On the second floor of Pueblo’s City Hall, one of the biggest shifts in the levers of local government took place on Jan. 16, just about 100 days ago.
After a crowded general election and a protracted run-off with former City Council member Steve Nawrocki, Pueblo attorney Nicholas Gradisar was given the reins of a city in turmoil.
In a normal political handoff, the first 100 days of any administration are met with on-the-job learning as well as trying to set the direction for the first term. But Gradisar’s first 100 days have been filled with “sort of creating the system from scratch,” he said.
In a wide-ranging interview in the mayor’s office, Gradisar appeared confident and focused in his new office at city hall. The mayor spoke at length about what he believes the city can do to jumpstart economic activity and to avoid “self-inflicted” mistakes. He also presented a vivid line between what a mayor could accomplish versus what a city manager can do.
Could BitCoin mining bring economic energy to Pueblo?
If a new cryptocurrency “mining” operation is built in Pueblo, it could be an early economic win for Gradisar. Even if BitCoin mining is a nebulous concept, Gradisar said he wanted to show that a strong mayoral system is already pushing the city forward.
“Do you know what a BitCoin miner is?” Gradisar said jokingly. “I’ve got no idea what a Bitcoin miner is. It sort of fits in with the Pueblo’s tradition of mining and manufacturing, doesn’t it?”
According to swap crypto, it’s a $25-million to $40-million project that could create 25 jobs, which would pay an average salary of $50,000. Gradisar said he had testified before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, where he advocated for an expedited economic development rate — a discounted electrical rate for incoming businesses — for a not-yet-named data currency company.
On April 19, Colorado’s Public Utility Commission made public an application by Black Hills Energy to offer an economic development rate to AX2 Data Centers, a holding company for Canadian Crypto Resources.
“It’s not a whole bunch of jobs, but it’s a lot of economic activity when they build that building.” Gradisar said. “For them (AX2) and when they get going […] that will increase our tax base and increase our economic activity.”
The mayor took a more cautious approach on the other major energy issues: what to do with Black Hills Energy and the question of whether Pueblo should create its own municipal electric utility.
Gradisar said he is taking a methodical approach and that he wants the city government to study in more detail the feasibility of the project.
“The (Pueblo) Electric Utility Commission has suggested we proceed with phase two, and I’m a supporter of doing that,” Gradisar said.
If the financials don’t add up, but the community wants to discontinue its relationship with Black Hills Energy, it would be Gradisar’s first real test of leadership.
Economic problems and opportunities on the horizon
Facing Gradisar is a city struggling to keep pace with other front range cities. The city-county region has traditionally experienced the highest unemployment rates in the state. Over 44,000 Puebloans in the county are on Medicaid. It’s enough to nearly fill up Mile High Stadium. And in 2018, St. Mary-Corwin Hospital laid off 300 staff, turning Pueblo into a 1.5-hospital city.
When asked about the state of Pueblo’s economy, Gradisar said he was aware of a number of impending problems on the horizon, such as the Pueblo Chemical Depot Agent Destruction Plant.
“We’re going to lose 1,000 jobs at the chemical treatment plant. Now, what are we going to do when that plant’s done? How are we going to replace those jobs?”
How the city starts to tackle these issues is still uncertain in the early days of Gradisar’s administration.
Gradisar said he was pleased that he was able to get a telecommunications company operating in a city-owned building to pay a rent maintenance fee. “When I ask questions or suggest things happen, unless it’s way out of line, they tend to happen,” he said. The mayor pointed to his executive action as a sign this new position is facilitating change.
“They wanted us to give them the space, and they’d pay the CAM charges but not any rent, and I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. I mean, you’re going to have to start paying rent on this new space.’ ”
The mayor said he wants his administration to get tougher to improve the city’s bottom line. He said the city could be stricter collecting sales taxes and use taxes.
He was concerned about the loss of sales tax from internet sales and said there was a loss of city revenue because businesses were not “paying the use tax on it like they’re supposed to.”
