Homelessness, low wages harm growth

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Colorado Springs Business Journal readers believe the Pikes Peak region is on a roll. They like the idea of the new stadium in southwest downtown; they are excited about the Colorado College hockey arena plan and can’t wait for the U.S. Olympic Museum to open.

All three projects — and the new Summit House on Pikes Peak — could change the city’s character. Colorado Springs will have more apartments downtown, more restaurants, more foot and bicycle traffic. We’ll have new event venues and better shows and exhibits. It’s an exciting time to be part of the city.

But — and there’s always a “but” — most of our readers said in our weekly poll that the city has systemic issues that must be addressed for the city to be successful. While the new venues are certain to create jobs and boost downtown’s profile and economy — many believe city leaders are ignoring major issues.

And they’re right.

Wages are flat in the Springs, even during this powerful recovery. The average salary here falls below not only the state average, but also average wages in Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins.

Low pay makes finding a place to live a huge challenge — and means there’s little disposable income left over for trips to the soccer stadium or hockey arena. It means that just keeping up with living expenses takes up the bulk of a family’s paycheck, making a trip to the Olympic Museum out of reach. It’s a problem that’s long gone unaddressed by business and political leaders — but one that will eventually inhibit growth, drive Millennials (who also have record-high levels of student debt to contend with) from the city and create costly turnover rates for local businesses.

It’s part of a mindset here that has to be changed as both housing and health insurance rates hit double-digit increases this year. We have a great quality of life here: gorgeous mountains and a lot of hiking, biking and other activities. But those amenities won’t offset the rising costs. We’ve said it before: You can’t eat scenery.

CSBJ readers are also concerned about infrastructure. The tax to repair roads is bringing in revenue to address some of the issues, and the additional stormwater fee will address others in the future. But readers think the city is acting too slowly or ignoring infrastructure issues — aging bridges, water pipelines and power facilities — and has not planned for growth-related needs — roads, parks, bike trails and more — in the same way Colorado Springs Utilities has prepared for the city’s future water demand.

And still others believe the city’s focus on tourism projects is the wrong direction entirely. They want solutions for homelessness and public safety. Business owners throughout the city are complaining about increased numbers of vagrants and the homeless; the threatening, aggressive stance of some panhandlers; and the lack of solutions for helping the homeless find permanent housing. Vagrants are an entirely different story — people who have homes but don’t work, instead spending their days asking passersby for cash. Both harm businesses — people avoid downtown because of the high numbers of homeless people and perceived threats to their safety.

We believe the city is headed in the right direction — the stadium, the arena, the Olympic Museum will draw high-end apartments, restaurants and retail. They are great ideas to improve economic development.

But we also agree that business leaders need to pay more attention to affordable housing, higher wages, job retention plans. And city officials working so feverishly to attract more people to the area, need to do the long-term infrastructure planning that will accommodate that influx, while taking better care of those taxpayers who are already here.