Aurora’s population is three times the size of Pueblo’s or Fort Collins’. Aurora is six times larger than Boulder. We’re big. Really big. And Aurora’s getting bigger.
At about 335,000 residents now, experts see the state’s third-largest city topping a half-million in about 25 years. ϖ This year, new congressional district lines put the sprawling city inside a single congressional district, essentially commanding it. Nine state lawmakers now represent one of the largest suburbs in the country. Aurora is home to Buckley Air Force Base, which pumps more than $1 billion a year into the local economy. And the former Fitzsimons Army Hospital complex? It’s now a $2 billion-a-year behemoth that encompasses a growing list of hospitals, bioscience projects, clinics, medical schools and research facilities rivaling anything in the country. ϖ
Aurora has land, it has water, it has clout and it has a diverse population, some with serious needs. ϖ
Where to now, Aurora? We asked that question to a handful of community leaders to get a sense of what issues most affect the city’s residents and future, and how that future is most likely to unfold. These leaders say that whether it’s a dramatic change in the form of government, snagging a big-game economic development project or insisting Aurora take the lead in regional planning, the city has options and resources that are just waiting to be marshaled. ϖ
JOHN BARRY, APS SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS
John Barry had seen his share of the world before he reported for duty as the new superintendent of Aurora Public Schools in 2006.
“I’ve moved 26 times in 30 years,” said Barry, who came to the district after a military career that included combat time in Iraq and a stint as the military assistant to then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. “I’m living in a place … that can make a major contribution to our citizens and the state and the country, a place that can serve as a model.”
As he enters his final months as the APS superintendent (Barry announced in December that he’ll be leaving the post at the end of the 2012-13 school year), Barry insists that Aurora is poised to become a national model on the fronts of education, industry and infrastructure.
But realizing that potential won’t come without some work and some perspective, Barry added. He says the future success of Aurora will depend on what he calls “the four Cs.” Critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity are guidelines Barry has used in guiding APS, and he says the same focus will be critical to the city’s future.
It’s a mantra that’s become a hallmark of Barry’s tenure as superintendent. The district’s Pathways program, a push that connects students with specialized instruction beginning in elementary school, has a collaborative feel at its heart. In the past few years, the district has built working relationships with private companies and public institutions. Partners range from the Anschutz Medical Campus to the Aurora Fox theater. He likens Aurora to other cities he’s lived in the past 30 years, places he calls “woulda, shoulda, coulda” cities. They’re the well-kept secrets, he said, the towns that combine economic opportunity, resources and a rare room for growth.
“This is that place,” Barry said. “We have as much to grow to the east as we’ve already developed to the west.”
Making that growth sustainable is going to depend on education, Barry said, and the future of education is going to depend on funding. Barry says that Aurora’s basic tools and resources are all in place for the future. The biggest hurdle will come in making them work together.
“We have space to grow. We have (Anschutz), an incredible magnet that’s attracting people from all over the world. We have the possibility of a spaceport being built very close to our boundaries. We have an incredible connection, I think, to the aerospace industry that rivals anything in the country,” Barry said. “I’ve found a place where I don’t have to say, ‘Woulda, coulda, shoulda.’”
KEVIN HOUGEN, THE CHAMBER PRESIDENT
Think ahead, Aurora.
The Chamber President Kevin Hougen says the city’s penchant for not seeing the big picture, and then not acting on it when it should, could be a problem.
“I can guarantee you that people will be writing letters to the editor of the Aurora Sentinel some day complaining about how we got all these great light rail stations and not enough parking,” Hougen said. Just last November, voters soundly shot down a request by the city to extend an existing property tax to fund a bevy of citywide transportation projects, including expanded parking at soon-to-come light rail stations. Pretty much the whole region was perplexed by the loss of the ballot question. At the same time the no-new-tax proposal lost, voters approved new property tax requests for both school districts.
