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Colorado offers $4.1 million to cities that use pavement for people, not cars as part of coronavirus recovery

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Across Colorado, communities large and small are diverting cars around main streets to allow more open-air, socially-distanced dining, shopping and strolling.

And now the state is stepping in with a new $4.1 million grant program to encourage more creative uses for public streets as businesses revive after the pandemic shutdown.

Denver, Boulder, Littleton, Louisville, Arvada, Frisco, Breckenridge, Carbondale, Erie, Fort Collins and Estes Park are among the first municipalities to experiment with shifting pavement built for cars to pedestrian-only pockets. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Known cases in Colorado.
  • TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • WRITE ON, COLORADO: Tell us your coronavirus stories.
  • STORY: Coronavirus is killing fewer Colorado nursing home residents, but officials warn the state hasn’t “turned a corner”

>> FULL COVERAGE

Gov. Jared Polis’s new multi-agency Can Do Colorado Community Challenge — announced Thursday amidst a flurry of initiatives — is championing those kinds of community efforts with grants that support safer workplaces, more open restaurants and easier remote working. 

Other state agencies involved in the challenge include the departments of labor, local affairs, regulatory affairs, public health, the Regional Air Quality Council, the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Colorado Energy Office, all working to maintain progress made during the pandemic on issues like traffic and air quality. The agencies are offering a variety of grants, from a $500,000 program that offers e-bikes and e-scooters to low-income workers to commuting incentives for workers and employers that could improve air quality.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is providing “small-scale grants” to cities and towns that can quickly convert parking spots and roads into plazas, using money available in the state’s Multi Modal Options Fund. The agency also is offering micro grants up to $5,000 for communities that promote telework to reduce commuter traffic on local roads.

“The blanket learning we can take from this is that government and business are serious about reprioritizing street spaces for all these different reasons and the effect is that people biking and people walking are just as welcome as people in cars,” said Piep van Hueven with Bicycle Colorado. 

Bicycle Colorado’s Denver Street Partnership in April surveyed 1,400 Denver residents and found the pandemic stirring a growing focus on walking and biking in the city. Nearly 90% of respondents said the city should reallocate street space for people and they suggested more than 200 stretches of downtown streets for closures and bike lanes, many around Capitol Hill. 

The shift away from cars in public space is coming as businesses reopen under strict guidelines for keeping customers spaced 6 feet apart. That’s pushed cafes onto sidewalks and tables into parking lots. 

CDOT communications director Matt Inzeo said the agency is working with different communities coming up with ideas for temporarily changing public spaces built for cars. For example, he pointed to Estes Park considering an adjustment to U.S. 34 through downtown, Fort Collins exploring business and restaurant space in diagonal parking spots and Breckenridge closing its entire Main Street to cars and routing traffic around downtown. 

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“The look of this may vary from one community to another,” said Inzeo, who expects CDOT will award “lots of smaller grants” to help communities pay for traffic barriers, paint and staff planning expenses.  “As for bike lanes, there could be a scenario where they come into play but the conversations so far are focused on expanded public spaces near commercial centers.”

For the growing community of biking and pedestrian advocates who have spent the last decade pushing for a better balance of cars and people in local public space, CDOT’s turn toward community-focused space is a welcome opportunity. If pedestrian-friendly streetscapes bustling with outdoor diners and shoppers prove successful, many hope the shift could be more than temporary.  

CDOT is able to do this for communities on U.S. highways based on a temporary waiver from the federal government, Inzeo said, noting that some changes may not be permanent but adjustments made on city and town streets could last longer based on local support.

“This is an exciting experiment to see in real life what happens when you are able to repurpose street space for public space that doesn’t include cars,” said Morgan Lommele, the director of state and local policy for People For Bikes. “What if we are able to use the current circumstance to find shared values and understand there is very likely enough room for cars even if we take cars off select street to expand other types of access to public places?”

