We review some of Southeast’s top stories of 2019
The Southeast Express released its prototype in December 2018, and launched as a fully fledged newspaper, with an active digital presence, in February.
In our first year, we have attended countless meetings, public events, celebrations and informational sessions; taken hundreds, if not thousands, of photos; created two digital and print photo essays; presented to college classes, communications experts and civic groups across the Front Range; partnered with Pikes Peak Community College publishing students on special election coverage; co-hosted the governor of Colorado for a Southeast town hall meeting; and published nearly 200 stories, all directly related and important to Southeast Colorado Springs.
We reviewed those articles, and from the archives of this first year selected what we considered the 10 most important, transformational stories of 2019. We take a look at those telling tales here.
— Regan Foster
1. De’Von Bailey shooting
On Aug. 3, Colorado Springs police officers shot and fatally wounded 19-year-old De’Von Bailey. Bailey and a cousin had been stopped for meeting the description of suspects in a reported armed robbery.
Body camera footage showed Bailey failed to comply with officers’ orders and tried to flee. Police found a pistol in his possession.
The shooting spurred protests against perceived police brutality and calls for an independent investigation from outside of the Colorado Springs area. Family members and their supporters felt an investigation led by the El Paso County Sheriff’s office could not be unbiased, since Undersheriff Pete Carey used to be the chief of the Springs police department, and other personnel have crossed over between the city and county departments.
The protests and calls drew national attention, and Gov. Jared Polis echoed the community’s request for an outside review. In response, Mayor John Suthers accused the governor of politicking, and expressed support for the traditional procedure, which places responsibility for the decision in the district attorney’s hands.
In October, District Attorney Dan May referred the Bailey case to a grand jury. Because these panels meet in secret, the public was not privy to the evidence presented; however, in mid-November, the grand jury returned a “no true bill” verdict, meaning it would not indict the city officers involved, Sgt. Alan Van’t Land and Officer Blake Evenson.
Following the verdict, Police Chief Vince Niski issued a letter to the community, expressing the department’s commitment to “integrity, humility and excellence.”
“There is no doubt that the community of Colorado Springs has been tested over the last few months,” Niski wrote. “What happened on August 3, 2019, is something neither officers nor citizens ever want to experience. The loss of a son, a friend, a community member, is a devastating event that impacts all of us.”
2. A fresh new year
When students vacated Centennial Elementary School in late May, they left a building that was dark, with a leaky roof, and walls painted a rainbow of pastel hues. When they returned on Aug. 8, they walked into a building aglow with natural light, offering them a snug climate and clean, white walls.
This fall, Sand Creek International School welcomed its first middle school class to a brand new, 30,000-square-foot building. In the campus’ existing elementary school building, youngsters returned to a fully renovated, nearly 63,000-square-foot facility with better climate control, hidden lighting and freshly painted walls.
These were two of the first five Harrison School District 2 buildings to get an overhaul over the summer, thanks to a $180 million bond issue that district voters approved, 10,172 to 6,994, in November, 2018.
When the work wraps in 2024, every school in the district will have enhanced safety and security, fully ADA-accessible facilities, more efficient lighting and mechanical systems, and the capacity to serve not just as community schools but as community hubs. The district’s far-reaching plan also involves improvements to its affiliated charter schools.
The bond was the first tax increase district voters had approved since 2001, and the expenditures are supervised by a citizen-comprised oversight committee.
“It’s this that will make our district grow,” Harrison Co-Superintendent John Rogerson told the Express over the summer. “It’s a fresh start. A fresh look at how we’re doing things.”
3. Transformation extended
In 2017, the Colorado Legislature and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper took a bold step by creating a multimillion-dollar pilot program designed to reduce crime from the ground up. In May, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill extending the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative — colloquially known as Transforming Safety — for three years.
The project taps $4 million in annual savings from the state parole fund to finance $1 million in low-interest, small-business loans and $3 million in grants for nonprofits, schools and local governments. The catch: Those dollars are reserved for people and organizations working at the grassroots level to slow the prison pipeline in Southeast Colorado Springs and North Aurora.
“Transforming Safety, I can say without much reservation or hesitation, is the most creative and intriguing and potentially impactful bill that I have sponsored in the Legislature,” State Sen. Pete Lee said in May.
In 2018, 21 nonprofits, government entities and schools serving Southeast were selected by a community committee to receive $1.5 million in grants. The dollars are being put to a wide range of projects — from entrepreneurial education for adults to conflict-resolution and resiliency training in children — that are all designed to stop crime before it starts.
The program was slated to sunset in 2020; however, Lee and his colleagues extended the date through 2023 so the grantees could have more time to quantify the direct impact they are having on the community.
4. Don’t walk this way
Southeast Colorado Springs could easily be considered a transportation desert.
The community is bisected by two major thoroughfares, Academy and Fountain boulevards, and bounded to the west by Interstate 25 and the east by Powers Boulevard. For those who rely on active transportation — foot or pedal-powered — Southeast can be difficult-to-impossible to navigate.