Hougen said city leaders need to find ways to invest in and protect economic infrastructure so Aurora can continue to reap rewards. Even with the loss of two substantial military bases over the past two decades, the military presence in the city has been hugely beneficial. Buckley Air Force Base is a magnet for a multi-hundred-million-dollar aerospace contractor industry that would evaporate should the base close or change its mission. Hougen points out that the current city administration works hard to protect the base and keep the city’s efforts in front of Pentagon officials. But it may come to having to put out more than lobbyists and resolutions to keep Buckley intact in a downsize-environment. The city needs to be prepared to step up efforts to keep housing from encroaching on the base’s flying mission, and city-sponsored road improvement projects killed recently by voters should find a way to move forward. The entire state benefits from Buckley’s missions, Hougen said, and he recommends that Colorado officials step up efforts joined by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to vastly increase the state’s push to protect its military bases and missions.
While Aurora is not only a giant suburb, one of the top-five in size and population in the country, its military and other components make it much more than just endless acres of rooftops.
“We’re an education community,” Hougen said. He points to the fact that there are upwards of 100,000 public schools students in the city being taught by about 10,000 teachers and others.
Aurora is home to about 15 colleges and universities, including the Community College of Aurora and the University of Colorado Denver schools of medicine, nursing, pharmacy and dentistry. It’s the rare person in Aurora not touched directly by some aspect of the growing education systems here, Hougen said. And education is a fundamental key to success in the entrenched global economy.
Those aren’t buzzwords any more, Hougen says. It used to be that a small business in Aurora was only concerned with a world that was mostly closer than five blocks away and never more than five miles. “That’s not the case any more,” Hougen says. Now, small businesses are more likely than not to do business with people all over the country, and increasingly likely to provide services or products all over the globe.
Aurora is well-suited for that global connection, Hougen says. The city not only has a complex education engine, but it also boasts an equally rich cultural pool. The city is known for its cultural and racial diversity because it wears that trademark on its sleeves. Aurora Public Schools students speak more than 100 foreign languages. A trip down Havana Street is a veritable United Nations of markets, cafes and other businesses. Aurora boasts communities of immigrants from all over the planet. “It’s a real strength of the community,” Hougen said.
DAN OATES, CHIEF OF POLICE
Few things distinguish Aurora from other suburbs more than the city’s remarkable diversity. More than 50 percent of Aurora residents identified themselves as non-white during the last Census, and several immigrant groups from around the world have built sizeable communities here in the last decade.
But for generations, the city’s police and fire departments have looked more like a country club than a typical Aurora neighborhood — the faces behind the badges are almost all white, and almost all male. The lack of minorities in the ranks of police and fire departments led the United States Department of Justice in 2009 to launch an investigation into the city’s hiring practices, an investigation that is still ongoing.
Not long after he came to Aurora in 2005, Police Chief Dan Oates made diversifying the city’s public safety ranks a top priority. And as the city looks to move forward in the coming years, Oates said that has to remain a top priority.
“The city is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, we will always be a diverse city,” he said. “We have got to get police and fire to reflect that diversity so that we can be more effective.”
The need goes beyond a high-minded desire to see the police department better-represent the community. Oates said that from a law enforcement standpoint, a department that looks like its community does better policework.
“It’s just easier to break down barriers and build trust when we reflect the community we serve,” he said. “So we’ve got to clear these generational hurdles about not being able to achieve diversity in the police and fire department.”
The department has tried in recent years to attract a more diverse pool of applicants, and Oates has lobbied for changes to the hiring and promoting process that he argued would make it easier to diversify the police ranks. But the department remains more than 80 percent white and male.
“None of us are satisfied where we are,” Oates said. But he said he hopes when the DOJ investigation wraps, it will include some recommendations on how the department can diversify.
MARY CHESLEY, CHERRY CREEK SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT
When Mary Chesley talks about sustainability, it’s not a matter of renewable energy or recycling. The Cherry Creek School District superintendent uses the word in talking about the future of Aurora, a city that hosts the majority of the schools in the Cherry Creek district.