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Recovering from coronavirus may not be such a struggle for some Colorado downtowns after all

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As coronavirus safety measures forced many shops and restaurants to temporarily close in March, a private Facebook group popped up to connect business owners specifically in downtown Colorado Springs. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Known cases in Colorado.
  • TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • WRITE ON, COLORADO: Tell us your coronavirus stories.
  • STORY: Coronavirus is killing fewer Colorado nursing home residents, but officials warn the state hasn’t “turned a corner”

>> FULL COVERAGE

There, they traded resources and information, discussed what each was doing to survive and talked about how the city could help local restaurants and retailers, like speeding up the permitting process to allow for sidewalk dining. Owners shared what they financially needed and soon learned that $650,000 in grants were made available to downtown shops and restaurants. The group’s creators? The Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs.

“Their ability to bring everybody into a conversation together in multiple ways blew me away,” said Morgan Calderini, co-owner of Ladyfingers Letterpress, a stationary and gift store on East Bijou Street. “I have business owner friends in other towns and no one had this support we saw from the Downtown Partnership.”

Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The rallying efforts of the nonprofit downtown agency is one of many factors credited with getting Colorado Springs business owners through the worst of the coronavirus disruptions. It’s a sentiment echoed in other downtowns around the state where similar partnerships spent the stay-at-home period organizing virtual events and gift-card purchases, while promoting the spirit of buying local. A promotion offering a $10 gift card to shoppers who spent $25 (now at $50) at downtown businesses in Grand Junction helped spur $70,000 in spending, according to Grand Junction downtown officials. 

Of course, it’s not over yet. And it didn’t work for everyone. Some, like Iron Bird Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs, called it quits in early May. In downtown Denver, some shops remain boarded up, waiting on office workers and other customers to feel safe enough to return. Hotels continue to keep staff furloughed. Surviving the coronavirus disruption may be the most challenging experience any downtown organization will face because of its suddenness and effect on all commerce, not like past financial downturns affecting core industries. 

Iron Bird Brewing in downtown Colorado Springs announced May 6, 2020 it was closing permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Officials in other Colorado downtowns shared reasons for their optimism and why their urban center will make it through. Denver officials pointed to the strong momentum going into the pandemic with high employment, an influx of new companies moving to the city. In Grand Junction, director Brandon Stam said his town is in a more remote area and has attracted people from larger cities seeking a less crowded, more affordable place to live. 

“Most of the big capital projects are still underway and they’re still going on,” Stam said. “In a weird way I think we’re pretty well set up to recover.”

Colorado Springs fits in between those two, entering the pandemic with a slew of construction projects that continued to progress in the past two months. In downtown there are two sports stadiums, about a dozen apartment buildings and three hotels under construction. The new U.S. Olympic Museum is still expected to open this summer, or maybe fall. 

“None of them are finished or were scheduled to be finished. All of them are funded already,” said Mike Juran, CEO of automotive tech company Altia, which moved its headquarters to downtown in the past year. “And nobody’s pulling funding back, and all of the construction has been considered essential business. We’ve got cranes down here, more cranes than we’ve ever had. They’re not slowing down. And the hope is, when they open, people will start traveling again.”

The Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC will be the primary tenant of a multi-use stadium now under construction in south downtown Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The financial appeal of downtowns 

As downtowns in Colorado reported their annual updates in May, COVID addendums were added at the last minute. For Denver, the Downtown Partnership cautioned that tourism, which accounts for $800 million in annual visitor spending, had ground to a halt. Permits for new projects had dropped 11% this year as of April, compared to the same period of last year. And the value of projects had fallen 32%.

But before the pandemic hit full force, the city had 23 major projects under construction, added 11,000 new residents in the past year and grew retail sales and sales-tax collection by 8.2% — “the largest annual increase since 2014.”

“We had record levels of employment, record levels of visitors, record levels of residential population is really virtually every economic indicator you can imagine in downtown, we were setting records. If there was a way to go into sort of an economic recession, caused by the pandemic, we were fit, we were strong, we were as well prepared as humanly possible,” said Randy Thelen, senior vice president for economic development at the Downtown Denver Partnership.

Businesses in downtown Denver have been boarded up in the wake of recent protests against police violence. June 9, 2020. Larry Ryckman / The Colorado Sun

Besides cleaning crews power washing surfaces regularly and cleaning touchable surfaces every other hour, Thelen said the downtown agency is rethinking events. Canceled are massive ones, like “A Taste of Colorado” over Labor Day weekend. But smaller, more dispersed activities to “give people a moment of joy at multiple places around the core of our city” are being planned, he said.

