“As a result of the agreement, the Southern Delivery System was turned on, as scheduled, in April 2016,” the mayor said.
In the past two years, Suthers said, the city has developed a comprehensive plan for a stormwater program.
“We remain the only major city in the United States that doesn’t have a dedicated stormwater fund,” he said. “We are therefore paying for our stormwater program out of general funds. This has and will continue to have significant consequences on the delivery of essential city services, including police and fire services.”
Suthers said, as a result of the city’s history and the impact to essential city services, city council has referred issue 2A to this November’s ballot.
“We are asking the [voters] to reinstate a stormwater fee for the next 20 years. Rates would be a flat $5 per month per residential unit and $30 per month per nonresidential development,” he said. “This would initially raise between $17 [million] to $18 million per year to be used exclusively for stormwater infrastructure maintenance and operations.”
Workforce brings challenges
Regarding the local economy and job creation, Suthers said “the news continues to be very good.”
Colorado Springs remains the 40th-largest city in the country, according to U.S. Census estimates. The city has a population of about 470,000, the mayor said. The median age in the city is 34.4 years, about three years younger than the average age statewide.
“We have averaged about 8,000 new jobs per year for the past two years,” he said. “We are now beginning to experience significant wage growth.”
Suthers said unemployment was around 10 percent in 2010, and has reached record lows, now at about 2.5 percent this year.
“Colorado Springs now has approximately 13,160 job openings and 10,519 people looking for work. The median salary for posted jobs is $69,600,” he said. “That’s about $4,500 above the median salary for posted jobs in Colorado.”
Suthers said those high numbers also reflect an ongoing challenge: A pool of skilled workers properly trained to fill those jobs.
“Many of our job-seekers don’t have the requisite job skills and knowledge to fill openings in fields ranging from health care and system engineering to welding and construction management,” he said.
Suthers said there is an increasing level of communication and cooperation between the business community, high schools and higher education institutions.
And while wages are beginning to grow, so is the area’s cost of living, Suthers said.
“The average price of a home in Colorado Springs has risen … from $275,400 in July 2015 to $323,200 in July 2017,” he said, adding rent also continues to rise.
The mayor also addressed the many projects currently under development in Colorado Springs, to include the planned Children’s Hospital and hospital expansions by both Centura and UCHealth. Suthers also recognized the growth of UCCS under the guidance of retired Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak, and wished new Chancellor Venkat Reddy the best.
“He has big high heels to fill,” Suthers said. “But we’re confident he’s prepared for the job.”
Tourism is booming
“The Colorado Springs Airport is another good news story,” Suthers told the crowd. “In the last year we’ve added new destinations and many new flights, including four new destinations just this week.”
Enplanements were up 11 percent last year and are on pace to be up another 30 percent this year, the mayor said.
Tourism in the Springs “is booming,” Suthers said. “Hotel and motel … occupancy rates are rising.”
Lodging tax collections grew 15 percent last year and were up another 17 percent thus far this year.
“A record number of tourists are visiting Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods,” he said.
In May, ground was broken for the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame.
“This world-class attraction, scheduled to open in the summer of 2019, will cement our city’s brand as Olympic City USA,” the mayor said.
Suthers said the year was not completely without its letdowns.
“Last year, at my State of the City address, I expressed disappointment in the pace the state was moving to address state highway infrastructure, particularly the much needed expansion of I-25 between Monument and Castle Rock,” Suthers said. “This seven-day-a-week logjam between Colorado Springs and Denver is hurting commerce between our two great cities.”
Suthers said, to its credit, the Colorado Department of Transportation has moved up its timetable to make the project shovel-ready by 2019.
“El Paso County, the city of Colorado Springs and other members of PPRTA are offering seed money to help with the El Paso County portion of I-25,” Suthers said. “Unfortunately, political gridlock in our state Legislature continued for another year and this vital project remains unfunded.”