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Coronavirus collapsed America’s food system, but made for “a pivotal and magical moment in local food”

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MOSCA — Sheldon Rockey weaves through pallets of potatoes in a long-retired high school gym as a small team of workers wash and package his trademarked fingerlings. 

“We just weren’t prepared for this, so there will be some livestock that will eat some gourmet potatoes this year,” says Rockey, who saw his innovative and competitive strategy of selling tiny high-end potatoes to a wholesaler supplying cruise ships and restaurants collapse in mid-March as the pandemic settled in the U.S.

Selling fancy spuds was a good plan and one of many innovative business and marketing strategies Rockey and his brother Brendon have deployed for years at their family’s Rockey Farms in the San Luis Valley. 

When the threat of COVID-19 shuttered restaurants around the country, Rockey leaned on his family’s long history of swift maneuvering to keep his potato business afloat. They sent their gourmet tubers to food banks and the Navajo Nation. They scrambled for packaging to meet a soaring demand from grocers. They joined an army of farmers and ranchers across the country who are reshaping their industry after a historic collapse of supply chains and processing in the pandemic.

“Thinking outside the box is something my family has done for a long, long time,” says Rockey, climbing the optical potato sorter in the rafters of the gym-turned-warehouse. “It’s the only way we can survive in this industry.”

Workers sort potatoes by size and quality, then pack into boxes for shipping at White Rock Specialties potato processing plant in Mosca. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The ripple effect of the pandemic’s food supply upheaval started with idled restaurants and moved to meat-processing plants and quickly rolled down to the farmers and ranchers who produce our food. 

Those in-the-field food producers have reacted to the disruption with innovative strategies and outreach that could transform their industries. Ranchers are developing their own brands and connecting directly with consumers. Farmers are working with ranchers to share land. Consumers are rallying around locally produced food, even as grocery shelves recover from the frenzied stockpiling of the early pandemic. 

This union of Western ranchers, farmers and consumers harkens to an age before consolidation and middlemen, when meat and vegetables landed mostly on local supper tables. The confluence of collapsing supply chains, technologically savvy producers and consumers, and a need for innovation in getting food to families has sparked a shift in the agricultural community that many hope remains beyond the pandemic. 

“I think it has been such an unfortunate event for our planet, but out of the ashes have come these beautiful sprouts of hope and resilience for how things can be,” says Holly Zink, who has seen an increase of new customers at her Sunnyside Farms Market and Sunnyside Meats packing plant in Durango. 

For Zink, the catastrophic impact of the pandemic has exposed a fundamental truth she has espoused for years: As agricultural processes become increasingly centralized, they also become exponentially more fragile.

Farmers, ranchers getting back together in the field

The Western Landowners Association, a New Mexico-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable stewardship of grazing lands in 11 states, is working with hundreds of its members to help keep lands viable for cattle. 

“Good open ranch land is better habitat than subdivisions, regardless of how it’s managed,” says Louis Wertz, the association’s spokesman. 

Part of that effort is a partnership with the Good Meat Project, which is weaving together a first-of-its-kind network of ranchers, processors and chefs and connecting them with consumers through an innovative online dashboard

“The idea is how can we make it as easy as possible for consumers to find other ways to get food from their local markets and producers,” says the project’s executive director Camas Davis. “I think consumers are searching for that more than ever before and my hope is that it will remain that way.”

The Good Meat Project is seeing an influx of consumers eager to buy directly from livestock producers. 

“We don’t know if that increase in consumer demand is going to go down after the pandemic is over or maybe if it’s shifting consumer perspectives,” Davis says. “This increase in demand has also exposed the weaknesses in the meat economy … especially for businesses working in the commodity market that still faces bottlenecks in processing and a supply-chain challenge.”

The nation’s limited number of small meat-processing facilities is unable to fill the hole left when major processing plants shut down. The system is not built to handle that level of disruption, with the several stages of cattle production involving specialized players and processes. 

The shutdown of the big plants has left ranchers with a backlog of animals they are paying to raise to maturity when they usually have sent those animals to stockers and feeders who raise cows for slaughter. 

Brendon Rockey tilling the soil in preparation for planting at Rockey Farms in Center, with the Great Sand Dunes and Sangre de Cristos in distance. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One solution the landowners association is pursuing connects ranchers with farmers who could plant winter cover crops for grazing cattle.

“But reintroducing livestock into farming, that level of flexibility is not around. We have sort of specialized it out of the system,” Wertz says. 

Davis is seeing restaurants adapting by buying animals and butchering their own cuts for both in-house diners and shoppers cooking at home. If they are not serving as many people in their dining rooms, they can adapt to the market by working with local health officials to allow them to buy whole animals and sell meat out of their kitchens. 

“They are looking at getting onto tables in a different way rather than getting food onto their own restaurant’s tables,” says Davis, who thinks a lingering impact of this pandemic could be policy shifts that allow that kind of meat distribution. “Because it’s so clear that the centralized food processing system is so fragile, especially in a pandemic, we may see policy changes toward supporting more small production facilities.” 