Financial research firm Moody’s Analytics ranked Denver among the nation’s top 10 “best positioned to recover” from COVID.

“Just (Tuesday night), I walked through Larimer Square, which is a great retail street in downtown Denver, and just eyeballing it, the outdoor cafe spaces looked to be about 80-90% occupied,” he said. “People want to get back to their favorite restaurants, they want to get back into downtown but they want to do so safely.”

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum under construction in downtown Colorado Springs June 10, 2020. The opening of the museum has been delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The story’s a little different in Colorado Springs, which also touted 2019 as one of its best years ever in its annual report. But it had taken the city a long time to get downtown to this point, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership.

“In the recession of 2008, what we were lacking then is something we’ve lacked for a long time that we’re changing, and that’s lots of people living downtown,” Edmondson said. “That was one of the big things that held back our downtown recovery. We know it’s so important for our shops and restaurants, they need people living near them.”

Nine multifamily projects have been announced for downtown that will add 1,250 new places to live within three years. That will have a dramatic impact on downtown residents, which number around 2,000, a 14% increase since 2010. 

Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Juran, who lives downtown and now bikes to Altia’s downtown office, said he expects office workers to return soon. About 40 employees who usually work at the downtown office are still working at their homes. But folks are anxious to return, he said. 

“We started a couple of new employees last week, we had a new intern team start a couple of weeks ago and they’re not getting the benefit of the face-to-face experience,” he said. “The existing relationships with all of our employees have been really good so we have this level of trust, we’ve been able to use meetings like Zoom and GoTo. It’s been OK for now, but we’re going to definitely go back.”

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More changes expected

More than a week after police brutality protests occurred in cities nationwide including in Colorado Springs, the Downtown Partnership in Colorado Springs posted a statement this week on its homepage that systemic racism must end. It pledged to channel efforts “toward sustained progress for true justice and equity for all.” 

“Downtown is the front porch to the city, which is where we come to speak, if you will, in the public square and call for changes to society,” said Edmondson, with the Downtown Partnership. “We respect those who do it peacefully and we absolutely believe this can be done peacefully and these voices need to be heard.”

She said that the conversations must continue, plus a plan of action. She said many of the downtown businesses want to figure this out together.

Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I’ve been really gratified that many of our businesses have really leaned into this as well and whether it was providing water for demonstrators, or just making clear that there’s a safe space that they’re welcome to come,” she said. “Our businesses knew this is an important conversation to have.”

Over at Wild Goose Meeting House, a coffee and casual food cafe on North Tejon Street, the changes are welcome, said Russ Ware, who started the neighborhood hangout with business partner Yemi Mobolade. 

“The cultural upheaval that’s happening which, thank God I’m 100% for it, this is the most important thing that’s probably going to happen in my lifetime,” Ware said. “I thought it was going to be getting through this virus. And now I’ve figured out, oh no it’s not. We might actually finally turn a major corner with racial justice in this country.”

Wild Goose Meeting House in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to dine-in with new guidelines and expanded outdoor seating. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ware’s used to change. The meeting house started in 2013 as a coffeeshop that sold some food. It quickly evolved into a restaurant that sold coffee and offered live entertainment on some nights. As coronavirus shut the place down in March, Ware focused on sister restaurant, Good Neighbors Meeting House, located in a more residential neighborhood in the northern outskirts of downtown. He turned it into a food market where you can still buy a 1-pound block of Muenster cheese for $5.

Wild Goose reopened four weeks later and added its own food market and to-go orders, which it had never offered before. As restaurants were allowed to partially reopen to in-person dining in late May, Ware tried something new: Wild Goose began taking prepaid reservations for people who just wanted to bring their laptop in and work outside of their home.

“As things ramped up, that’s kind of the biggest shift we did there and we’re only a couple weeks into it, but it’s going really well,” said Ware, who hopes to adopt prepaid reservations when they can start hosting jazz nights again. “You know, we’ve never even taken reservations here, much less this novel idea of prepaid reservations. What coffee shop even has reservations? So, it’s kind of crazy.”

