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Our Detroit – Southeast Colorado

The hard situation in Southern Colorado is the single most underreported story in Colorado and the cause of the greatest threat to this area’s way of life.

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Illustration from New York Times

Illustration from New York Times

Thirty years since the CF&I laid off its work force. A rural population in decline. One-hundred miles from one of the largest, job opportune regions in the country.

Southeast Colorado is one of the hardest places to live in Colorado. Pueblo, Huerfano, Las Animas, Crowley, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Costilla Counties exist in another Colorado—one that doesn’t have the same opportunities or growth as the rest of state according to a New York Times report.

The situation in Southern Colorado is the single most underreported story in Colorado and the cause of the greatest threat to this area’s way of life.

In Colorado, the New York Times listed Southern Colorado as the hardest place to live in Colorado considering six factors: income, college education, obesity, disability, unemployment, and life expectancy.

What all this shows is that Southeast Colorado is trailing Northern Colorado and Western Colorado. It is even trailing most of the San Luis Valley.

What the Times didn’t provide is context so beyond the nice colors here’s what the numbers tell us.

Bent County is the hardest place to live in Colorado and one of the hardest in the nation. Only 478 counties have it worse than Bent and that translates to 85% of the country have it easier.

In Pueblo County, 60% of the country has it better. Prowers and Las Animas have it the same as Pueblo. Huerfano has it little worse with 67% of the county living better. Costilla the worst ranked county in the San Luis Valley is at the 74th percentile of hardest places to live.

Now here’s the shock. Nearly 80 percent of the United States has it easier than Crowley and Otero Counties. And the loser in Colorado…Bent County is the hardest place to live in Colorado and one of the hardest in the nation. Only 478 counties have it worse than Bent and that translates to 85% of the country have it easier.

There are two ways to take this; one is to assume Southeast Colorado is a bad place to live. That’s not what this analysis is saying. The point here is that it’s harder to make a living, find opportunities, and create a sustainable way of life.

The Colorado Fallow Belt

Since the 1970s, nearly every one of the counties listed above has seen stagnant growth or a decline in population. Otero County has seen the worst drop in population with nearly a 6,000 decline since the 1970s. Baca County, though not listed as a hard place to live, has seen steady decline as well.  From the mid 90s to around 2007, Crowley, Huerfano, Las Animas, and Otero Counties saw small gains either to the 1970s level or more, as was the case in Crowley. Since 2007, all these counties have seen a sudden decline.
Pueblo, the regional hub, is in a different situation. The city itself has remained stagnant since the 1970s and only the growth in Pueblo West has helped its numbers.

Putting this into perspective is not about population or a nicely colored map; it’s what the numbers indicate. Low college education rates translate to lower paying jobs. Low paying jobs affect property and retail taxes, entrepreneurship, and attractiveness to the region.  And, these affect the workforce making a locale unattractive for new opportunities to settle in.

Now, factor in forces out of our control such as the constant drought conditions mixed in with the 2007 economic depression adding to why Southeast Colorado has it hard. We could be witnessing the long term decline of the southern quarter of the Colorado.

Here’s the reality, Pueblo, in the New York Times study is ranked 1,882 out of 3,135 counties in the country. Youngstown in Mahonhing County, Ohio–the other industrial city Pueblo is compared with–is ranked 1880.

Yes, just like Detroit.

There are critics that will say, “But at least we aren’t like one of the steel towns out east.” No? We are exactly the same if you take a look at the region as a whole.

For you non-Pueblo readers, the saying “Well, at least we aren’t Detroit “ is flung around this town like a badge of honor. “It’s better than it was,” people say. Well, there were tires in the 1940s where Pueblo Riverwalk is today so that’s positive.

No business coming in. No out-of-state student. No CEO. No tourist or visitor cares about two decades before. No job seeker. No parent with young children. None of these people care about a place in its golden years. Why doesn’t the allure of 20,000 workers walking from Bessemer to clock in at CF&I attract Apple to Colorado? Because that’s the way things were. Everybody cares about the way things are–for daily life.

