Some of best advice newly elected Mayor Nick Gradisar has received came from the man at the helm in Colorado Springs.
“Mayor [John] Suthers told me to make a strong effort to develop that cooperative, collaborative relationship with the city council as this new system of government takes off,” he said. “I think it’s important that happens rather than scrapping with each other for the next five years.”
The Pueblo native said he worked for the campaign that led voters to switch the Steel City’s form of government from council-manager to mayor-council in 2017. Gradisar was sworn in Feb. 1 as Pueblo’s first mayor in more than 60 years.
The South High School graduate received his bachelor’s in social sciences from Southern Colorado State College, now CSU Pueblo.
He received his law degree from Drake University School of Law in Des Moines, Iowa, and was admitted to the Colorado Bar in 1977.
Gradisar returned to Pueblo in 1978 after clerking for a Colorado Court of Appeals judge for about a year.
In 1984, he founded the law firm that is now Gradisar, Trechter, Ripperger & Roth.
He served on the board of directors of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce from 1998-2002 and as chairman of the board in 2001.
Gradisar spoke with the Business Journal this week about his top priorities as mayor and what he believes is key to the success of Pueblo’s new strong-mayor government.
Why did you decide to run for mayor?
Well, I was a strong proponent of changing our system of government from a city manager-city council form of government to a mayor-city council form of government. Once that was approved by the voters, I decided that I was committed to seeing that system succeed. When we were campaigning for the new system, people said, ‘You have our support if you’ll run for mayor,’ and I didn’t give much thought to it during that campaign. But afterwards, when it was passed by the voters, I decided that I would jump into it and really make an effort to make the system succeed.
Why did you believe the city needed to change governing systems?
So we could have some leadership — that’s been the problem with Pueblo. We haven’t had that full-time elected leader, and that’s what the mayor is. It’s a full-time elected leader. Previously, we’ve been governed by a part-time city council. And they’ve done the best job they could, on a part-time basis with a full-time city manager, who doesn’t have any political base. We haven’t really had a very good experience bringing city managers in from outside. All of our city managers were promoted from the ranks. And again, they didn’t have that political base that the mayor has that allows him or her to rally the community and get the community all moving in the same direction. That’s why I thought it was very important that we switched systems. Pueblo used to be the second largest city in Colorado when I was growing up. Now, we’re eighth or ninth. In the last 60 years, the population in the state of Colorado has tripled. In Pueblo, it has gone up about 10 percent. During that whole period of time, we’ve had the city manager, part-time city council system of government, and it just hasn’t allowed us to thrive like the rest of Colorado has.
What are some of your priorities?
The initial goal is growth — increase growth and economic activity in the city of Pueblo. We’re losing a lot of young people that move out of the city of Pueblo in order to go earn a living somewhere else. And my goal for our community is that we’ll have an economy here where no young person who wants to stay in Pueblo is forced to leave in order to earn a living. Nobody should have to leave Pueblo in order to earn a decent living. We want to have an economy here where young people can raise their families, because this is the best place in Colorado to raise a family in my opinion. We have fantastic amenities, outdoor recreation and just a great quality of life here that I think is unparalleled anywhere else in all of Colorado.
What are some advantages Pueblo has over other cities in Colorado?
The pace is a little slower here. We have a fantastic trail system. We’ve got the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek. We’ve got Lake Pueblo Reservoir, which is the most highly visited state park in Colorado. It’s a fantastic amenity with campgrounds out there and mountain bike trails that are really in some spectacular places. We’re in the process of figuring out a way to publicize those with the Bureau of Reclamation, so that younger people — outdoor enthusiasts — will have access to them. They’ll know they’re there. We want to get increased tourism in Pueblo — get people off the interstate. We’re going to make a concerted effort to publicize and promote Pueblo as a destination. We’re just finishing the expansion of our convention center that will have a university to train bull riders for the Professional Bull Riders. We’re hoping to attract more convention business and get more people off the interstate to see the Riverwalk and the other amenities that we have here in Pueblo.
What about the cost of housing?
Well, the cost of housing is a bargain in Pueblo compared to other places in Colorado. Now, it’s going up, and we need more affordable housing here. But compared to other parts of Colorado, like Colorado Springs and Denver, housing is a bargain.
How do you plan to support local businesses?
By making it easier to do business in Pueblo rather than harder. I propose we have an ombudsman in the mayor’s office that can help local businesses and people who want to do business in the city of Pueblo navigate the labyrinth of rules and regulations that sometimes slow things down and make it impossible for people to comply. We’re just getting staffed up now, and we have to create these positions in the budget. We also want to encourage people to do business in Pueblo with local merchants. We have a half-cent sales tax here that we use to attract businesses. I propose that we use part of that for local entrepreneurs. If local people have an idea that will generate some income coming in from outside of Pueblo, we should try to support those individuals to allow them to grow their companies.
Why is it important for a city to have a strong small business presence?
