Near Westside’s Gateway District: Money is always an issue

       Nearly 20 years ago, aided by federal redevelopment money and an active group of business owners, the city of Colorado Springs spent more than $100,000 in public improvements to help beautify a segment of Colorado Avenue on the Near Westside. Called the Gateway Project, the city's art deco-theme upgrades included trees and shrubs with a drip irrigation system, new curbing, sidewalk pavers, recessed parking, historic streetlights and traffic-safety enhancements.
       The ensuing years have taken their toll on the project area, which is now legally designated as the Gateway (improvement) District. The district takes in one block on either side of the Avenue between I-25 and Seventh Street. Half of its 20 street lights were lost at one point due to car accidents, vandals or wear and tear; the drip irrigation stopped working and was shut off because repairs were too expensive; shrubs and trees died from neglect or being run over; the business owners became less active; and the commercial boom from the original project didn't last.
       Still, there are signs of resurgence. Dennis Sharon - the one remaining member of the original Near Westside Merchants Commercial Association - is pleased at recent developments, particularly the long-desired repositioning and reconfiguring of the remaining street lights. Other recent causes for satisfaction have been a more efficient weed and litter removal program, plus landscaping improvements that included the discovery of some long-buried cobblestones from the original project.
       From a general near-Westside standpoint, Sharon says he's encouraged by developer Mark Cunningham's “Five West” building facelifts along the north side of the 500 block of the Avenue, which, when combined with the coming I-25/Colorado Avenue COSMIX improvements, could make the area more attractive to investors.
       The district's problem, which its founders never foresaw, is taking care of its amenities. Its small size (only about 25 properties) and relatively tiny mill levy (1.009) generate an annual sum (about $3,000) that is barely enough to pay City Utilities bills and routine maintenance costs - which are overseen by Colorado Springs Parks. If it's a bad winter and a couple of light poles get knocked down, there goes the budget, Sharon explained.
       The district's streetlight solution was a typically innovative solution, driven by cost. Under the plan (which a contractor began implementing in March), some light poles are being relocated to provide more balanced illumination along the avenue (filling in where poles had been knocked down, for example). As for the light fixtures themselves, they had originally been designed with three globes, but few still had all three intact. So, to conserve inventory and still have good-looking lights, the district is having all the fixtures reconfigured to hold just one globe.
       For years, Sharon worked with a committee, but those days are gone. “We haven't had a board for years,” he said in a recent interview. “We used to meet every two to three months, but then we said, what are we meeting for?”
       Now, if he comes up with a major plan, he seeks a consensus from neighboring property owners or business people, then gets with Ric Geiman of Colorado Springs Parks to figure out how to accomplish it.
       Gateway has been hampered in recent years by a shortage of actual owners who are in the neighborhood. “In Old Colorado City (a larger district for which City Parks also has responsibility), many of the owners are proprietors,” Sharon said. “At this end of town, most are absenteee. It makes it harder when you go around and talk to people.”
       When he does locate owners, he often finds them ignorant of the situation. Not only are many newer owners unaware of the Gateway Project, they don't even know what city entity to call if they see a public maintenance problem. (Nor, he's found, do most city departments know what to reply if someone calls them and asks).
       Sharon, with his wife Jean, owns five properties on the south side of Colorado Avenue's 600 block, so he freely admits they have an incentive to make the area look good. Sometimes, he has simply taken on the necessary work himself. The year before last, he said, “I went out twice a month and pulled all the weeds from the bridge to Seventh Street. I filled six or seven buckets.”
       Sometimes he gets support results from his neighbors. Early last summer when there was no district trash/weed service - owners agreed to clean up in front of their properties to save money - Sharon remarked in a phone interview, “ I just got back from vacation, and the only one with weeds is me. I think we're making progress.”
       That savings effort actually helped the district afford the streetlight work. As Sharon commented at the time, “Papers blowing around are not as important as light poles being down.” (Later, as it turned out, Geiman was able to locate another service that provided a more affordable price for trash and weed control.)
       “He's been pretty good at getting a consensus from the other property owners,” Geiman said of Sharon. “You can't force them to be interested if there aren't any real pressing issues.”
       Some years are better than others. Geiman can get frustrated too, because the district is so small that typical city contractors either don't want to bother with such relatively minor jobs - such as the lighting upgrades - or they will offer a relatively exorbitant sum to do them.
       Geiman pleased Sharon last summer by eventually landing the economical weed/trash cleanup deal. And, Sharon located the electrical contractor - a small Westside company that was willing to do the work for $4,000 (compared with a city contractor whose $5,000 bid would only have covered changing out light bulbs and heads).
       The coming years are sure to provide more surprises and challenges as the small district seeks to keep its identity and commercial appeal in an evolving Near Westside that's known for a stable neighborhood north of the avenue, an industrial area south of it, perhaps an above-average number of derelicts and (in addition to Cunningham's upgrades) the welcome appearance of a more inviting Colorado Avenue underpass at I-25.
       “I think it's positive,” Sharon summed up the district situation. “The area is changing, and maybe it's slipped a little, but I think there's progress.”

Westside Pionee article