And while it’s not clear whether that plays a role in the statistic, what is clear is that an Express investigation conducted in October found that the neighborhood generally considered to be Southeast shouldered about a third of the city’s fatal pedestrian collisions in 2018.
Reporter Faith Miller reviewed Colorado Department of Transportation numbers and found that pedestrians died in 13 crashes in 2018. That’s almost three times the average number of pedestrian fatalities over the previous nine years; and of those, four occurred on South Academy Boulevard (at the intersections with Astrozon Boulevard and Hancock Expressway, respectively). That one-third average held true between Jan. 1, 2017, and Sept. 1, 2019, as well.
Law enforcement, city officials and transportation experts suspect that the area’s high rate of pedestrian fatalities is at least partly driven by higher numbers of residents walking or using public transportation, coupled with high-speed roads that make it challenging for people to safely cross the street. Meanwhile, the Great Streets Plan has been in place since 2011 with a vision of transforming South Academy “into a more accessible and vibrant focus of this community and its neighborhoods and businesses.”
The plan increased public transportation service to the area, and the design process for some improvements is slated to wrap in 2020, but the improvements themselves aren’t expected anytime soon.
“Traffic engineering’s job here is to try to make our intersections and our roadways as safe as we can,” Traffic Engineering Division Manager Todd Frisbie told Miller in October. “We’re looking at ways to reduce the chance (drivers) make a mistake that can result in a serious crash… so we don’t worry about whether we’re more challenged than another city because of our planning. This is what we have to work with.”
5. A panoramic plan
An event lawn for picnics, concerts or gatherings.
A skate park where young enthusiasts can ride, play or just, to use their word, “chill.”
A basketball court, a water feature, an accessible playground, a circuit fitness area.
Walking trails and a soccer field and plenty of shade-dappled seating.
All this and more is on tap for Panorama Park, thanks to a master plan approved in July by the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Board. The park, a sun-baked 13.5 acres, is currently a mostly blank slate; however, it will soon undergo a transformation into an accessible community hub.
A broad-based coalition of community partners was tasked with first dreaming big, then engaging the neighborhood in a planning process. After two open houses, three parties in the park, 10 meetings with area stakeholders, countless hours going door-to-door and collecting digital and written surveys, the partners gathered the thoughts, wishes and opinions from more 1,400 residents.
The most popular ideas segued into the multi-use, fully accessible master plan that allows for additional development — say a community garden or dog park — in the future.
“This park will really bring (in) a lot of people,” said Temesha Tucker, one of a dozen Southeast teens and tweens tapped to serve on the Panorama Park Youth Advisory Board. It was charged with soliciting community surveys and offering youthful perspectives.
“This park is my park,” she continued. “I feel like this will be something I can tell my kids, my grandkids, that I helped to make this park.”
6. Healthy growth
This section of town has long been devoid of adequate health care. And while it still doesn’t have a hospital, the need greatly diminished in 2019, thanks to a change of ownership in what had been the neighborhood’s only primary-care clinic and the opening of a new, integrated health clinic on Jet Wing Drive.
The growth began in February, when Peak Vista Community Health Centers opened a facility in the former Altrius Career College. The clinic operated on a limited scale for several months while renovations converted the massive, 30,000-square-foot space into a full-service facility that offers primary medical, dental and behavioral health care, among other attributes.
All told, the Health Center at Jet Wing can house 22 medical staff including doctors, physicians’ assistants, registered nurses, behavioral health therapists, dentists, dental hygienists and resource navigators who help clients negotiate the sometimes-confusing red tape of the industry. In addition, five receptionists offer bilingual assistance.
Also in February came the announcement that Value Care — long the only clinic in the 80910 and 80916 ZIP codes — was being sold to Matthews-Vu Medical Group. Drs. Richard Vu and Shabnum Matthews-Vu officially took over the clinic at 1050 S. Academy Blvd. March 1, and quickly expanded to offer not just primary medical services, but pediatric and behavioral health care options, among others.
In addition, in April Colorado Springs School District 11 and Peak Vista launched a partnership to build a community health clinic in Mitchell High School. The 4,850-square-foot facility is expected to house two full-time medical providers, two full-time behavioral health providers, a dental provider and on-site clinical and administrative support staff. Renovations are anticipated to wrap in December.
7. Next generation of leadership
After more than a year navigating rough administrative waters, Harrison School District 2 shored up its leadership structure through a series of candidate hunts, tough decisions, appointments and elections. Heading into 2020, the district now has a full board and the leadership of two highly qualified superintendents.
In June, the district board of education made official Superintendents Wendy Birhanzel and John Rogerson. The duo had been sharing the chief executive role on an interim basis since the the May 2018 resignation of then-Superintendent Andre Spencer.
