Since 2017, students in Randy Harrison’s ‘Economic Development’ class (PUAD 5630) have had the opportunity to engage with Colorado communities in an experience unlike any felt in a typical classroom. Through its partnership with Downtown Colorado, Inc., this SPA course allows students to become project coordinators in a process known as the Colorado Challenge Program; here, students connect with community members and experts in the field to establish a plan of work to engage public, private, and non-profit partners in addressing a significant community challenge over the course of their semester.[i] Through their partnership, SPA students and DCI have connected with and created initiatives for almost 30 Colorado communities.
Despite the touchdown of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the intentions for community improvement by this year’s SPA students, their DCI partner, and the five Colorado communities selected to participate in the program were unwavering.
In order to shape their plans of action, the SPA-DCI team transitioned their work with the 2020 Challenge Communities entirely online. While some communities shifted their respective challenges to address COVID-19 recovery and planning, the community of Old Colorado City kept their sights set on their original challenge to “Form Corridor Partnerships.” More specifically, Old Colorado City sought to establish themselves as a strong community partner to their Colorado Avenue neighbors, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs. In the midst of a global pandemic, and with their goal in mind, the OCC-SPA-DCI team got to work.
Throughout the course of the semester, SPA Student Coordinator John Hill worked closely with the OCC Special Improvement Maintenance District (SIMD) Board Chair, Jonathan Neely, to identify opportunities for the community to not only connect with their Corridor partners but thrive in their own right.
Jonathan Neely provided the below testimonial about his experience in the Challenge program:
“The Old Colorado City Partnership is excited to be a part of the Colorado Challenge Program and partner with Downtown Colorado, Inc. and the School of Public Affairs as part of the continued effort to connect OCC with regional partners and revitalize the district. The work done through DCI and the SPA students this past year has created a foundation for the OCCP to enhance our advocacy efforts and connect with regional efforts.”
As the project progressed and various pressures stemming from COVID-19 crept in, previous SPA student coordinator Jackie Hazelwood joined the team to assist in broadening the scope of the project to focus on opportunities all three Corridor communities could take advantage of. Hazelwood brought her prior experience working with Center, Colorado in the 2019 Challenge Program to the table.
Jackie Hazelwood provided the below testimonial about her experience working with DCI and participating in the Challenge program:
“In working with Downtown Colorado, Inc. (DCI) and two different Colorado Challenge Communities over the course of the last year, I’ve gained invaluable hands-on experience in the field of Economic Development. In addition to the field experience gained, my classmates and I were able to build relationships with the individual communities we worked with. In thinking back on this “course,” it feels like anything but work done in a classroom; we were able to see our efforts directly translate to action!”
The conversations and planning between various Corridor stakeholders culminated in a two-hour Virtual Studio Workshop on April 16, 2020 in which DCI and now Corridor partners, Old Colorado City, Manitou Springs, and Colorado Springs, brought together presenters to provide a framework for establishing a revitalization strategy for Old Colorado City. The Virtual Studio Workshop included two breakout sessions where participants brainstormed ideas to establish Old Colorado City as a strong partner along this commercial corridor. Additionally, participants highlighted key assets the entire Corridor could capitalize on in their collective goal of creating a unique progression between the communities’ retail areas along Colorado Avenue.
As the semester came to a close, SPA students put together a comprehensive report for each community summarizing identified assets, obstacles, and opportunities their respective community might pursue based on stakeholder conversations and the Virtual Studio Workshop. Today, DCI continues to work with each of these communities to implement the action plans SPA students put together for the 2020 Challenge Communities.
The SPA Economic Development class has been credited by communities for providing an important service at this time of need. Past students from this class have also attributed the real-life experience as the number one class they reference when sharing experience for a job interview. The class is remarkably well-suited for virtual participation and in 2021 will consider the prospects and frameworks that communities will need to build more inclusive places in the future.
The School of Public Affairs Economic Development class
This class has been credited by communities for provided an important service at this time of need. Past students from this class have also attributed the real-life experience as the number one class they reference when sharing experience for a job interview. The class is remarkably well-suited for virtual participation and in 2021 will consider the prospects and frameworks that communities will need to build more inclusive places in the future.
[i] Downtown Colorado, Inc. (2020). https://downtowncoloradoinc.org/Colorado-Challenge-Program