As an upgraded Pueblo Convention Center comes into full operation, with amenities such as a Professional Bull Riders Sport Performance Center, the mayor said he is aware more needs to be done to get visitors off the interstate.
While it’s still early for a comprehensive tourism plan, some city council members are wanting to see a community center that has an aquatic center and community amenities to drive downtown traffic. The grand opening of a larger convention center comes 8 months after the city drove away a Minor League Baseball owner and hotel developer.
This is the kind of mistake Gradisar wants to avoid. “If we can get people focused and get them moving, then we can make some things happen here. That’s what I’m hoping for,” Gradisar said. “That baseball stadium was an opportunity that we lost that could have generated some economic activity in Pueblo.”
In May, the city will put out requests for proposal for a new hotel between the Convention Center and the old police building.
Gradisar said his office is taking an active approach on city development, planning to meet with investors and developers to spur growth through economic opportunity zones, where investors would receive a tax benefit if they invest in distressed areas, such as Pueblo.
Instilling confidence after the city’s self-inflicted wounds
Gradisar takes executive command of a city coming off a year of controversies and self-inflicted wounds created by Pueblo’s City Council.
The mayor said he was aware of the damage done to confidence in leadership from the debacle over changing animal service operators. What started out as a call for more oversight by the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region ended when PAWS for Life had their license terminated due to disturbing conditions of animals.
“We’re going to try to avoid the self-made crisis that we created,” Gradisar said. “With the animal shelter, that was just a problem of our own making, basically.”
He attributed the problem with PAWS to emotions ruling decision-making, something that City Council members Bob Schilling and Dennis Flores had echoed publicly.
“We’re going to, I think, show (Puebloans) that we can be competent, that when we make decisions, we’ll make decisions on the basis of facts and information, not on the basis of emotions and those kinds of things,” Gradisar said.
Finding a school realignment plan Puebloans support
If 2018 was the year of the mayoral election for Pueblo, 2019 will be the year of Pueblo City Schools. The district is facing declining enrollment and state budget formulas. Of the 30 schools in the district, 24 are 50 years or older and in critical condition.
Pueblo City Schools has narrowed down its realignment plans to closing multiple elementary and middle schools, and moving to either a two-high-school or four-high-school bond option. The district will spend the summer months gaining public input on the best path forward.
The mayor said he expressed his ideas to individual school board members to have “a plan that we could sell to the community.” Gradisar said. “My personal belief is that we cannot sell a plan to the community that does not involve four high schools.”
“People identify with those high schools, and it maybe is not the high schools that we looked at or we had when we were growing up here … But I think any plan moving forward — especially if you have any hope to pass a bond issue — includes four high schools. That’s my personal belief.” Gradisar said.
While Gradisar doesn’t have any jurisdiction over public schools, both Pueblo City Schools and the city government understand the reputation of the district has been an impediment to growth.
Areas in need: Bessemer and Eastside
On the areas of Pueblo needing the most attention – Bessemer and Eastside – Gradisar listed off a smattering of issues that need to be addressed but gave no firm plan on how his administration would tackle these issues.
On Eastside policing, the mayor said he wants District Attorney Jeff Chostner to be tougher on crime by “taking people out of circulation that are gang leaders and those kinds of things that are creating havoc in those neighborhoods.”
Gradisar wasn’t in favor of the city subsidizing a supermarket replacing the 8th Street Safeway. He suggested that without a supermarket in that area, the city should look at public transportation for residents not able to drive to other areas.
“I think the city can help with transportation. And we’ve got some issues here,” Gradisar said.
When asked about Bessemer, the mayor stressed the importance of the new EVRAZ plant, but he was quick to concede the mill will not return to being the prominent job-creator it once was, when Gradisar’s grandfather was a worker there and walked through the iconic Indiana gate with thousands of steelworkers.
“That doesn’t happen, that’s not going to happen as much anymore,” said Gradisar.
Gradisar said he was optimistic EVRAZ would commit to building and that the project would benefit the Bessemer area.
“If the steel mill (EVRAZ) decides to pull the trigger and build that new plant, that will create a lot of economic activity there.”