The challenge of building a long-term framework for future generations is a familiar one for Chesley, who took over as Cherry Creek superintendent in 2008. The district, which currently comprises 64 schools, more than 51,000 students and more than 3,600 teachers, has grown exponentially in the past 20 years.
With the majority of the district’s schools now in Aurora proper, the district and the city share many of the same concerns as they look to the future. For Chesley, who represents a district of more than 100 square miles that includes dramatically different populations, the challenges for Aurora’s students are unique. Schools like Overland High School, for example, include a higher number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch than other buildings in Greenwood Village and Centennial.
“Every school has the same mission. It’s how you carry it out,” said Chesley, who started as superintendent in 2008. “You can learn, but you can’t import a way of doing things if you’re dealing with different populations … We think of what’s working for the class of 2013. For the class of 2025, we’re going to have to be flexible.” Some of that flexibility is going to be closely tied to the way school funding works in Colorado.
“There are only two ways to address it. The pie either has to get bigger or people are going to get different slices,” Chesley said, speaking about the pool of state funding.
“I hope with a return to a more robust economy, the pie gets bigger. I don’t think the pie can get big enough to take care of TABOR, the School Finance Act and the Gallagher Amendment,” she added, citing the state’s complex and contradictory funding laws.
But Chesley hopes that the fact that voters passed tax hikes for Cherry Creek and Aurora Public Schools in 2012 will help ease that challenge for state legislators. “For legislators and for us as school districts, I think it helps them be grounded and be able to better serve the communities. They have a better picture of ‘this is my community,’” Chesley said. “I think the help is also tempered by the fact that APS and Cherry Creek passed their elections.”
MIKE COFFMAN, US REPRESENTATIVE FOR 6th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
During a meeting with doctors at the Anschutz Medical Campus last year, Congressman Mike Coffman couldn’t help but feel comfortable. The get-together at the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center campus was, after all, on Coffman’s home turf — north Aurora, the neighborhood he grew up in, where his parents worked for years and where he still proudly tells people he’s from.
As Aurora moves forward, the city has to find a way to make developments like Anschutz spill out, enticing the army of workers who visit every day to call Aurora home. “Aurora needs to be a place not just where people come to work, but where people come to work and where those same workers live,” Coffman said.
“There is a perception of north Aurora that I think is unfair. One thing we have to do as elected leaders at every level is change that perception so that it’s a place where families want to live,” he said.
That perception has held the north end of town back for years, Coffman said. Many families were only interested in Aurora if it meant they could live in the Cherry Creek School District, he said. The most important factor for many was that line separating Aurora Public Schools from Cherry Creek, he said.
“That has grown over the years, and we have got to change the perception of Aurora Public Schools, and we’ve got to erase that line in Aurora,” he said.
Coffman himself is an APS product, and proud of it. But even if he doesn’t like the perception — and he’s adamant that it’s not fair — Coffman said the perception is out there, and it holds Aurora back. For decades, the community has turned its focus to the south — abandoning Colfax as the city center for what was then the Buckingham Square Mall area, then pulling up stakes again and trucking the municipal center to East Alameda Avenue and Chambers Road. Those moves led to decay in north Aurora, Coffman said, and the neighborhood is still dealing with the fallout decades later.
“In Aurora there is a habit of focusing on the new and moving away from the old,” he said. “Maybe I’m sentimental, but I can’t let go, having grown up in North Aurora. That image of what north Aurora was, to me, is that image of what it can be in the future.”
NADINE CALDWELL, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST
Few people know the city of Aurora better than Nadine Caldwell, who has a frame of reference that stretches back to the 1950s.
Caldwell has seen epic change in the city she’s called home for the past 54 years, and she’s played an active role in it, taking a variety of governmental and citizen posts along the way. She was member of the Aurora City Council for 16 years — between 1989-2005. But after all that time, the growth of the booming Anschutz Medical Campus and the expected completion of the Regional Transportation District’s light-rail line along the I-225 corridor in four years, Caldwell sees unprecedented opportunity waiting for Aurora in the future.
