Just like the overall state of things in Colorado, Pueblo is also doing well. But, if you ask its new mayor, he’d like to turn ‘good’ into ‘better’ and ‘better’ into ‘best.’ And, if things stay on the current track, said Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar, that is going to happen. If Chicago is the nation’s city ‘with big shoulders,’ Gradisar believes Pueblo is Colorado’s version.
“We’re in very good shape,” said Gradisar in a telephone interview just hours after presenting his first State of the City address to an enthusiastic crowd of business leaders. Using sales tax as a marker of how things are going in southern Colorado’s hub city, the first-year mayor said all indicators are good. “This year we’ll collect $2.5 million dollars,” in new sale tax revenue.
The city recorded “over 1,000 new sales tax licenses,” said Gradisar, most of which are from online retailers. Sales tax is the driving component in the city’s overall budget, accounting for “approximately 60 percent of the city’s budget.”
Gradisar, the city’s first mayor since changing the charter from City Manager to strong Mayor form of government, has pledged to change not only how outsiders see the town that was once Colorado’s second largest city, but also how current residents view it, as well. One way is to make sure that infrastructure gets the attention it needs.
The attorney turned chief executive admitted that the city had been lax in adequately addressing infrastructure. “We were pretty far behind the curve,” he said. He has ordered that work begin this year on “twenty streets that need attention.” The Mayor said he is confident that “we have a system in place to begin addressing these concerns.”
While street repairs are ‘shovel ready,’ the same cannot be said for other transportation projects Gradisar said are as important to Pueblo. The city will “not receive adequate funding from the state” to upgrade I-25 through Pueblo, he said. As a result, Pueblo is going to find its own way to address this challenge.
While crime has fallen in Pueblo---a decrease of 16 percent in serious crime in 2019---the FBI says the city remains third on the list of Colorado’s most dangerous cities. To that end, the city has used its Public Safety Sales Tax to boost hiring on the police force. “When you’re short-staffed,” said Gradisar, “all you do is respond to crimes.” The city now has 227 officers on the force.
Police policies, he said, have also contributed to the decrease in burglaries, which are down “70 percent in one neighborhood.” But the city’s homicide rate rose in 2019. Still, Gradisar, a lifelong Puebloan, said “Pueblo has had a bad rap,” and is no different than other larger cities in Colorado “in terms of being an unsafe place.”
While Pueblo was once Colorado’s second largest city, that was a long time ago. Today, it has relinquished its spot as number two, three, four and now sits as the tenth largest city in the state. But Gradisar is optimistic that through economic development, Pueblo will catch people’s eye.
“We’ve been very successful in that effort,” he said. The city’s economy is diversified “with a good mix of employers.” Steel, once the driving engine that fueled employment----at peak, the Steel Mill employed 10,000 workers---is no longer king. But, said Mayor Gradisar, Evraz Steel remains important. The company employs approximately 800 full time workers and has plans to expand and add to the workforce.
Times have also dictated a place for the marijuana industry at the table, said Gradisar. “Marijuana is a good economic driver for Pueblo County.” For the first 11 months of 2019, the marijuana industry, including eight retail shops in the city, contributed $1.5 million to the economy. No matter how one might feel about it, he said, “it’s not going to go away.”
Providing a good quality of life for residents is important, said Gradisar. The city, like many others, has addressed its homeless issue. The city has partnered with the Pueblo Rescue Mission to operate a shelter.
Pueblo’s Parks and Recreation Department, said Gradisar, has planned improvements for its citizens, including improvements at Lake Minnequa and the city’s signature River Walk.
The New Year will also mark Pueblo’s 150th year as a city. The sesquicentennial milestone will be marked all throughout the year. Events will include the first ever Collegiate Criterium Bicycling Event set for March 14 and 15. Both college bicyclists and professionals will compete.
Gradisar believes the race along with other events planned for 2020 will draw visitors from out of town and allow people---especially first timers---to experience Colorado’s city with ‘big shoulders.’