Wild Goose Meeting House in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to dine-in with new guidelines and expanded outdoor seating. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wild Goose is lucky to have its own outdoor patio with 11 tables. But Ware is also supportive of blocking the streets from vehicle traffic to allow other restaurants without patios to expand their outdoor space. 

“Maybe we can create zones where different restaurants and bars share areas where they can carry beer out into the middle of Tejon Street,” Ware said. “Maybe they got something from Jose Muldoon’s and they’re sitting next to somebody that got something from Mood Tapas bar or whatever. A kind of glorified outdoor food court.”

It’s that sort of local support that seems woven into this downtown community, a sentiment you don’t usually find in shopping centers filled with national retailers and chain restaurants. Even online, business neighbors support one another. Earlier this week, a Wild Goose post on Facebook encouraged its fans to head over to Ladyfingers Letterpress to buy Black Lives Matter posters.

Morgan Calderini, left, and Arley Torsone are co-owners of Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs. The store has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Calderini, who owns and operates the Ladyfingers Letterpress store with wife and designer/illustrator Arley-Rose Torsone, said the couple put the mortgage on their house on hold and on forbearance and paused every single bill they could. They weren’t eligible for one of the forgivable federal Paycheck Protection loans because the company had an existing loan from the Small Business Administration. They did get a $15,000 grant from the downtown Small Business Relief Fund, which was funded by a downtown tax program and donations from several private businesses. It doled out $650,000 to 95 downtown businesses

“I feel like it’s hopefully brought a greater awareness to people that where you’re shopping is what you’re supporting,” Calderini said. “For us, what we have been so grateful for is that the community here came out and continued to come out. They may not need a candle but they are buying one and they’re supporting us because they want us in the community.”

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In final hours of legislative session, Colorado Democrats drop bill to raise cigarette taxes, create nicotine tax

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Democrats in the Colorado legislature on Thursday introduced an 11th-hour bill that seeks to ask voters in November to raise taxes on cigarettes and start taxing other products that contain nicotine.

House Bill 1427 would ask voters to gradually — but significantly — raise the taxes over the next seven fiscal years.

Whereas taxes on a pack of cigarettes are now 84 cents, the bill would ask voters to allow the state to raise that amount to $1.94 starting next year. Starting in July 2024, taxes on a pack of cigarettes would then rise to $2.24 a pack. Then in July 2027 and moving forward, the taxes would be $2.64 a pack.

Nicotine products, including vaping devices and fuel, would be taxed at 50% of their manufacturer’s list price starting next year if voters sign off. Starting in July 2024, that would rise to 56% of the list price. Then in July 2027 and moving forward, the taxes would be 62% of nicotine products’ market list price

Vaping products aren’t currently taxed in Colorado.

The bill was introduced Thursday, a day before the legislature was originally supposed to adjourn after returning for three weeks following a two-month-plus coronavirus pause. It appears lawmaking will stretch into the weekend now in order to accommodate House Bill 1427 and other last-minute legislation.

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The measure was introduced with such haste that its 43 pages of text hadn’t been posted on the legislature’s website before it was scheduled for its first committee hearing on Thursday afternoon.

Another sign of how fast it was introduced: Despite its wide-ranging impacts, only two people showed up to testify on the bill during the 20-minute hearing. They both advocated for the measure.

“I know that it’s all come kind of fast and furious,” Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat who is leading the push for the bill, said during the hearing.

Legislative fiscal analysts believe the proposed tax hike would net the state about $86 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins in July. In the following fiscal year, the state would collect more than $173 million.

State Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillion Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, said she hopes the bill will help bolster the state’s ailing budget, which has taken a major hit as a result of the coronavirus crisis. At first, revenue generated by the taxes will go toward backfilling the state’s coffers.

After that, revenue from the taxes would be distributed to fund health care, tobacco education, preschool and other programs.

If voters approve the tax increase, it will start being enforced in 2021.

Supporters of the measure say it will help drive down tobacco use.

The bill passed its first hurdle, the House Finance Committee, within about 20 minutes and on a 6-to-5 vote. Republicans voiced opposition to the speed at which it was released.