Only the critics, and maybe politicians, care about the way things were to justify the way things are. Pueblo as a community gets too lost in comparing what was to admit that Pueblo along with its neighbors are experiencing a different Colorado, closer in problems to Detroit than Denver.

Here’s the reality, Pueblo, in the New York Times study is ranked 1,882 out of 3,135 counties in the country. Youngstown in Mahonhing County, Ohio–the other industrial city Pueblo is compared with–is ranked 1880.

Gary, Indiana, of Lake County has life easier than five of the rural Colorado counties I mentioned.

Yes, we do have our Detroit. Actually, it’s worse than Detroit. Out of 3125 counties in America, Bent County is the 2657th hardest to live in county in America while Wayne, Michigan [Detroit] is better at 2516th. The reason why we don’t consider it Detroit is because it’s rural.

You are witnessing two Colorados forming in front of your eyes.

Two Colorados

What does all this mean? You are witnessing two Colorados forming in front of your eyes. The mountain towns, the Western Slope, and Northern Front Range communities are forming the Colorado represented in the tourism ads; the one Senator Udall hikes for campaign ads, and one the Governor boasts about for the new Colorado economy.

Denver and the metro-region that surrounds it, in multiple reports, are shown as one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, a region with a high number of people aged 24-35, and an area that offers the highest numbers of job opportunities in the state of Colorado.

That Colorado is not this Colorado. That Colorado is debating fracking and jobs. This Colorado is debating how to attract any job. That Colorado is celebrating a new western revival. This Colorado is wondering when we will leave the recession.

When our politicians talk about this new Colorado, can-do, western growth, they are not speaking about Southern Colorado.

Consequences of thinking small

Southern Colorado at risk of being irrelevant–politically and economically, not only in the struggles to attract major companies, but also in the reluctance to invest in local ones. We are also seeing as a side effect losing our political clout because the State Capitol is reluctant to send money south.

This situation is at fault but of the consequence of local band-aid solutions to a regional cancer.

Pueblo risks being a regional sinkhole instead of driving economic opportunities. The sinkhole effect isn’t anything new but when it’s as bad as this every failure is exacerbated.

Not so long ago, Pueblo was bigger than Fort Collins, then the boom hit the Boulder/Fort Collins areas where this corridor fed off the talent, people and opportunities and created the growth you see now. It spurned on real growth, not the one-company-to-Pueblo-a-year-growth.

We are already seeing the great migration away from the sinkhole. Our tech contributor messaged me a few weeks back when the Old Navy Store announced its closing. His sentiment was, “Who can we attract when we can’t keep an Old Navy?”

More than low-cost clothes, this migration is seen everywhere. The media has left. KOAA and KCCY went to Colorado Springs. The legendary Pueblo radio stations were sold off then transitioned to Springs’ stations. As for young people, well, there’s not a vibrant, young person scene south of El Paso County. Why did I focus on the media and young people. The TV stations and radio stations find it more prosperous to focus on El Paso County not south of it. And the young, 18 to 35 drive economic growth.

The critics will say, “We don’t need box stores, or care about TV and young people; we don’t want to become like Denver.” Okay, but put yourself in the position of a potential company being recruited by any one of the economic development agencies in Southern Colorado. If the town which they are moving from has a vibrant downtown, box stores, franchises, a food scene, a nightlife—do you understand what they have to give up to move into this region?

If Pueblo cannot serve as the regional hub, companies will not entertain moving and investors will not entertain investing in outlying counties. Both Pueblo County and Southeast Colorado are linked. The good in La Junta, helps Pueblo. The bad in Pueblo hurts Trinidad.

To solve this problem it require the rise of the greatest area leadership Southern Colorado has seen in the last 50 years.

The Fix

You may have it okay and comfortable, and all of what I said is nothing more than loud-mouth complaining. What about the life of the farmer outside of Lamar? What about the prospects of a seven-year-old kid at Parkview Elementary on the eastside of Pueblo? What about the balance sheet for a small business owner in Fowler?

We don’t live in the worst part, or the ugliest, or the least artistic area of Colorado. We just live in one with the fewest options for small business owners, college graduates, entrepreneurs, families and job seekers. And one where people care but do not know what to do.