From a field of 31, the district named three finalists – Birhanzel, Rogerson Elizabeth Domangue, an associate professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Choosing the next pair proved an arduous task that included private interviews, meetings with a selection committee, a public forum, and a second round of board interviews. When it closed the deal, the district became the first in the state to test the waters of the shared superintendency.
A few months later, in September, the board opted to scrap the November election and name its two newest members winners by acclimation. That meant Regina English and Corey Williams, the only two candidates to submit their candidate’s paperwork in its entirety, didn’t have to go through the election process and instead were sworn into office in November.
But that wasn’t a problem for district Elections Official Norma Arrimbe, who told the board ahead of its final vote: “We have two very qualified candidates.”
English and Williams fill seats previously appointed to and held by Kelley Pomis and Keith Varney.
8. Plans and a promiseThe start of the 2019-20 school year was marked with big visions for both D-2 and District 11.
At Harrison, August meant not just the start of the academic year, but the dawning of a new promise. The district partnered with Pikes Peak Community College to offer a full-ride, two-year scholarship to all seniors who earn at least a 2.5 GPA during their junior and senior years, who apply to the college and who apply for the funds. Dubbed the Dakota Promise Scholarship, the program that starts with this year’s senior class will cover all of the students’ costs, including tuition, books, fees, transportation and food. Students will also be paired with a success coach to help them navigate the college for the duration of the scholarship.
The project is backed by the Dakota Foundation and the Legacy Institute. The partnership arose from the initiative of PPCC President Lance Bolton, Birhanzel said. The district and college already partnered on a concurrent degree initiative, which allows D-2 students to pursue their associate degree while also completing their high school education, but Bolton saw a chance to cast a wider net for Southeast students.
At District 11, students, parents, administrators, faculty and a panel of guests that included the governor rang in the school year with a community rally and a new strategic plan. That mission includes a bold new mission statement: “We dare to empower the whole student to profoundly impact our world.”
Superintendent Michael Thomas called on each of the employees to embrace the district’s bold new vision, as well as its guiding strategies. They require the district to:
- Cultivate a collaborative culture that promotes intentional, mission-driven change;
- Align its actions to a shared understanding of and commitment to the strategic plan; and
- Guarantee an ecosystem of equitable practices to meet the unique needs of all.
Urban development and opportunities in Southeast got some attention in September, thanks to an Express-led look at the lack of urban renewal projects in the community. These projects — public-private partnerships designated by the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority and City Council — drive redevelopment and investment through a unique funding mechanism.
And while Colorado Springs can count among its projects the Gold Hill Mesa development on the Westside, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame downtown, and the Air Force Academy Visitors Center, there are notably none in Southeast. This despite the fact that urban renewal designations are supposed to combat the spread of blight while revitalizing an area with new development — at least according to state law.
Jariah Walker, executive director of the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, said that despite growing interest around urban renewal in the Southeast — and his board’s work to attract potential investors and developers — certain obstacles have thus far made awarding the designation impossible.
On the other hand, the neighborhood is home to three federally designated Opportunity Zones. That means, if the right redevelopment projects were to come along, a program created in 2017 could help investors essentially crowd-fund the districts’ revitalizations … as long as they are done with the feedback of the surrounding community.
Scott Turner, executive director of the White House Opportunity Zone and Revitalization Council, toured Colorado Springs’ opportunity zones in September, and told municipal, county and area business leaders the spirit of the projects are not just financial, but social.
“The spirit of this, the paradigm of this, has shifted,” he said. “It’s a new kind of investment, a different kind of investment, so now you have to think about the social impact that has been and should be and shall remain.”
10. Tribute to a queenThe late Fannie Mae Duncan was a vanguard of arts, culture and civil rights in Colorado Springs. The descendants of share croppers from the deep South is now memorialized in bronze near the entrance to the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts.
Duncan was an entrepreneur, advocate for inclusion and understated role model. She owned a series of businesses anchored by the legendary music venue the Cotton Club; converted her personal home into a hotel for African-American dignitaries and musicians who were denied lodging at most white-only establishments; engaged in first a legendary showdown and then a longtime alliance with Police Chief Irving “Dad” Bruce; and was credited with helping Colorado Springs maintain a calm course of racial integration and inclusion during the turbulent tides of the 1950s, ’60s and beyond.
“What she accomplished was just her whole philosophy,” Deborah Radman, a director of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame (CWHF) and chair of its Brand Awareness Committee, told the Express for its inaugural edition. Duncan was posthumously inducted to the hall in 2012.
“It was a really tough time in the era of Civil Rights. She really managed, with all of her grace and her flamboyance and her good nature and her sense of humor, to bring people together despite a lot of odds,” Radman continued. “Being an activist and entrepreneur as a black woman at the time was virtually impossible, and she never let that cow her at all.”
A memorial committee set about on a six-figure quest to fund and create a life-sized statue honoring the music maven. The bronze likeness, which captures Duncan’s elegance and style from the top of her beflowered hat to the tips of her heels, was unveiled in October. At its base is engraved her motto: “Everybody welcome.”