Why not another 25?
OCC Security & Maintenance District hits milestone

       In about 1979, Dave Hughes hit a snag in his efforts to turn formerly rundown Old Colorado City into a popular shopping area. It was great that Colorado Springs Community Development had found grant money to create off-street public parking behind the businesses; what irked Hughes and other revitalization supporters was the city's stance that parking meters were necessary to cover lot maintenance costs.
       “I said, 'Whoa,' ” recalled Hughes, who was certain that Old Town needed free parking to compete with the shopping malls. “I went to Jim Ringe (then the head of Community Development) and I said, 'If we make it that the maintenance is paid for, will you keep your hands off the parking meters?' ”
       Now, 25 years later, the Old Colorado City Security & Maintenance District, which was spawned in 1979 by that conversation, continues to look after the still-unmetered public parking - as well as a long list of other public amenities in the business district between 24th and 27th streets.
       “I think we're doing well,” said Judy Kasten, the current chair of the district committee. She described the volunteer seven- member body, which by ordinance can consist only of property owners in the district, as “a nice, congenial group.”
       Her opinion is shared by Ric Geiman, who serves as the district's liaison to City Parks. Of the seven improvement-type districts he works with, “the Old Colorado City district is the best organized and smoothest operating, with good involvement from the local property owners,” Geiman said. “Other districts have some involvement, but not to the level you see in Old Colorado City.”
       Although it is really just an advisory committee to City Council, without even the power to borrow money, the committee was able to hammer out a deal with Colorado Springs Utilities this year to share the expense of new, historic-style streetlights which (after some delays) Utilities is now scheduled to install in January. To pay its $97,000 share of the $127,000 cost, the district was able to draw on its reserve funds, some of which had been set aside in previous years in case the brick-paver sidewalks crumbled. If paver problems crop up in the near future, “we'll have to fix them as we go,” Kasten said.
       Normally, the district has an annual budget of about $80,000. The money comes from a mill levy on the property owners in the district, with about half the total paying the salary of an employee who performs maintenance chores including snow-clearing, shrub-clipping, grass-mowing, and random repairs to the pavers, the ornamental lights and other amenities. The “security” side of the district gets less emphasis nowadays because there is less public damage than in the past, according to Bill Grimes, who has been a committee members most of the years since its beginning.
       “There were more bars back then,” he explained, noting that two of the best known from 1979 (Rogers and Fred's) are gone now. When the district needs security nowadays, it typically hires off-duty police. Private security doesn't have the same sort of intimidating factor to hooligans, Grimes said.
       Other district expenses go for enhancements - such as the improved northwest corner of 26th and Colorado, a better driveway into Colorado Square and upgraded handicapped ramps throughout - as well as parking lot upgrades, equipment, vegetation and signs, as needed.
       This all sounds businesslike now, but in 1979 the idea of a security and maintenance district was unheard of. “We invented it,” Hughes said, noting that then-property owner Wally Totten helped him research the idea and convince city attorneys it could work under the same law that allows local improvement districts. But those discussions weren't as daunting as talking property owners into the concept that they needed to tax themselves.
       Hughes took that challenge on. He gathered assessed valuation data into his personal computer - a rarity in those days - to calculate the costs for individual property owners, then painted them a word picture of how the services they would be getting were affordable and necessary. To one owner, who had thought he was getting a good deal by hiring his own security for $50 a month, Hughes was able to show that it would cost him just $26.50 a month to be in the district - and he would be getting public amenities as well as security.
       “I remember old Dave going out there and talking to the property owners,” Ringe said. “That was really the key to it. He did a yeoman's job of putting it together.” He admitted he had his doubts about success. “You're rolling the dice anytime you get into a project like this,” he said.
       The law stated that support from 51 percent of the property owners was necessary to have a district. By the time Hughes was done, he had gotten 90 percent.
       Part of what drove him, as he is not shy about relating, was his goal to revitalize Old Colorado City, using its historic buildings as the main attraction. In the mid-'70s, the city department responsible for the area was the Urban Renewal Authority, which has a reputation for swinging a wrecking ball at older buildings that are deemed obsolete. Ringe disputes Hughes' claim that Old Colorado City was on the verge of just such a fate. However, he agreed that if the rundown status of many of the buildings had continued to worsen, “a wrecking ball probably would have been the only approach.”
       In any case, the involvement of Hughes and others - such as Totten, Grimes, Ed Schoch, Don Bates, Wes Colbrunn, Vera Chambon and Leon Young running interference on City Council - turned things around, Ringe is convinced. Hughes and Colbrunn set up a development company to guide property owners into Small Business Administra-tion (SBA) loans that were tailor-made for restoring and upgrading small, owner-occupied buildings.
       A group of Hughes-led merchants (then called the Westside Commercial Club) acted as an informal chamber of commerce. For instance, when Grimes, who had recently retired from an engineering career, asked for advice about a business to start up, Hughes told him that Old Town needed an ice cream store. Thus was born the Colorado City Creamery, which Grimes ran for some 20 years before selling it.
       “If the city had gone in and done the public improvements without private investment, it would have fallen on its face,” Ringe said. Old Colorado City's success, in turn, stimulated the restoration of the Westside as a whole. “It put a positive image on the Westside,” he said. “Now it's turned around, with a positive image, but back then it wasn't thought of in a positive way.”
       Numbers tell much of the story. In 1979, the assessed valuation in Old Colorado City totaled $1,009,830, according to Kasten's figures. In 2004, according to the city's budget office, the total is $5,938,430. For those bothered by the higher than usual vacant storefronts now, consider the late '70s, when half of the spaces were vacant, according to Ringe.
       The district's initial public improvements - including such fine points as boundaries, tree types, light and paver designs, three building relocations and the public restrooms that never quite got approved - resulted from numerous meetings between Ringe and Old Colorado City leaders. “An awful lot of work was done on that by everybody,” he said.
       What's in the future for the Security & Maintenance District? At the monthly meetings in 2005, the advisory committee will be studying the new streetlights to see if they'll be as bright as advertised (supposedly they'll have greater candlepower than those downtown), in which case the original globe-style lights, which are showing signs of wear, will probably come out. Also being seriously considered are short lights called bollards, which would brighten the corners of the intersections. Committee members have been looking at designs, but haven't found any yet that they like well enough to install. In addition, improved landscaping is being studied, Kasten said.
       The big concern for old-timers like Hughes and Grimes is that the modern generation might not understand the effort that went into making Old Town what it is. Contributing to their concern is the reality that fewer buildings are owner-occupied nowadays, meaning fewer owners are involved in the area's day-to-day affairs.
       “The early people had the vision, but as properties have changed hands, the vision is being lost,” Grimes said, with a worried look. But then he brightened. “There are always ebbs and flows,” he said. “I'm still optimistic.”
       Despite some of the same apprehensions, Kasten sees no reason why the Security & Maintenance District can't go on another 25 years. All it needs, she said, is to keep drawing the involvement of property owners “who want to keep this a special spot in our city.”

Westside Pioneer article