Davis points to a March amendment to Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act that lets residents make and sell any type of homemade food, including perishable items, but not meat. It’s the most permissive homemade food law in the country. In April, Wyoming lawmakers unanimously approved new bills expanding the state’s food freedom law to meat. The new laws also let ranchers sell shares of their herds, so all the animals are collectively owned by consumers who are allowed, under federal law, to custom slaughter their animals at local butchers, not federally-certified facilities. 

MORE: Breads, whoopie pies, donuts and pickles: How Colorado’s Cottage Foods Act has produced a batch of entrepreneurs

“It seems like a small detail, but it really opens up a lot of opportunities,” Davis says. 

Producers aren’t used to having a public face

The shifting landscapes for farmers and ranchers means they need a more public face. Without deliveries to middlemen, wholesalers and restaurants, the food producers need to delve into the foreign world of marketing. They need a brand. They need packaging. They need to appeal directly to consumers. And they are doing that. 

Wertz thinks those changes will last. He’s seeing the ranchers who already know how to market sharing their expertise with livestock producers new to the world of marketing and selling. 

“We have a lot of members working in the direct-to-consumer channel now and they are making their whole tool kits available to producers who are new to that,” Wertz says. “It’s work to learn that stuff and open an online shop and market to the local community but I think these will be durable and lasting changes for producers.”

The growing partnership between the landowners association and the Good Meat Project recently hosted a Zoom meeting with more than 100 cattle producers across the West, all working to sell directly to consumers. That one meeting identified farmers who could take cattle for grass grazing before slaughter, shared local production facilities and created outlets to better reach consumers. 

“The energy in that call is helping to shift the meat economy,” Davis says. “I think there is going to be that kind of collective turning of ideas and attention toward new markets that can be built up in a different way.”

Jen Livsey’s family has been raising cattle on their Flying Diamond Ranch in Cheyenne County near Kit Carson for five generations. The commercial cow and calf operation mostly works in the commodity market, sending her cattle to a feed lot to be fattened and then to a large processor like Greeley’s JBS. She ramped up direct-to-consumer sales this year as traditional supply chains for cattle collapsed.

“We love to tell our story and connect directly with consumers and we see this time as a huge opportunity for that,” Livsey says. 

MORE: Colorado cattle and bison ranchers are looking for help to let consumers know where the food in their package came from

But it’s not like selling 10 head of cattle directly to families will replace her sales on the larger commodity market. Families who buy direct need a lot of freezer space and they pay quite a bit more than they would pay at the grocery store. 

“It’s kind of like having an Etsy shop,” Livsey says of selling directly to consumers. “It’s cute but it’s not really going to change the system.”

A bigger innovation to come out of this pandemic, Livsey says, will be the coming together of farmers and ranchers. 

Cattle graze a field July 25, 2019 on the outskirts of Las Animas, Colo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A half century ago, farmers growing crops and ranchers raising cattle worked together, but that changed as the markets splintered and became more specialized. Livsey’s family started winter grazing their cattle on corn stalks at a farm in western Kansas following the drought in 2011, and now that shift is part of their annual operation. Farmers welcoming cattle on their fields harkens to the pre-industrialized era of agriculture before mass production. 

Farmers get their land naturally tilled and fertilized by the cows as they alternate grazing-friendly ground cover between rounds of cash crops. Ranchers get to rest their grassland for a season when they ship their cows and calves to farmland.   

“I think it is really positive for land health to reintegrate livestock and farming systems,” Livsey says. “It’s really benefited our family and I’m glad we are seeing more of it. That’s a very positive thing that might come out of this.”

Marketers with local connections restocked — fast

When the local grocery shelves at City Market and Walmart started emptying in March, Zink called the ranchers and farmers who stock her Sunnyside Farms Market in Durango. Her coolers at the craft butcher shop were laden with local beef and pork, milk from Olathe and flour and beans from Dove Creek. 

“We have a very secure source for providing those things,” says Zink, who began corralling local ranchers and farmers for her market and meat packing plant in 2002.

When processing plants started shutting down in the Midwest and grocery shelves were going bare, she was able to step up, and the butchers at her meat packing plant are now processing cows from north Texas to southern Wyoming, well beyond her stable of local ranchers.  

“We are serving new customers every day. This has given us an opportunity to get people out of a routine they have,” says Zink, whose farmland south of Durango has been in her family since the 1890s.

Zink hopes the trend toward local meat and produce continues as the pandemic fades. But that will require Americans to grow more comfortable with higher prices for their food, she says. She sees signs of more consumers interested in locally produced food and supporting a more diverse food supply.

“They are looking outside their traditional habits and patterns and I think one of the great things about having a real craft butcher shop, like grandma used to go to, are the relationships we form with our customers,” Zink says. “Maybe they say, ‘Hey, I like this a lot better and I’m going to go outside my pattern.’”

