I'm developing a hypothesis that the health and vibrancy of a downtown is directly related to the number of coffee houses per capita. Maybe I'm off base, but in places I've been traveling through -- that seems to be the case.
[from left to right; Jim, Tim, and Jerry]
Pueblo has several of its own home grown coffee houses.
But, as I was to learn, there's much more to downtown Pueblo than its coffee culture.
Interestingly, as you head towards the Arkansas River the buildings change from Victorian-era to a 1920s era brick style -- because flooding of the River required rebuilding on several blocks.
Jerry Pacheco is the newly named planning director for Pueblo, replacing Jim Munch who recently retired as planning director after a long tenure with the city.
Jerry pointed to a corner building (below left), and described the difficulty the city has when buildings sit vacant. Jerry feels there's a market for the building -- and he pointed to another building right across the street being converted to residential housing (below right).
But there's little that can be done if the property owner wants to wait until the property's market value increases more (due to the continuing upswing in the downtown real estate market).
Continuing our walk, we crossed Union Street to the remarkable Union Depot. By coincidence, Jim Koncilja, one of the owners and redevelopers of the Depot, was just leaving the building. After being introduced, Jim told me that in the past the building had been threatened with demolition, and had also been a fire hazard.
What got him so intrerested in the Depot building? As Jim explained, his grandparents arrived in Pueblo through this depot, noting that in the late 19th century about half of Pueblo's newcomers came into town through this station.
The station -- "Pueblos' Union Depot," as Jim emphasized -- hosts receptions and other community events. Jerry interjected that his wedding reception was held in the Depot.
Right across the street is a classy looking brick building. Jim (who is an attorney) has his offices there, as does Colorado U.S. Sentor Ken Salazar. "It used to be a brothel," Jim observed, adding that "it's a part of our history, and nothing to be ashamed of." In fact, Jim has put together a small display in the Depot about this aspect of Pueblo's early history.
But as important as Union Street and the Depot is to downtown, at the heart of downtown's revival is the "Historic Arkansas River Promenade" -- HARP as everyone calls it.
Jim told me that HARP is based on San Antonio's riverwalk. "You might as well steal from the best" Jim noted.
Opened in 2000, after voters approved an initial $12 million bond in 1995, HARP winds through the heart of downtown. It's about a mile in length, and is just now starting to attract development onto its grounds.
The new headquarters of the Professional Bull Riders Association -- huge in the West -- is under construction within HARP. And just completed is a Cingular Call Center that will employ 540. The City has helped facilitate this kind of development, drawing on a 1/2 cent sales tax for economic development Pueblo voters authorized.
HARP is nicely landscaped, with attractive murals and other public art. One terminus of HARP is a natural area used by school groups and others.
An extension of HARP is under construction, designed to create a link to the Pueblo Convention Center (which is slated for expansion). Potential building sites still dot the riverway, but Jim is confident they'll steadily fill up.
Jim said his view of downtown development is, "let's pack the suitcase." When I asked what he meant, he replied that the key is to concentrate development in a limited area, instead of working on widely scattered sites. "This creates the synergy you need," he added.
Both Jim and Jerry believe there's a niche market for downtown housing -- and several residential developments are in the works. Also downtown: a new transit center, an ice arena, and the historic Old Pueblo site (right).
Of course, there's more to Pueblo than its downtown. I had the chance to drive through parts of Pueblo with Todd Ahlenius, the City's Senior Transportation Planner. We went by the steel fabrication mill. It used to be THE major component of Pueblo's economy, providing relatively high paying, secure jobs.
As recently as the early 1980s, the mills employed some 9,000 workers. While steel still plays an important role in Pueblo's economy, it is much scaled back, employing fewer than 1,000.
What struck me was the mix of very different types and sized housing in close proximity.
Pueblo's housing prices are also very low for Colorado's Front Range -- one reason Pueblo planners expect that residential growth will increase.
I added a "Plus" to the title of this post because there was one other project we discussed. Right now it's still in the planning and discussion stage. It would be located on 24,000 acres of ranchland just north of Pueblo's city limits. Over a 20 to 30 year period it could add 70,000 households to the area. In other words, it has the potential to more than double Pueblo's current population of about 100,000.
Jerry indicated that the City has more than enough water rights to handle a development of even this magnitude. And annexation may well be a prerequisite to the development's feasibility, as it would guarantee the project access to city water. Tim Williams, the city's environmental planner, also pointed out some of the environmental and conservation issues that will likely come up.
Jerry noted that "Pueblo is in a unique position to absorb a large amount of growth" which, with good planning, can be integrated into the city. But he expects that the ranch project will involve intensive negotiations between the developer and the City. As he succinctly put it, "this is the mother of all real estate deals for Pueblo."