What does Colorado Springs have in common with Buffalo, N.Y; St. Paul, Minn.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Topeka, Kan.? It’s simple — we’re all second cities, traditionally eclipsed, overwhelmed and sometimes beaten down by our bullying big brother city.
That was certainly the case for us a few years ago, when Denver seemed like a black hole, a gravitational anomaly so powerful that it sucked nascent companies, ambitious Millennials and talented artists away from the Pikes Peak region, never to reappear. It seemed then that the process would continue indefinitely, that Denver would always cream off the best and the brightest and we’d always settle for second.
No more. Here in Colorado Springs and dozens of similar cities, we’re preferred destinations for the folks who once spurned us.
We may be seeing another national reset, as the coolness of life in America’s great cities is no longer a persuasive draw. New York, Chicago, Denver and Boston are marvelous cities, but they’re insanely competitive, expensive, congested, inconvenient, noisy and stressful. As a newcomer, you can’t expect to make a meaningful contribution to the life of your city, whether in politics, the arts, business or nonprofits. If you’re just starting out, you can expect shared and cramped accommodations, difficult commutes and impersonal, transactional relationships.
The most obvious difference between Colorado Springs and the big boys is the cost and availability of housing. In Manhattan, a 782-square-foot, one bedroom co-op at 205 W. 57th St. is on the market for $1.25 million. There’s a $2,500 monthly maintenance fee that includes property taxes, and financing a mortgage might require as much as a 50 percent down payment.
In Colorado Springs, a beautifully restored and maintained 9,045-square-foot historic mansion at 1306 Wood Ave. with six bedrooms, five baths and gorgeous woodwork is on the market for $975,000. And even in our present overheated real estate market, there are still plenty of houses priced below $300,000.
Such an imbalance seems unsustainable. New York may be sui generis among American cities, but more than half of its immense $88.7 billion annual budget comes from property taxes (29 percent), real estate-related taxes (4 percent) and income taxes (20 percent). State and federal aid accounts for another 27 percent, while sales taxes amount to only 8 percent of the total.
Despite such vast revenue streams, the subway system is falling apart due to deferred maintenance and unfunded capital improvements, traffic is gridlocked 24/7 and airports are ancient. A lot of bills are coming due, and some overtaxed residents may choose to get out while the getting’s good.
New York and other similarly situated cities will muddle through and recover, as they did after the urban chaos of the ’60s and ’70s and as New York did after 9/11. But as more people choose second- and third-category cities, Colorado Springs will benefit, as will our neighbors in Greeley, Fort Collins, Cheyenne, Pueblo and Cañon City.
Does that mean we’ll just get more congested, less livable, less personal, more frenetic and much more expensive? Will we lose our beloved unhip identity, and become so much like Denver that a Democrat will be elected mayor in 2023?
Just as it’s hard for any of us to see ourselves as others see us, it’s hard for longtime residents to see their city clearly. Whatever its faults, we’re lucky to be here. Unlike hapless big city dwellers, we’re masters of our fate. Tax money doesn’t flow opaquely into hundreds of unaccountable departments, agencies and authorities. Instead, a handful of local government entities collect and spend carefully and transparently.
City voters may have supported Donald Trump in 2016, but ours is the least Trumpian (or, for that matter, Clintonian) city I can imagine. The president of city council is a moderate Dem; the mayor is a moderate Repub, and both are unimpeachably honest and devoted to the public weal. We expect such governance here, while denizens of many larger cities are pleased if their leaders stay out of jail.
So rejoice! It’s summer, the mountains are still there and all is well. And if you feel like driving out east of town to enjoy the vast silence of Colorado’s high plains, be careful — you might get run down by moving vans with New York plates following a familiar path.
Pikes Peak or Bust!