“I don’t think Aurora has ever had so much potential,” Caldwell said. “Any time you get something like light rail, it opens a whole new ballgame.”
Caldwell has a particularly watchful eye on the Westerly Creek Village area she lives in, which runs from Iola to Yosemite streets and from 19th to 26th streets. With even some small changes, she hopes Aurora can keep the people coming on light rail in and around her neighborhood, which is right next to the flourishing Anschutz Medical Campus and Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“We need some really good restaurants over there, so when we get off work there are places to eat,” Caldwell said.“There’s no book store, no bakery, no clothing stores. The only thing you can buy over here is a t-shirt, and you can get your nails done. Sometimes I have to go five miles into Denver to get my groceries because it’s closer than anything in Aurora. There needs to be more retail stores that service the community.”
Caldwell also hopes to see Colfax Avenue — one of the city’s main arteries — continue to be revitalized along the south edge of the medical campus and along its entire stretch through Aurora. Even a steak restaurant or two would go a long way in her mind to pump some energy into a key stretch of road that’s fallen on some hard times since its heyday in the 1970s.
Colfax should also become home to a dedicated cultural arts district in Caldwell’s opinion, an effort she feels has “floundered” for years despite a number of sporadic attempts.
In other areas of town, Caldwell is disappointed the deal Aurora had to be the site of the latest mega-hotel for Gaylord Entertainment, a proposed Western-themed resort and conference center that was touted to bring thousands of jobs to the city and give the local economy a needed jolt, has fizzled.
“I’ve been to one of those Gaylord hotels, and they are amazing. When I heard about that, I thought ‘oh my gosh, we’ve really made it,’” Caldwell said. “That would have been the best thing for Aurora, in my mind.”
ALFONSO NUNEZ, OWNER OF LA CUEVA
Alfonso Nunez’s family has been in business in Aurora for nearly 40 years, so the resident of south Aurora seen his fair share of change in the city. He’s looking forward to seeing more in the future.
Nunez, who runs La Cueva — a Mexican restaurant that has occupied its spot at 9742 E. Colfax Ave. since it opened in 1974 — has served the city for 23 years as a firefighter and also worked with the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, so he has a vested interest in the city’s success.
Like many in the area, Nunez has been pleased with the development along Colfax, particularly the improvements around the Fletcher Plaza area near his restaurant, as well as the Anschutz Medical Campus further down the road. Safety has become a concern, whether real or perceived. Nunez has noticed a major decline in the number of uniformed Aurora Police offers in the area, particularly at night.
“So many of us have invested millions of dollars in the development of that Colfax corridor and it’s really quite a shame that they don’t police it,” Nunez said. “Back in the day, we had 10 foot patrol officers in the area, now it’s down to two or four. When it gets dark, the foot patrol officers are done. …It’s not back where it was in the mid-90s when had all the gang issues and it’s improving, but it’s perception. When people see a uniformed officer around, even if they aren’t doing anything, it looks like the area is being cared for and secure. People will want to be there.”
Part of Nunez’s safety concern is the presence of a number of homeless people in the Fletcher Plaza area who can deter potential visitors and patrons of the business nearby.
“When you have people aggressively asking people for money or when homeless folks don’t have a place to use the bathroom, how are you going to lure people to an area?” Nunez asked. “Aurora has a real homeless issue that needs to be addressed.”
Calling the future light rail line “huge,” Nunez is looking forward to the new restaurants, retail and residential developments that are expected to spring up around the eight stops scheduled for the system. He expects the choice to visit Aurora to be much more popular for those in Denver and surrounding areas. It could also be a more popular place to live with abundant access to public transportation.
Aurora’s certainly not perfect, but Nunez is certainly looking forward to the future.
“I believe in this community, that’s why I’m still here,” Nunez said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating when things aren’t moving as fast as you’d like, but if we get it squared away, it will make Aurora better for the next generation.”
