Colorado Springs leaders look to the future through the lens of an aging population, education and affordable housing

Pikes Peak Colorado Springs
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Pikes Peak looms over Colorado Springs.

Local Colorado Springs business and economics experts focused on the changes and challenges created by population growth in the area during a recent El Pomar Foundation event. The expert panel discussed housing, jobs, racial diversity and more.

State demographer Elizabeth Garner presented recent trends, noting that the populations in Colorado Springs and El Paso County grew slightly faster than the state as a whole between 2010 and 2020, at 15 and 17.4 percent respectively. But it was not as high a percentage increase as the previous ten years.

Construction of new housing did not keep up with population growth during the last decade though, according to Garner, and that mismatch has stressed the market. 

“A lot of this constraint that we're feeling isn't because people were flocking here that we had no idea would come,” she said. “Fewer came than we thought. And we built fewer housing (units).”

The segment of people 65 and older is growing faster than people under 18. If that trend continues as it’s forecasted to do, Garner said it’ll affect the economy, labor force, and public finance. One area in Colorado that illustrates this, she said, is the convergence of an aging population and lack of affordable housing. She cited her mom as an example.

“My mom doesn't want to move and she is still in a 4,000-square-foot home living alone at 85,” she said. “But she loves her neighborhood. I call her a waste of a housing resource, I’m her daughter so I can say it, that house should have five people in it, not one.”

Garner said strategies are needed so people can downsize and stay in their communities as they age.

As part of the panel, Tony Rosendo, CEO and founder of Spur Philanthropy, responded to concerns about gentrification when building new housing. He said that up until 2015 there had been little development of the downtown area and that in order to "transform the city into the Colorado Springs of tomorrow," diversity and housing affordability needed attention. 

It’s important to stay out in front of these issues, he said, to make sure “we keep our local flavor to projects and are not just selling our precious lands to larger developers.”

“There's an intentionality, as opposed to a passive nature of letting people develop your land and your communities.”

And, overall wages have not kept pace with housing costs, according to Tatiana Bailey, who directs the UCCS Economic Forum. She said that makes it difficult to attract younger and more diverse workers. 

Meanwhile, Bailey said the local economy has diversified beyond military and call center jobs during the last several decades and now there’s a wide array of industries including technical, healthcare, and construction.

“Any economist will tell you that's a good thing,” Bailey said. “You don't want all your eggs in one basket.”

But she said, as the population ages, access to education for younger and more diverse groups of people is necessary to continue to support robust business growth. 

“We're not training people adequately for the jobs of today,” Bailey said. “The good news is that most of those jobs have livable wages. But we don't really provide the access. If we have a lot of racial ethnic minorities who are even more compromised, often in their ability to pay for that higher education, it's not going to work because that is our increasing proportion of our working-age people moving forward. So I think that we have to be intentional about looking at these trends.”

Several of the panelists said they've seen an increase in efforts among business and community leaders to work together to address these challenges presented by the changing demographics in the Colorado Springs area.

“The leadership in this town has grown so positively in the last 10 years,” said Aikta Marcoulier, Executive Director of Pikes Peak Small Business Development. “We're crossing roads, we're crossing those paths that have never been crossed before to ensure the small business community is being supported the best that it can be.”

She spoke about how the community has become more diverse and at the same time has had to deal with wildfires, floods and the pandemic. “I’m obviously a minority. I'm a woman and I'm a spouse of a veteran so (I) check all the boxes,” she said, “but we've come together to support those communities and those communities came together to support us as well through all of this.”

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