'Quality of life' speaks quantities for 'the Springs'

If current movie-star creature E. T. had landed in Colorado Springs, his first words learned from the people there would not have been ''phone home.''

Instead, he would have picked up a most common expression - ''quality of life'' - and likely would have been persuaded to go into real estate, living happily ever after on this slope of the Rocky Mountains.

No kidding. That's what happens to a lot of people here.

This midsize city (metro population around 325,000) - almost more suburban than urban - has parlayed its scenic charms into the thriving economy that makes it one of America's up-and-coming cities.

Virtually everyone this reporter interviewed spoke glowingly of the quality of life in the Springs.What's meant is the view of Pikes Peak, the sky; the clear, usually dry air; and the abundant sunshine. But that heading also includes a generally attractive cityscape with no real slums, despite a certain amount of sprawl; relative freedom from crime; relatively inexpensive housing; easy car travel; and cultural attractions, such as at the new Pikes Peak Center for the arts; and of course business opportunities.

It's a youthful city - median age of the population was 25 in 1980, compared with nearly 30 nationwide. ''It's a wonderful place to raise a family,'' visitors are told. Business people are enthusiastic about the talented people they are able to hire because so many find the city so attractive. The population is conservative - but not ''redneck,'' one hears.

Mayor Robert Isaac and his eight city council colleagues serve virtually full time - for no salary. ''I serve as morale builder for all the other mayors when they get together at conferences to complain about how underpaid they are,'' he says. Yet city government, one hears, remains corruption-free.

And even the utilities department gets raves from the citizenry. A few dry years during the 1950s spurred authorities to pursue aggressively new water supplies with cross-mountain diversions, among other things. The city now has excess water for an extra 20,000 to 30,000 households.

Colorado Springs was founded by Army Gen. William Palmer in the early 1870s as a resort for the moneyed few. There weren't actually any springs in town, but there were some in the neighboring town of Manitou Springs, which was close enough to ''borrow from,'' so to speak.

The town enjoyed a brief stint as the financial center for the Cripple Creek gold rush of the 1890s, but otherwise hummed along without great incident as a recreational and health resort. Then, some 40 years ago, community leaders concerned about their town's dependence on tourism waged a successful campaign to have Camp Carson, a major Army training center, located here.

Other military installations followed: the United States Air Force Academy; the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), also known as ''the mountain''; and Peterson Air Force Base, which supports NORAD.

Colorado Springs galloped through the 1960s and into the '70s as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, its population zooming from 74,523 in 1950 to 235,972 in 1970.

By the late '60s a community that had been wary of excessive dependence on one economic leg - tourism - was becoming wary of excessive dependence on military spending. Some of these defense dollars were immune to federal cuts, but some were not.

Moreover, Colorado Springs was overbuilt; supply of new construction was outstripping demand. ''There were people building houses for people building houses for people building houses,'' is how one observer puts it.

And so the local chamber of commerce launched a program to attract clean industry, particularly electronics. Frank O'Donnell, director of the chamber's economic development department, calls the program ''reasonably successful.'' The military sector is down from 65 to 70 percent of the economy to some 40-45 percent. Cesar Puerta, an economist with the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, says the manufacturing sector has about doubled over the past 12 years and now accounts for over 15 percent of all jobs. Among big names with plants here are Hewlett-Packard, Digital, Ford Aerospace, Honeywell, Litton Industries, and Texas Instruments.

But the journey to continued prosperity via the high road of diversification was not without incident. Somewhere along the line, the bus ran out of gas.

It happened pretty much without warning in June 1973. The citizens woke up one morning to discover that the city council had overwhelmingly voted a moratorium on new natural-gas taps for single-family dwellings.

One gets different readings on the extent to which this was an expression of ''no growth'' sentiment or simply a sensible response to gas supply conditions. Locally based Colorado Interstate Gas, supplier of the city-owned utilities, had just been bought by Texas interests. The city council, which also sits as the Board of Utilities, asked for a report on gas supplies. Word came back that the city had no long-term gas contracts. The coldest days of a cold winter could tax supplies to the point that pressure in the lines would fall, perhaps touching off an explosion.

The moratorium was followed by the Arab oil embargo and national recession. The result was virtual collapse of the economy. Housing starts had peaked at 9, 000 in 1972. In 1974, first full year under the moratorium, only 800 building permits were issued.

People then decided that the problems of growth were preferable to the problems of economic collapse. In 1975 a ''moderate'' city council was elected.

David Sunderland, president of Gates Land Corporation, described it this way: ''The mid-'70s experienced a strong coalition of the center - not 'growth at any price' or 'slow growth.' The center became wider.''

The moratorium lasted only a few months, and US deregulation of natural gas eliminated questions of supply. The city now has ample long-term contracts and further insurance in the form of a propane gas plant.

While many other cities continue to pit environmentalists against development-as-destiny advocates, Colorado Springs seems to be finding a consensus that you can't protect the environment if you haven't the economic wherewithal to do it. And without an attractive environment you can't draw the glamorous high-tech firms. ''The issue is not whether to control growth, but how to plan for it,'' says Mayor Isaac.

Steve Schuck, a builder whose green ''S'' logo is all over town, has a favorite analogy. ''Some people think the economy is like driving a car; if you get disoriented, you pull off the road and gather your thoughts. In fact, it's like a plane; you can't just stop, or you'll crash.''

Today, local unemployment, though higher than a year ago, has been staying more than four percentage points below the national average. Frank O'Donnell projects general employment growth for Colorado Springs at 1.5 to 2.5 percent annually for the near term and 3.5 to 4 percent for the long term. He calls this ''a respectable rate at this time.'' Population is expected to be up to 383,500 by 1985 and 543,500 by 2000.

The upbeat projections are being endorsed by the Colorado Springs developers, who of all people should be twice shy, having been once burned so badly. Builder John Olive, for one, has his phone number all over town on some very big signs because he's hoping people will call him to ask about leasing some of the office and retail space he's put up on speculation. But he exudes confidence that the demand will soon catch up with supply, and he's charging ahead with his 107-acre Tech Center office park project.

City Councilwoman Mary Kyer is also enthusiastic about her community but not quite on the same wavelength as the chamber of commerce and the building industry. She sounds a note of caution: The city is prospering, but there's not ''an abundance of jobs.'' If there's no ''model ghetto,'' there are pockets of poverty.

The only elected Democrat in El Paso County, she worries that the city may focus on capital improvements at the expense of meeting its needs for human services. ''We can have all the beautiful streets in the world, but if we don't take care of the human needs, we're a city without a soul.'

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