 “We got this bill after we even sat down in here. It’s 43 pages. I just can’t support it right know. It sounds good but I just can’t support it right now,” said Rep. Janice Rich, a Grand Junction Republican.

The bill comes after a similar attempt to ask voters to raise cigarette taxes and enact a nicotine tax last year failed. Democrats in the Colorado Senate rejected the bill in the final days of the 2019 lawmaking term, in part because of concerns that it was regressive.

Last year’s legislation had the support of Gov. Jared Polis. The tobacco industry lobbied heavily against the measure.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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Carotid holds would now be banned under Colorado’s police accountability bill, which is nearing passage

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The wide-reaching Colorado police accountability bill nearing passage in the state legislature would ban officers from using controversial carotid pressure holds, which were central to the death last year of a 23-year-old man in Aurora after an encounter with law enforcement. 

The ban on the maneuver, in which officers apply pressure to both sides of someone’s neck, cutting off blood flow, was added to Senate Bill 217 in an amendment made just before midnight on Wednesday as the measure advanced at the Capitol. 

The Aurora and Lakewood police departments this week already announced they were outlawing the use of carotid pressure holds. Elijah McClain died in August after he was stopped by Aurora police officers, who used a carotid hold on him.

There were 13 total amendments made to the bill on Wednesday night, some of which add substantial new reporting and policy requirements for law enforcement agencies. The amendments would require:

  • Grand juries to issue a report when they decide not to indict an officer in a law enforcement-involved death
  • Prosecutors to notify the public if they are referring an investigation into a law enforcement-involved death to a grand jury
  • That families of those killed by law enforcement receive an advanced copy of any body camera footage of their loved one’s death before it is released to the public
  • Police to document and report every time officers unholster their weapons or fire them

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Some of the changes made Wednesday night were around the use of body cameras, which the bill requires every law enforcement agency in the state to use. Among the alterations are mandates that officers notify crime victims they are being recorded and clarifying that jail guards, courtroom officers and the governor’s Colorado State Patrol detail do not need to wear the devices.

Law enforcement, under the bill, would now have 45 days to release body camera footage related to an ongoing investigation into a police officer’s actions, up from 30 days as was originally written in the measure.

Finally, officers would be required to test their body cameras at the beginning of the shift. If the devices don’t work after being checked, the bill now says, officers would not be held accountable if they malfunction during an incident. 

Additionally, law enforcement agencies would have until September to train their officers on the changes proposed under the bill, though that timeframe could be extended. 

Senate Bill 217 passed out of the House Finance Committee on Wednesday night by a 7-4, party line vote after hours of emotional testimony, including from the parents of people who were killed by police officers in Colorado. 

Laura Sonia Rosales, whose 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, was fatally shot by Denver police in 2015, told lawmakers that a part of her heart died when her child was killed. Jessica, who was driving a stolen car, was unarmed and with several other children

“My life is gone,” Sonia Rosales said in Spanish.

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Viola Jacquez, whose 27-year-old son, Jack, was killed by a police officer in Rocky Ford in 2014, urged lawmakers to take action. Jack was unarmed and hadn’t committed a crime. The officer who killed him, James Ashby, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to a prison term. 

“I feel for every mother out there that feels like me,” Viola said. “It doesn’t go away, even though they say it’s supposed to get better. It gets worse. The pain. The hurt.”

Senate Bill 217 will likely be heard on the House floor Thursday. More changes to the legislation are expected.

Republicans on the House Finance Committee said they support the goals of the measure, but have concerns about policy details they hope will be worked out in the coming days. GOP lawmakers in the Senate have already endorsed the bill.

Law enforcement organizations say they, too, support the bill, but would like to see changes before its passage.

The legislation also would allow police officers to be sued in their individual capacities, ban chokeholds and require vast data collection and reporting on race and use of force. It also would change the standard under which law enforcement can legally use deadly force.

MORE: Colorado’s sweeping police accountability bill now requires officers to face imminent threat before using deadly force

The Senate must approve the changes made in the House before the measure heads to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk. The governor says he supports the legislation.

The bill was brought by Democrats in response to the May 27 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Floyd died after an officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes in an encounter that was filmed and widely viewed.
The death prompted protests across the nation, including in Denver.

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