It was nice to hear Gov. Jared Polis’ comforting remarks on Tuesday as he announced the gradual loosening of the Colorado’s shelter-in-place regulations. For the first time in many weeks, a return to normalcy seemed possible. Maybe at last I could pick up my long-stranded dry cleaning, meet my geezer pals for coffee and join my spouse Friday night at the Navajo Hogan. We’d eat, share a bottle of cheap Chardonnay and dance the night away…well, until 10:30 or so.
Those times may return, but our city, state and nation may be dramatically transformed. The empty supermarket shelves, masks, disposable gloves and social distancing will gradually disappear, and life will go on — but nothing will be the same. Some segments of the economy will suffer permanent damage, some will slowly recover and few will benefit. My guess is that Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region will have to endure a year or two of stagnation before prosperity returns. Here’s why:
1. The travel and tourism sector is second only to the military in the local economy. Given the fierce nationwide economic firestorm of COVID-19, it seems clear that discretionary spending by individuals and businesses will take a lasting hit. Businesses may keep right on using Zoom, and save on plane fares and hotel rooms, while straitened family budgets may keep potential visitors at home. Our national psychology may change, as cautious pessimism replaces sunny optimism. Free money is fine, but a one-time $1,200 handout from the government doesn’t mean your job is safe.
2. Locally and nationally, every sector of the economy is weak. Small business is cratering, brick-and-mortars large and small are unstable, the personal service economy is in free fall and revenue-strapped local governments are shedding workers. Colorado Springs has yet to make any dramatic cuts, but may soon be forced to do so, given that the city is almost entirely dependent on sales tax revenue.
3. Continuing national political dysfunction. The November presidential election will likely see extraordinary levels of partisan venom, and even a contested result. Absent a clear and convincing victory by the winner, the national economy may suffer.
4. Will military budgets take a hit? Sure, but who’ll suffer most? In the best case, local installations and contractors will be unscathed as the feds load up on debt to avoid cutbacks. Yet with all the short-term negatives, there’s one overwhelming positive that will eventually reignite our economy.
From Gen. William Palmer to Mayor John Suthers, our bedrock principle has been simple: Get people to move here! We welcome smart entrepreneurial folks and anyone who wants to live in our beautiful city and help make it even better. We’ve thrived for 149 years by following that simple maxim, and we’ve built a supremely livable city.
Dysfunction elsewhere has brought us growth and prosperity. When the great cities of the East and Midwest fell into economic decay and social chaos in the ’70s and ’80s, the Springs grew and prospered — the population soared from 135,517 in 1970 to 281,140 in 1990. Since then, we’ve grown a little more slowly as a dozen large cities including New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle became world centers of innovation and entrepreneurship. The novel coronavirus has stripped them bare, exaggerating the unsustainability of their 21st century run to national dominance. Will the big boys bounce back?
I don’t think so. Combine high rents, unaffordable home prices and endemic homelessness with the perceived dangers of population density, and many residents may opt for smaller cities. And as increasing numbers of Millennials and Gen Z reach the age of family formation, medium-sized cities with attractive urban/suburban living options will benefit.
Of all the medium-sized cities in America, Colorado Springs is clearly No. 1. Not to be too much the booster, but it’s still the easy, welcoming, beautiful and amazing place of my birth. I left in 1962, spent some time in New York in the ’70s and came back jobless and hopeful in 1981. Sinatra sang “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.”
My life suggests a corollary; if you can’t make it New York, you can do just fine in Colorado Springs!