STEVEN HOGAN, MAYOR OF AURORA
It isn’t so much that Aurora needs to reinvent itself. More to the point, it simply needs to invent a way to tell the world what’s really going in here, says Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan.
Hogan’s optimistic. Very optimistic. But the fact is, Aurora’s reputation wasn’t stellar even before the July 20 theater massacre, and city officials are beginning to acknowledge that work needs to be done on what everyone thinks the city is like. Changing Aurora’s mixed image starts first with informing the city’s residents about accomplishments and future goals, Hogan said. That includes promoting the fact that Aurora is competing with international cities like Tokyo, Taipei and Brussels for business deals, relocation opportunities and medical talent, he said. “If our own people don’t realize what’s going on here, that makes it difficult to project the image of what is happening here and how great it is,” he said.
Hogan’s visions for Aurora are tangible. “The most immediate concern for the next three years is going to be light rail,” he said. The FasTracks light rail project from Nine Mile Station to the Peoria/Smith Station in Denver will not only create hundreds of construction jobs starting next year, but will also spur development around the stations. Hogan envisions Aurora growing upwards, physically. He says it’s time for the city to start construction on high-rise buildings instead of four-story structures that are characteristic of every suburb. But Aurora won’t be able to sustain or accommodate much more economic development until it addresses its infrastructure problems.
“We are a growing city but at the same time, we’re a city that has parts of it that are 50 or 100 years old,” he said. “We have some major street issues and clearly we, the city, have not done a great job in passing that message along to our residents.”
The city had hoped to persuade voters in the November 2012 election to fork over $5.8 million annually for projects including road widening, median improvements, sidewalks and bike paths, to no avail. The failed ballot question has now left city leaders struggling to find ways to pay for a transportation needs list that has a price tag of $71 million. “It’s not sexy, and it’s not exciting, but if our streets fall apart, we’re not going to attract any new businesses,” Hogan said. “The businesses that are here are going to leave, the jobs are going to leave, and we’re going to be in trouble.”
SUSAN JENSON, ARTIST
North Aurora has changed in too many ways to count since Susan Jenson started working at a small art gallery on East Colfax Avenue 14 years ago.
In that time, the push to create Aurora’s own signature arts district has proceeded in fits and starts. Galleries and theaters have come and gone and renovation projects have managed to weather a historic economic downturn. The community itself has also seen dramatic shifts in its makeup, as immigrant populations from across the world have moved in.
Through all the transformations, there’s been a constant for Jenson, something reliable that she sees as a key to the future success of the city.
“The bottom line is that we all speak art together,” said Jenson, the executive director of Downtown Aurora Visual Arts. For nearly 20 years, DAVA has offered unique arts education for youths aged 3 to 17, a program that includes studio instruction and a chance to show off original work in gallery shows. “The arts are really grounding agents in communities, especially when they’re aimed at young people,” Jenson said. “We’re dealing with vulnerable populations to start out with (and) 900 kids a year are being schooled in resilience and creative problem solving.”
Jenson is quick to add that city leaders shouldn’t necessarily look to recreate the specific model of DAVA across the city. Instead, new neighborhoods should look to their own cultural needs.
“It’s a little different than just creating an art venue, per se, it’s a question of how you fulfill the needs of the community that you’re addressing,” Jenson said. “It could be that in the eastern part of Aurora, they’re more interested in dance and theater programs. Then what you have to do is say what do we have to do long term to address a need that’s sustainable?”
It’s a search that seems all the more difficult in a time of shrinking arts funding. But Jenson also sees a more general lesson in the story of north Aurora. Niche shops and small businesses that have lasted on the strip have catered to the neighborhood’s changing makeup. Jenson sees the diversity on East Colfax as a key tool to its economic survival and a lesson to the rest of the city.
“I think that it has to do with giving different cultures a role in the arts district, highlighting the diversity of the cultures,” she said. “When I look at this portion of East Colfax compared to other parts of the city, what I’m proud of is the incredible cultural diversity and the stability that multinational businesses have brought to this area.”
