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Regional leaders take part in the Business Journal’s annual Mayors Panel July 22.

Leaders in the Pikes Peak region are optimistic about city economies rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re balancing the pros and cons of the thriving tourism and construction industries. 

Asked at the 2021 Mayors Panel about pandemic recovery help for small businesses in Pueblo, Mayor Nick Gradisar said a half-cent economic development tax paid off when they needed it most. He had the support of his city council to distribute funds to 364 businesses in Pueblo and build parklets to support outdoor dining.

“When the pandemic hit and our small businesses had to shut down, I thought it was important, as did the city council, to make $5 million of that money available to those small businesses,” Gradisar said.

Mayor Jane Newberry of Green Mountain Falls said promoting tourism has been great for business, but has come with its own challenges.

“Hikers are a great thing until half of your community is in your face saying, ‘And their dog’s in my yard and their trash is on my porch and their kids are running around,’ and we had to figure out a way to make that better for everybody,” Newberry said. “And that’s a long way around to say the hikers are good for business.”

Mayor John Graham of Manitou Springs said pent-up demand from tourists is powering a “great year” and pandemic recovery, but the city is grappling with parking issues.

“We’re essentially a tourist-based economy, so having people on the streets and shopping and going to restaurants and enjoying our amenities, that’s a huge thing,” Graham said. “So the success problem we’re having is not having sufficient parking at times. We’ve been working on that.”

Monument Mayor Don Wilson said his town put together a commission composed of business owners and residents that distributed CARES Act funds back into the community. Wilson also praised town staff and the Tri-Lakes Chamber of Commerce for promoting local businesses.

“Both have been turning people onto businesses that some of our residents may not even know are in town, and increasing business for those businesses,” Wilson said.

Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega said his city distributed two rounds of small business grants of $15,000 each to help keep local businesses afloat. Getting the word out took some time.

“We actually had to call a lot of the small businesses and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got money, do you want it?’” Ortega said. “And so it took a little bit and then we were able to open up to more businesses.”

Fountain is considering a third round of small business grants, Ortega said. 

LEAVING LEGACIES

Ortega is set to end his tenure as mayor at the end of 2021, at the same time as some Fountain city councilors will leave their roles — and they’re attempting to complete their first strategic plan before then.

“We came up with four goals that we worked across the city to make sure we’re on a good path,” Ortega said. “And so we’re completing all those goals now, and we want to get ready for a new strategic plan. So what we’re trying to do is get it ready for the new council to come in and take it from there — and bring their ideas and things that they want to do as we move forward.”

Colorado Springs City Council President Pro Tem Richard Skorman, who spoke at the Mayors Panel in place of Mayor John Suthers, said Colorado Springs is going to have “a whole redoing of our building and zoning codes” to make affordable housing possible. He said people on fixed incomes, like seniors, are struggling to live in the city.

“There’s many of us on council — and the mayor and administration — that really want to make this our No. 1 goal,” Skorman said.

Skorman said Suthers and his administration wish to learn which methods will lead to more affordable housing — to “not be prescriptive as a government and tell people what to build, but make it so they really have the incentives to build the affordable housing. Because we know that we’re in a crisis.”

Newberry wants to finish updating Green Mountain Falls’ municipal code before she leaves office at the end of 2021. Changes, she said, are long overdue.

“I will tell you one thing: Every single reference to ‘mayor’ refers to ‘he,’” Newberry said. “I said, ‘OK. We are going to change that.” 

Wilson said Monument was able to secure $22 million in water projects without raising taxes or fees against residents. His staff will be focusing on those projects through the rest of 2021.

“We would like to have all those water projects, if not completed this year, at least past development where we can go to construction next year,” Wilson said.

ONE FOR ALL

Communities making up the Pikes Peak region continue to find ways to work together, because the issues each community faces, if not always shared, still impact one another.

Newberry said regional cooperation is “vital” and easier to accomplish today due to technology. She encouraged her fellow mayors to keep collaborating to solve common problems.

“People have interesting and unique solutions,” Newberry said. “I think sometimes our communities think of themselves as living on an island. But we’re not — we’re part of the greater community or part of the greater good.”

Gradisar said Pueblo is having trouble recruiting police officers. “We’re starting to make some changes now; we’re going to allow some lateral transfer,” he said. “So we’re going to be raiding other police departments around Pueblo County and in the state — so I’ll just give you a fair warning that’s going to happen. Obviously, this last year’s been a tough year for police officers with some of the things the Legislature has done. It’s hard to attract people to that industry.

“They don’t have to come in at the beginning level, if you will,” Gradisar said. “They will have to go through a small academy, but if they got two years or three years worth of experience, we’ll start with that second or third step rather than the bottom.”

Pueblo imposed a quarter of a cent sales tax four years ago to assist in the hiring efforts. Gradisar hopes this latest initiative bears fruit.

“Some of these state laws that are being passed [are] sort of a one size fits all designed to perhaps deal with problems that are being experienced in large metropolitan police departments,” Gradisar said. “But they impose these requirements on everybody, and it’s making it more difficult for us to hire police officers and make it more difficult for people who want to be police officers in the city of Pueblo.”

The panelists were asked about the biggest lessons they’d taken from years in public service. 

“You’re not going to make everybody happy, plain and simple,” Ortega said. “And you get in with these grandiose ideas and these big eyes of the things that you want to accomplish while you’re up there — and you’re in it for the right reasons, but you’re always going to have the detractors. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it or how nicely you go about it, you’re going to have the people who aren’t going to like your decisions. And you’ve got to be OK with that.” 

Skorman said elected officials have to learn that they do not have all the answers, and to trust the talents of their staffs.

“What I realized — at least in the city, the government that I know — is we have incredible staff,” Skorman said. “The people that are public servants, they can make a lot more money in the private sector, but they want to help people. I’m not saying all 100 percent are perfect, but I’ve really learned to trust them a lot more than I did in the past.”

Newberry reflected on what will be her sixth and final year as mayor of Green Mountain Falls and how much she enjoyed working with her fellow mayors in the Pikes Peak region.

“I love seeing everybody from throughout the region, even though some of us have very small communities,” Newberry said. “It’s so important that we cooperate together. People have different experiences, but we usually have experiences that help one another.”

Justin Tate is a graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver. He got his start as a staff writer for the Balch Springs Sentinel in 2011 and has covered boxing for Bleacher Report and Fox News. He joined CPH in 2021.