A few months back, Kara Mason wrote an excellent piece showing off in-fighting over the half-cent sales tax. If you picked up on it, we really do believe that everyone on City Council, PEDCO, and the Chambers do care and do love Pueblo. We also are confident saying this about all the commissioners, mayors, and councils of Southeastern towns.

The idea that people don’t care is nothing more than talk. No one knows what to do but many are trying, some are misguided, some are not, but caring starts by accepting—Southern Colorado is not moving as fast as the rest of the state.

This cannot be solved with $40 million of Pueblo’s Economic Development fund. The longer you believe this can be solved with one company in one county, the longer the problem remains. It will take more than a Southwest Chief rail line, proper funding and a football team to Colorado State University-Pueblo. Not even more rain and the Arkansas Valley Conduit will be the quick fix to the conditions in the valley. It will take all this and more.

This current problem will require the rise of the greatest area leadership Southern Colorado has seen in the last 50 years. And it will require these leaders to create a new economic force in partnership with the state and the entirety of Southeast Colorado to form a coalition that can find capital, companies, and solutions – the likes of which we have not seen and the force of which are reminiscent of the New Deal.

We have no other option and time is up. It starts with not thinking we are better off than Detroit. The Arkansas Valley isn’t. Pueblo is another Youngstown. And does the rest of the state even know we are here, struggling?

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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Pueblo, A City for the Creative

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Much of this doesn’t exist…

It’s Sunday brunch time and the new local coffee place is filled  with a few college students trying to finish the last of their term papers before they leave for break as well as a few professionals on their laptops pretending to work while watching YouTube.

The menu is sparse for a coffee shop and the prices are well, Oregonian in nature, but the place is full on a Sunday.

The low winter sun shines on a nice young couple just off a morning hike in Beulah who stretch with purpose as they get out of their Subaru. They drove down from Monument for the day to hike and then to amiably walk around the downtown.

On the agenda a bookstore, the clothing shop, the silkscreen poster shop, the local pottery and then off to a brew pub for a quick pint before heading back up. Maybe they’ll stop off at the Italian deli in Bessemer that they heard about on public radio station just last week.

It’s open now on Sundays because there are people everywhere after the story on the new food culture of Pueblo was shared like wildfire on social media.

“Finally! The recognition Pueblo deserves is getting more play in Denver and Colorado Springs,” the new mayor of Pueblo says to herself.

“All that hard work of spending close to $1.5 million in tourism dollars is working.”

She was panned heavily by the Pueblo Chieftain for advocating for a big increase in tourism dollars but over the last year with the city working closely with the creative arts and tech industry, focusing less on heavy industry and more on creative ones, properties once thought too expensive to own now boom with new businesses.

The new plan worked as a new paper goods place has just opened in Bessemer. A few years ago, these storefronts were embarrassingly vacant considering they near a highly travelled portion off Interstate 25. Thousands of cars a day ignored the exits and kept going for a few more hours until reaching Santa Fe.

Now the inexpensive buildings are seeing new tenants — artists, jewelry makers, coders — young professionals needing inexpensive rents to fuel their new start-ups.

Just over the bridge into the Eiler’s Neighborhood is a new block-house design building. It’s a start-up investment firm taking a chance on the new renewable energy firms relocating to affordable Southeast Colorado after a few counties banded together to lure satellite offices of the largest renewable energy businesses in the world to the region.

It’s a unique marriage among renewables, the cannabis industry,  cryptocurrency businesses and surprisingly Evraz, who all need the same thing — cheap, affordable energy. Just years ago Pueblo had the highest energy rates in Colorado; now with the focus on renewables, Pueblo offers the cheapest energy rates in the state.

At least on Main Street none of this matters today. It’s a warmer day, and the “Pueblo-made” sign on the jewelry store has drawn in the customers. It was another great weekend of business for the boutique. It doesn’t hurt that former Pueblo Community College trained chef, who had a stint at the Broadmoor, has returned home to open his dream kitchen offering new takes on Pueblo favorites.