BOB HAGEDORN, FORMER STATE LAWMAKER
Group therapy is over, Aurora. Time to let reality sink in and move on, says Bob Hagedorn, a former Aurora state lawmaker and resident here since forever.
Well, not exactly forever, but as a military brat, his dad moved the toddling Hagedorn and the family to northwest Aurora in the early ’60s, and he’s been here since. After spending time as a reporter writing about Aurora, working for Aurora Public Schools, then as a history professor at Metro State College in Denver and also as a legislator in the state House and Senate for several terms, Hagedorn says he has a pretty good idea of what Aurora is all about: It’s a suburb. It’s a really big one. Now get over it.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a suburb,” he says, referring to the notion that the city is forever struggling with its identity. “What’s wrong with having several identities?” Aurora has plenty. It’s home to Buckley and often seen as the metro area’s military town. It’s home to the massive and growing hospital, research, university and bioscience mega-campus on what used to be the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center at Colfax and Peoria. Home to the University of Colorado’s medical school and hospital programs, Children’s Hospital Colorado and, soon, a brand-new Veterans Administration hospital complex, Aurora has become the center of health care and research for the region, as well as the metro area.
He suffered the effects of Aurora’s metamorphosis as a state lawmaker in the’90s.
“We stole their water,” Hagedorn said he heard on many occasions from outstate types when he was in the state House and Senate. The fear was that Aurora would take over the region with a new core city and bully its way into whatever it wanted. It never happened. Instead, Aurora has become an even bigger suburb with a growing list of serious assets and opportunities.
“And there is nothing wrong with that,” Hagedorn said. Go with the flow, is his advice. And the flow is to the east, where Front Range Airport could become a honest-to-God spaceport ready to take off — with the help of Aurora’s water and clout. Go with the flow at Fitzsimons, where bioscience, research and health care look to become the center of that universe here in the mountain west.
Hagedorn sees huge opportunities for Aurora by exploiting the new economic life on Fitzsimons and nearby Lowry, another former military installation gone from bad to so much better. “We’re beginning to see how all these pieces fit together,” he says, encouraging more of that regional appreciation. “That’s the view that will bring Aurora into focus.”
RHONDA FIELDS, STATE REPRESENTATIVE
Aurora state Rep. Rhonda Fields wants Aurora to tend its roots and the families who live there.
Fields propelled herself into politics with the goal of improving public safety and criminal justice laws a few years after her son was murdered. Crime and how the government handles it has been a huge part of her life ever since. After taking office as a Democratic state House Representative in 2010, she has worked to increase penalties for hit-and-run traffic accidents and increase school safety. Still, she says, there’s more work to do in the realm of public safety in Aurora, the city she’s called home for more nearly three decades. In the wake of the July 20 theater massacre, she’s looking at sponsoring legislation in the 2013 Legislative session that would make it harder for criminals to get their hands on lethal weapons. But the real change has to start at the local level, she said, with opportunities for children who have nowhere to go once the school bell signals the day is over.
“I’m concerned about unsupervised youth and children because we don’t have enough recreational facilities and safe places for our kids to play,” she said.
Getting kids off the streets will reduce the chances of getting involved with the wrong crowds and experimenting with drugs, she said. It could also be a solution to the increasing number of high school girls who are getting pregnant. Fields said that’s a serious issue, specifically in north Aurora.
“I’m concerned about the number of people who are slipping through the cracks and not graduating from high school,” she said. She’s also interested in reducing the population of homeless people in Aurora, something the city didn’t explicitly recognize until Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan took office in 2011. As the city grows and new developments and business opportunities crop up, Fields says it’s important to remain cognizant of the needs in north Aurora, with its gritty neighborhoods and crime-ridden streets. She’s intent on not letting residents’ needs be overshadowed by economic development opportunities.
“I think the city of Aurora is a great place to live and raise a family, and I think we’ll continue to see positive growth,” she said. “But we don’t need to abandon the neighbors and families that are in the north Aurora neighborhoods. I don’t want our families to be forgotten as it relates to economic development.”