Manitou Springs Mayor John Graham knows no matter how much you love your garden, it’s only going to survive and thrive if you tend to it.
That’s what the former software engineer and longtime newspaper publisher wants to do during his two-year term at City Hall — and he knows it’ll take a community-wide effort to get it done.
Graham was born in Colorado Springs and lived there for most of his childhood, though he often visited Manitou Springs, where his grandparents owned the local newspaper, the Pikes Peak Journal.
He started working at the paper at the age of 9, sweeping floors and emptying trash cans, and took the reins much later, serving as its publisher and editor for about 20 years.
As a newspaperman, Graham became involved in the community — and even after moving into a new career as a software engineer, he kept Manitou and its needs in mind.
After retiring last April, he ran for office and won.
Graham was sworn in Jan. 7, and said his top priorities as mayor will be to address parking and congestion problems — an especially high priority with the planned reopening of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway set for 2021, and the potential for tens of thousands more tourists — as well as infrastructure needs and capital improvements.
Graham talked with the Business Journal about what he hopes is in store for the city.
After you retired, did you immediately know you wanted to run for office?
No, not really. I had been involved since about 2015 in some local things, and with the newspaper, I was always involved tangentially because we ran a pretty vigorous little paper. It was always fun and opinionated and we had some fairly strong editorials at times. But when I was working as a software engineer, I mostly got away from that for a long time, until in 2015 the city had this poorly maintained historic bridge and they decided they wanted to tear it down and replace it, but the price tag kept going up. It was over $600,00 — and this was for a bridge that was about 20 feet [long] and one lane wide. So I said, ‘This makes no sense. This is [being] capricious with city money.’ So I kind of got involved in that. We got the bridge fixed without spending as much money. And the city was doing things, in my opinion, so poorly that I got increasingly interested in local affairs. And I stayed interested.
What made you feel like the right man for the job?
I think there are a number of variables. I feel that a lot of us in Manitou have begun to feel disenfranchised by our government. Now what happened was, we went through fires and floods starting about 2012 with the Waldo Canyon fire and subsequent floods. Well, we got a big influx of [Federal Emergency Management Agency] money and suddenly our government grew. We had a lot of new employees who brought FEMA ways and big-city mentalities to city operations. And that was not the way Manitou used to operate. So the city became impersonal and adopted a lot of bureaucratic policies. Well, in the process of doing that, I think it did a lot to kill the community spirit. People became frustrated. I was one of those people.
So what made me think I could do the mayor’s job? I think a lot of the people who I represent, we share that same frustration. This is no longer our town. One rallying cry I used when I talked to people was, ‘Let’s get our town back.’ So I think I’ve got that territorial sense.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
Everybody wants everything. Whether it’s budget, or any time you have resources, or even just time to get to things in a city council meeting, we’ve got so many diverse people in Manitou and a lot of people have their own cause they want to champion. Which is OK — we want to respect people’s passions — but you can get spread out pretty thin, pretty quickly. And when we have a small, endangered budget, it’s difficult to respond, even to good ideas.
Like we want to have a creek-walk trail, and we have part of it. It allows people to walk along Fountain Creek, and that’s nice, but it takes money, it takes time and not everybody understands it’s going to take a while. You might be looking at a five-year project or a 10-year project and they think it should be done by the summer. We have people who want to see improvements for bicyclists, they want to see improvements with the Incline, we’ve got this [Manitou Springs Arts, Culture, and Heritage] proposal that was a sales tax to help fund arts and culture.
So you’ve got different organizations competing for the same dollars, or for similar dollars, so how do you spread that out equally? Does every kid get the same allowance? Or whose needs are worse? What have we neglected the most and need to catch up with? So that’s not an easy problem to solve and there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of different people involved in that. On the other hand, almost nobody is going to argue over water and sewer; they just don’t want to pay for it and be inconvenienced by the street being dug up. So if I could, I would concentrate on things that are expensive, take a long time and give us a long-term benefit. Everybody wants everything but we’re going to have to tighten our belts a little bit to actually do things.
What do you hope the future holds for Manitou Springs?
I hope we recapture our sense of community. In the past, it … brought a lot of good people out to fix things. And if we didn’t get things fixed, at least we could commiserate as a group. So we get the community spirit back, we get our town back. And maybe it’s not as fancy as we’d like and it’s got problems, but we still have our town and we take ownership back. Secondly, I hope that we can operate as a team. We’re not going to agree on everything, Manitou is a town with 5,300 people with over 15,000 opinions.
So the hope is that we would be able to live and let live, to agree sometimes and agree to disagree at others, but to still be a team and be able to focus, live with each other, and solve problems. If we had those two things I would be pretty happy.
What else should people know about you?
Well this isn’t about me so much as my approach, but I think the job of mayor, particularly now at this point in Manitou’s life, is to be a coach. He needs to organize, but to hopefully be like a good little league coach and let everybody play, try to find a place for everybody to contribute and feel like they’re significant.
I think I do have a pretty strong sense of what has to be done, but there are different kinds of solutions and I can accept various solutions if the community can live with it, so coaching is significant to me. Both our city administrator and the city deputy administrator have done a lot of coaching, and I see them doing that with city crews. … They understand that people aren’t always going to get things right, but they help grow people. I admire that about those individuals and if I could do that myself, I think that’d be a worthwhile goal.