The menu is filled with adjectives blending the names of local farms around the region with Southwest favorites. The restaurant has spurred on a rejuvenation around the downtown core because of last year’s profile in the New York Times about how Pueblo is reinventing its culture not by trying to be a franchise city, but by locals — creatives seeing potential in rust belt cities.

The long-lines, constant customers and curious parking situation have been a mixed blessing. A few, who moved back into Pueblo from Pueblo West to be closer to the action are buying up the downtown lofts and signing the leases on the new apartment buildings going up.

With the new development Pueblo has become a three-crane city but now some are worried the surge in energy and growth will strip Pueblo of its feel.

Rumbles of gentrification surround the growth. But on the east side, the spread of success slowed at the Fountain Creek.

The old Safeway still sits empty. For a time, there was talk of housing a new creative collective for the workspace. In would have been copied from the fantastical Meow Wolf art collective in Santa Fe since that profitable art space was fashioned out of a bowling alley. Then there was the East Coast grocery chain that was bandied about but it never came to fruition.

But with the creatives moving in generating the demand for more college educated jobs, Colorado State University – Pueblo finally consumed more of the northside and the eastside. Student housing, student pubs and cafes generate energy that are seeping over Highway 50 into 8th street.

Some look back and wonder what happened, what was the change. The answer was Pueblo realized the enormous creative talents that existed in Pueblo and rewarded them.

Pueblo said to itself, no company is going to come in and save us but the people that build things, make things, bake and cook things, paint and mold things — the people that create an experience, a dream, a song, a feeling of nostalgia — we want to be those people and we want others to come here to see what we create. And we want to be a place that when one leaves here, they leave with a piece of something that was made in Pueblo and inspired by the Steel City.

Much of this should.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
Continue Reading

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Enough is Enough: Sexual Harassment at the Colorado State Capitol

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If there is a moment to drop politics and have a human moment then I’m going to spend the rest of the editorial struggling with what we printed last month.

Thirty some odd days ago, our nation and our state was different. In that time Colorado saw for the first time that even those sitting in the high seats of Colorado State Government can be targets for harassment and assault.

The State learned that sitting State Representatives were harassed, groped or pursued in ways that were unacceptable.

It started with Rep. Daneya Esgar who told us that she was groped by a man she “regularly worked with.” Then Rep. Faith Winter told a Denver Radio station she was harassed by Rep. Steve Lebsock.

Then other aides, interns and lobbyists came forward to oust Lebsock, and other legislators, both Democrat and Republican, of alleged inappropriate behavior and harassment.

Before Thanksgiving, Rep. Lontine said she was also groped by a legislator but didn’t disclose a name.

This all may be the beginning of more accusations coming to light but the current tally of those with allegations leveled against them beyond Lebsock are Rep. Paul Rosenthal, Senators Jack Tate and Randy Baumgardner, one unknown legislator and the individual who touched Esgar.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Senate Majority Leader Kevin Grantham have pledged, twice now, to introduce reforms to allow victims and the alleged perpetrators of harassment to have due process but also to enact stricter punishments.

Incredulously, the old process allowed the leadership in both houses to be investigator, jury and judge. And there’s no real way for a legislator accused of this indiscretion to be removed.

This whole thing, beyond the harassment, is frustrating and disgusting to watch as it plays out.

The frustrating part is seeing elected officials stay quiet on harassment. I fully understand that as a female legislator, staffer or intern, if your accusation isn’t a guaranteed political career ending kill shot, the blowback can burn you more than the harasser. If Colorado didn’t know that before this scandal, it should now.

We are seeing that play out in the accusations made and the responses at the State Capitol.

Lebsock defended his actions, saying it wasn’t true and that he wasn’t going to resign. This was after calls from the Governor and other Democratic legislators. On the other side of the aisle, two Republican State Senators accused of wrongful behavior, Baumgardner and Tate, have largely stayed silent on their accusations and the State Senate GOP has pressed that it’s important for due process to take place.

For all the campaign promises and self-promotional talk of “district first” this whole process just reeks of district last.

Let’s just concede staffers, interns and lobbyists don’t have the luxury or power to come out more forcefully. There’s a power dynamic here and it disadvantages anyone not elected.

