When Jon Severson’s mother gifted him with a copy of “The Bug Club,” the then 9-year-old immediately took to the streets of his Winona, Minn., neighborhood in search of fellow bug collectors.
“I went door to door with a notepad getting everybody’s phone number and asking if there were any kids who’d like to join the bug club,” Severson said.
Only about 10 children agreed to join, but that was just the first glimpse of Severson’s knack for community organizing. In 2004, he founded Colorado Springs Young Professionals with one simple goal in mind.
“I did it because I liked to meet people,” Severson said. “I like bringing people together and showing [them] the value of getting to know more people in town and getting to see some of these little bars and restaurants that you have to be ‘in the know’ to even know where some of them are.”
Fifteen years later, the group remains a hub for Olympic City USA’s young professionals, and “hundreds” of members credit Severson with helping them find their niche in the Springs.
“It seems like every time I thought, ‘Maybe this is done,’ somebody tells me, ‘You’re the reason I stayed here,’” said Severson, who now does consulting work in the bicycle distribution and tire manufacturing industries. “When you help people grow roots in a town, it’s harder to uproot them and take them somewhere else.”
Severson, now 44, sat down this week with the Business Journal to talk about his plans for the Springs’ mountain biking scene, and why he didn’t move to Boston in the early 2000s.
What brought you to Colorado Springs?
I was working in Las Vegas for a company that made carbon fiber bicycle wheels. 9/11 really kind of took the wind out of that business. … I had friends here. … They invited me to come stay with them until I figured out what I was going to do next. I was originally going to move to Boston. Then the rest is kind of history.
What made you stay?
Our mountain biking trail system was a big driver. You really can’t beat the Springs for a metro area, as far as our access to anything bicycle-related. Then I started this little group [CSYP] for fun — and then the next thing I know… I got ingrained in the town, fell in love with it.
What drew you to mountain biking?
I grew up in the age where you rode your bike everywhere. I had a BMX bike and we made trails in empty lots in my neighborhood growing up. … I heard about these all-terrain bicycles, as they first were called, and bought my first one in 1989. I fell in love with it and realized I was good at it. I was top six in the Midwest for my age group and got sponsored at a young age.
Talk about the Urban Singletrack Project.
After the recession hit, there was literally 200 tents along the creek by Drake Power Plant and I-25. When they cleaned that out and passed no camping, there were all these little footpaths left behind. When I was a kid on my first mountain bike, we didn’t have purpose-built mountain bike trails. … You just followed old deer trails even if it dead-ended, just because it was something to ride. I started exploring these little trails and realizing this is very similar to where I went to college, which built out trails along their river and in little pockets around downtown. When I went back for my college reunion about 10 years ago, all the locals were bragging about the new trails being added — people who don’t even ride bikes.
We have fantastic trails, but a lot of them are hard for beginners and kids to go out and ride. You really need to be committed, and we’re lucky in the sense to have something like … you can live downtown and hit some trails just a few blocks from your house. I approached [the city’s parks and recreation department]. I thought I would have to go to one meeting to get permission. Six years later, we just finished 3 miles of trails, and that’s just Phase 1.
Talk about the conception of
Colorado Springs Young Profes-
I’ve always been good at bringing people together. … When I got into mountain biking, I wanted to figure out how to meet other people that rode mountain bikes. There weren’t many. So we made up some flyers on my buddy’s dad’s copy machine and put them up at all the colleges in town. There definitely was a lot of college students that were very surprised that a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds were organizing these weekly rides.
I eventually moved home … I had some other friends that moved back and thought we needed a happy hour — which was nonexistent in my little town of 25,000 — to meet other young professional types. So I just dreamt up the name Winona [Minn.] Young Professionals because I knew I could get free PSAs with the radio stations and newspapers I worked with to get the word out.
Fast-forward to living here. I really liked it here. I liked the riding, liked the weather, but it was really hard to meet people. It wasn’t like you could walk into the Ritz and go, ‘Hi, my name is Jon. I’m new to town. Would you be my friend?’ So I suggested to a couple of people this idea of doing a monthly happy hour. With two weeks’ notice, we had 44 people at our first one.
We average two to three events a month. We usually get 60 to 70 people on average. I’ve had some with 200 to 300 people at them. … We reach over 15,000 through email and Facebook. We also do events in Denver and reach about 40,000.
What do you think gives Colorado Springs Young Professionals staying power?
Admittedly, I just wanted to meet new people [but] I quickly realized there was a lot of people getting benefit from it. People were making friends — people that hated the town and would tell me, ‘You know Jon, I like what you’re doing, but this town sucks. This is the only fun thing to do,’ but then a year later, they’re buying houses here.
… I’ve definitely spent a lot of time in Denver. The [Denver Young Professionals] has been around for probably 10 years and Denver has a lot of great things, but what’s also been fun is, I’ve probably gotten 20 or 30 people down from Denver to come to one of our events. They would talk crap about the Springs and I would say, ‘You’ve got to come and see my Colorado Springs. The Colorado Springs you don’t like is a tiny part of town, but there’s a really fantastic culture and a variety of people that you’d never expect to live here.’
… This is a fantastic, beautiful place to live with so much history and little pockets of community. I’ve gotten to know some fantastic people and I like giving people the chance to meet those people and learn about our local restaurant scene and learn about what to do… .
… I always joke this is just a really well-organized passion project, that I figured out how to make sure it covers what it was supposed to do. It’s not something you can get rich doing, but you can enrich your life doing it.
How have you managed to keep the group so well-organized as it has grown through the years?
I think the key is realizing not to get overburdened with trying to do too much, and trying to do well what you can, and keep it simple. … It’s really easy to start a group, gain momentum, start putting on awesome events — but after about a year it becomes work and you’re not new anymore. If you’re doing this for your own ego, you’re going to get sick of it. … I could overcomplicate it and try to monetize it … but I’d ruin the whole feel.