A diverse product line helps, too

Eight years ago Brendon and Sheldon Rockey merged their family’s 250-acre Rockey Farm in the San Luis Valley with neighboring White Mountain Farms to create the White Rock Specialities packaging and shipping operation in Mosca. 

The innovative brothers have spent their lives pulling their potato farm not forward, but back into the practices of their grandfather when he first began farming the land in 1938. 

They have won awards for their back-to-basics approach to farming seed and speciality potatoes. They plant water-efficient ground cover that lures beneficial insects and improves soil health. They work with ranchers to bring in cattle in the winter that naturally aerate and fertilize the soil as they graze. 

They keep a rotation of different potatoes and vegetables growing. Quinoa grown by their partners at White Farms adds diversity to their produce portfolio.

The deal with White Farms allowed the company to move into the old Mosca High School, where they have an optical sorter in the gym that speeds the washing and packaging of organic potatoes harvested from a select collective of farmers working 1,500 acres of Colorado land. 

For a relatively small potato operation, they compete well in a tuber industry dominated by heavyweights that thrive on french fry demand. And when demand for restaurant-consumed french fries disappeared in March, North America’s potato farmers faced a record glut of spuds. Millions of young plants were plowed under and growers cut next season’s planting by as much as 30%. 

But the Rockeys don’t work in the french-fry business. 

The Rockey brothers had it good, packaging unlabeled 50-pound boxes of their high-quality fingerlings for cruise-ship chefs as part of a 20-year deal with a wholesale distributor out of New Jersey. They never went a season when they didn’t sell every mini-tuber they harvested. Then came the collapse. 

“I’ll never forget the Friday the 13th that came in March,” Rockey says. “That was the last day we shipped our fingerlings.”

Demand for their gourmet potatoes went to zero when restaurants closed and cruise ships were evacuated, while grocery stores started tripling their orders for russets, reds and yellow potatoes. They had the potatoes to help meet the retail demand, but they didn’t have the UPC-coded, nutrition-labeled, flashy-branded bags needed to sell in a grocery. They didn’t even have those types of bags for their fingerlings.

“Sure we are stuck with lots of fingerlings, but we have had success on the other side because of the way people are shopping now,” says Rockey, looking over a skeleton team of packers preparing some of the first shipments of his fancy tubers in more than two months. “We really hope our old customers come back this fall.”

Potato farmers had options that other produce growers and ranchers didn’t have, thanks to the shelf-life of their product. Their products didn’t rot while they shifted from wholesale to retail. Leftovers were easily funneled to local communities. Food banks always have potatoes.

Rockey says it’s too early to talk about lessons for his own crops he might glean from the shutdown in traditional processes and supply chains. But he’s got some ideas. He’s printing up bags to sell everything he processes in retail shops, just in case the restaurant scene crumples again. He’s glad he has a network of ranchers who can graze their cattle on his farmland, giving it a chance to recover without costly interventions, like fertilizing. He’s recognizing the value of early decisions his family made to be diverse, with a host of different potatoes and produce. 

“You just can’t have all your eggs in one basket in this business. That’s definitely more obvious than it ever was before,” Rockey says.

Workers sort potatoes and pack them for shipping shipping containers at White Rock Specialties. The company markets spuds from farmers cultivating 1,500 acres in Colorado. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kate Kavanaugh said business at her Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in Denver’s Northside has grown substantially in the past two months as people explore different options for purchasing meat. 

She worked with a local rancher to sell shares of his cattle — which he raised to sell wholesale to restaurants — to dozens of individual buyers. Her team at Western Daughters — a whole-animal butcher shop — has begun delivering local beef, chicken and pork. Her team spent 10 days building a new walk-in refrigerator at the LoHi shop on Tejon Street. She hired idled workers from nearby restaurants to handle the demand.

“We are ramping up every aspect of our business,” says Kavanaugh, who opened Western Daughters with co-owner Josh Curtiss in 2013 as a way to better connect local farmers and ranchers with buyers. “Small processors are at the heart of how meat is distributed across the country but capacity is just too low. We need more of them around the country.”

Most small processors can’t just nimbly absorb this sudden surge in demand for locally-sourced meat. She was lucky, she says, to have the funding and ability to ramp up so quickly. The wave of new customers gave her a glimpse of what the future could be.

“We got to see what it would take for us to be successful and profitable as a butcher shop,” she says. “We need that much more volume for us to be sustainable. We are really going to depend on our community and people seeking us out to sustain this.”

Kavanaugh says the biggest take-away from the pandemic-driven chaos in the national meat and produce supply chain is a peek behind the curtain of industrial agriculture and centralized food distribution. 

“Such a rare transparency we have right now. And when people see how their food is moving from farm to table, they ask themselves if they want to participate in the conventional system or participate in a local system,” Kavanaugh says. “To see how ranchers and farmers and consumers have stepped up to meet this new opportunity, it’s a pivotal and magical moment for local food.”

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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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