And let’s just concede that Esgar, Lontine and Winter are also right that merely coming forward and blasting out names may make things worse for them because of the current culture facing women and victims.

So that leaves the rest of the legislators on the hook for standing up for the victims, against the harassers and saying we will not tolerate in Colorado for constituents.

I can’t even believe I have to try to sell the fact that constituencies should know if their elected State Representative or Senator is a harasser.

We all can agree we don’t want to unfairly level accusations against innocent men or women without due process. But let’s be real about what was happening. Harassment at the state capital wasn’t a secret. Democratic leaders knew of the Winter-Lebsock incident. Staffers and lobbyists knew certain members of the legislature, Democrat and Republican, were not safe to be around. People knew and it wasn’t until the media asked questions did they move on this.

And I say all this because I go back to what started all this — Daneya Esgar’s admission that a colleague inappropriately placed his hand on the inside of her thigh at a public event. Why her incident is so egregious isn’t just because of the act, but rather because of who she is, where she was and the moment, while brief, illustrated harassment so clearly.

Let’s call this for what it was. This was about power through sexual aggression. It should bother you, it should bother the legislative leadership (it didn’t as they appeared lukewarm to her statement), it should enrage the constituents of House District 46 knowing someone violated their elected representative (full disclosure Esgar is my Representative) and it should rally fellow legislators to say, “No more.”

Sadly, just like in D.C., we are watching political expediency rule over moral authority. Remember there are six legislators, some named and some not, accused of harassment. No one has resigned with just over a month to go before the new session.

What’s needed now is for victims saying no more silence, and their colleagues, who profess to be proponents of the victims, to not tolerate one more incident of harassment towards Colorado Legislators and those who work at the capital. What’s more important now is not to enable perpetrators even if it costs your party the seats.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
Continue Reading

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When the chief of police says his department cannot respond

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The quote was buried in a local TV news story, and you would have missed if you didn’t read carefully. Pueblo’s Police Chief Luis Velez admitted the department had reached its breaking point in responding to calls after two officers resigned.

Chief Velez said to KRDO on March 2, “We’re at a point where we cannot keep our calls for service and stay on top of them.”

While the Pueblo police staffing issue isn’t new, the chief’s comment that the department has reached its breaking point is frighteningly blunt.

This is the third time and the third law enforcement official to call Pueblo’s police at a breaking point. District Attorney Jeff Chostner, on February 29, told the Pueblo Chieftain, “We’ve reached a breaking point in this community.”

Deputy Police Chief Troy Davenport said on March 15, he’s never seen a point like this in his 15-year career.

Velez’s quote is more than just budget shortfalls numbers and the staffing issues that follow. The highest-ranking police officer in Pueblo saying the department cannot respond to the number of calls it receives — is a public security crisis.

PULP reached out to the Pueblo Police Department for clarification on Velez’s statement but did not receive a response.

What changed for Pueblo, was the February murder of Devin Clark at the Iron Horse Bar on Main Street.

Thirteen murders, four of them unsolved, in 2015 pushed the dialogue on gangs and helped advance the tax debate in early 2016. But the death of Clark, a popular Puebloan from a family with deep connections to the community, has changed even the tone of law enforcement.

I have never seen a point in recent memory where officials have offered such a brutal assessment of their departments.

Pueblo is entering a new state of public safety. Officials have given the standard response they are doing their best to manage the lack or resources and public security but their words remain about the state of Pueblo’s police.

Currently, the department is staffed at roughly between 80–85% depending on media outlet reports.

On Monday, March 21, Pueblo will enter another tax debate whether to tax residents to pay for more cops on the street. Pueblo’s City Council has been reluctant to adopt Chostner’s plan. Using a half-cent tax to pay for 30 to 50 more officers and raising roughly $7.5 million wouldn’t see an impact until late 2017 or well into 2018.

While council members and the district attorney debate a tax, what is undebatable are the three top law enforcement officials going public that the lack of resources at 200 South Main Street is breaking the department and threatening public security.

It should be the breaking point for the community because this is now a full blown crisis.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
Continue Reading

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