Small businesses drive the economy. We want large businesses as well as small businesses. But most of the people in Pueblo work for small businesses. If every small business in Pueblo would hire one additional person for their business, that would have a tremendous economic impact on the city. They’re the ones that really drive the economy, are those mom-and-pop operations, like family-owned restaurants. I’ll just say we have the best Mexican restaurants in all of Colorado here.
What are some challenges you expect to face during the first year in office?
I think just getting the new system put in place is probably going to be the biggest challenge, and working with city council. It’s going to be developing that collaborative, cooperative relationship with the city council like they have in Colorado Springs. Mayor Suthers has developed a cooperative relationship with the city council there. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for me, first and foremost. Another challenge I’m going to have is helping with implementing a street repair utility enterprise that the voters passed and agreed to in November of 2017, that hasn’t yet been fully implemented. We need to get that in place, so we can start repairing the streets and roads in the city of Pueblo. When you survey Pueblo citizens, they say that their No. 1 complaint is the conditions of the roads. They sort of gave us a blank check to start on that, and we’re going to make sure that’s fully implemented.
Pueblo West is weighing incorporation. How will that affect Pueblo?
Pueblo has lost a lot of growth over the last 40 or 50 years to Pueblo West. People went out there because it was cheaper to build out there and it didn’t have a sales tax out there at the time. But they’ve got a sales tax out there now. I think the price has sort of equalized. Now it costs more for a water tap and a sewer tap in Pueblo West than it does inside the city of Pueblo. Obviously, we need to have a cooperative relationship with Pueblo West because people do business back and forth. I own property in Pueblo West, and in the past, we’ve talked on the board of waterworks about having a joint tap there, so that we can assist each other in the event of an emergency. Say something happens to their treatment plant. We can supply them with water or vice versa. It needs to be that cooperative attitude, but it’s still competitive because we’d like to have more growth in Pueblo and not see that growth go to Pueblo West.
What’s something you’re excited about for Pueblo right now?
I think just there’s a feeling, I think in the community that this change is going to be what Pueblo needed to move the community forward. I think people are excited to see what kind of new things we can get in Pueblo. I expect we’ll have some job announcements here in the next few months that will excite people even more. I think just the fact that we’re putting a new face on Pueblo. We’ve got a new system of government in place. I intend to be in Colorado Springs and Denver and Washington DC promoting Pueblo and let them know that Pueblo has a face now that it hasn’t had in effect in the past. I think that’s going to be very beneficial in terms of having people focus on Pueblo and taking a look at Pueblo that they might not have before. One of the fascinating things we might end up having is EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel is in the process of deciding whether or not they’re going to modernize their rail mill. If they do, it’ll be a state of the art facility that will be one of the finest in the world right for manufacturing that’ll secure the steel mills future in the city of Pueblo for the next 50 or 80 years.
What can Pueblo do better to attract larger businesses?
One of the things is we’ve got to get the word out. We got to go talk to businesses and let them know, ‘Pueblo is open for business.’ We need to make it as easy as possible for some of those larger employers to come here and as I said before, take some of those impediments out of the way and helping to negotiate those labyrinths. We’ve got a couple of industrial parks, one at Memorial Airport and one south of town, that are fantastic amenities for anybody that wants to bring a business or manufacturing enterprise here. We’re working on getting some additional rail access to the southern manufacturing point. We’ve also got the Pueblo Chemical Depot that is going to be a terrific amenity for the city of Pueblo in terms of if somebody needs large space or large manufacturing space that’s going to be available in the very near future as soon as those chemical weapons are destroyed. There’s going to be plenty of opportunities in Pueblo for people who want to live in Colorado. Pueblo has the best municipal water supply of any city in the state of Colorado. We’re not water short; we’re not going to be facing any shortages. As the rest of Colorado grows and water supplies become scarcer, people are going to turn to Pueblo where water is plentiful and reasonably priced. And, we’ve got plenty of land here and not much traffic, not much congestion. Our quality of life here I think is the best in the state. And that’s what I think is going to attract people to Pueblo when it’s all said and done
How would you describe your leadership style?
Trying to get as many people involved as possible and trying to get as much information from the community before moving on a path forward. Also inclusion, I think, is how I would characterize my leadership style.
What do you do for fun?
It’s really been politics the last few years, but I also like to golf when I get a chance to. I like to go for bike rides. I’ve got a mountain bike and get out on the trails in and around Pueblo and in town. I swim from time to time; I’ve got a dog that loves to swim. And occasionally I like to try my luck in Las Vegas.
Anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to emphasize that it’s going to be a new day in Pueblo, and that we’re going to have a new attitude. We’re going to have a new approach to trying to get people down here. We’re trying to get some young people down here and get some affordable housing for them. They’ll recognize before they live here very long this is a great place to live, a great place to raise a family, especially if you like a little slower pace than some other places. Denver is not very far away. If you want to go to Denver for a concert or a game or something like that, it’s pretty easy to do. But hopefully that’ll get easier. We want to make sure Pueblo is included in any plans that the state has for high speed rail, make sure that as we plan the community that we’re taking that into consideration.
Note: This is an extended version of the story that appeared in the Feb. 15 edition of the Business Journal.