A steel town finds meaning of true grit

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Like the Edsel and boot camp, Pueblo has never suffered any great problems of popularity.

It's has been dubbed ''Pewtown,'' a holdover from the days of its smoke-spewing steel smelters. Even worse, it has come out on the wrong end of Colorado jokes.

Example: First prize in a local sweepstakes competition is a week in Pueblo; second prize is two weeks.

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Yet today the ''Pittsburgh of the West'' is fighting back. Tired of having sand kicked in their faces, city fathers are aggressively trying to lure new industries, boost tourism, and spruce up a decayed historical section downtown.

Pueblo's spirited campaign is an example of one town's attempt to pick back up after being knocked down, some people thought, for good. Its name might be Lowell, Mass., or Winston-Salem, N. C., or some other city struggling to make a comeback. But there's a difference here: Pueblo has been virtually standing still in one of the faster growing states in the country.

What's more, this steel-based city of 110,000 is in a state moving into the 21st century on energy and high technology growth. Electronics firms have crowded into the Front Range area that runs from Fort Collins in the north to Pueblo in the south like crows on a telephone wire. But most have never made it as far south as Pueblo.

Nearby Colorado Springs has been transformed from primarily a resort center to a growing space- and high-technology hub. Pueblo, meanwhile, has grown little.

Many of its young people bolted, and even city residents themselves began believing some of the jokes about the city, beating outsiders to the punch line.

Drivers on Interstate 25 were apt to roll up their windows once the smokestack-studded buildings of the CF&I Steel Corporation, the city's dominant employer for more than 100 years, came into view. No more, say local officials.

''A community that lives in fear of closing, will close,'' says Roderick Myers, local booster and businessman. ''For years we lived in that fear. Now that attitude is changing.''

First step has been trying to alter the way Puebloans see themselves. As part of a ''Discover Pueblo'' campaign, the city has come up with a slick slide show called, ''We Are the Heart,'' which portrays the city as a vibrant, ethnically and culturally rich place to live.

''We have an image problem,'' says Robert D. Ellis of Pueblo's First National Bank. ''People think of it as a smoky, dirty place with a lot of dumb, tough people. But the companies that are here say their productivity is better than in other parts of the country.''

Pueblo, like other cities with booster campaigns, has also come up with a Monopoly-type game (''All About Pueblo'' for $10.95) aimed at familiarizing people with local landmarks and history. Instead of Boardwalk, players can buy the Pueblo Motor Sports Park.

All this may seem odd for a city that was throbbing as early as the 1840s, when Kit Carson, Zebulon Pike, and other Wild West heroes were here. But some outsiders still don't pronounce the city's name right, calling it ''Pea-eblo'' instead of ''Pweblo.''

The city is also trying to build on its rich ethnic heritage. Spanish troops tromped through here three centuries ago, as did Ute Indians and fur trappers and explorers at other times. Pueblo's restaurants reflect the city's Hispanic, Italian, Slovenian, and Japanese flavoring.

But Pueblo still has a way to go. The jobless rate stands at more than 6 percent - below the national average, but above the state rate. Within the past year a local meat plant has padlocked its doors, a Department of Transportation facility has drastically slimmed down operations, and CF&I Steel (owned by the Crane Company) laid off 800 people.

''If there is an economically depressed city in Colorado that needs developing, Pueblo is it,'' says Henry Reyes, chairman of the regional planning commission and salesman for a local radio station. But Mr. Reyes, like many other local residents, sees the city coming back. One reason: It has plenty of water, a good climate, nearby mountains, clean air, and a diversity of cultural activities.

In addition, CF&I, whose product mix includes railroad rails, and pipe and tubing used in energy exploration, is expanding. Set smack in the middle of the resource-rich Rocky Mountain West, the company figures business will improve - and is putting $140 million into the expansion of its seamless pipe- and tube-manufacturing capcity.

Community leaders, however, will not be content to let the area hedge its future on one steel mill. The Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit group hatched last year to attract lighter industry, is talking with everyone from electronics firms to sporting-goods manufacturers about relocating here.

And Pueblo may have the last laugh yet. A recent rating of US cities by two Massachusetts researchers - based on factors such as climate, housing, crime, and the arts but excluding factors like charm - ranked Pueblo's livability second after Denver among cities on Colorado's Front Range. Touche.

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