photo - The abandoned Smuggler’s Inn restaurant lies abandoned Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 along Fountain Blvd. in southeastern Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
The abandoned Smuggler’s Inn restaurant lies abandoned Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 along Fountain Blvd. in southeastern Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Short on answers for how to revitalize southeast Colorado Springs, residents Whitney Pacheco and Steven Deluna said the next step must be for them to get involved.

"I don't feel like we got a whole lot of answers other than "We're trying," Pacheco said after a panel hosted by The Gazette Wednesday evening, which focused on the problems plaguing the southeast part of the city. "I'm still wondering what they're going to do here?"

The panel discussion attended by about 75 people was held in response to The Gazette's recent five-day series on how the southeast has failed to share in Colorado Springs' prosperity. The area, home to 94,000 people, wrestles with high levels of poverty and crime while most of the city has record low unemployment, a strong economy and a hot real estate market.

City Council member Yolanda Avila was joined on the panel by Jeannie Orozco, a newly elected Harrison School District 2 board member, Jariah Walker, executive director of the city's Urban Renewal Authority and Scott Whittington, commander at the Colorado Springs Police Department's Sand Creek Division.

Asked about many of the issues highlighted in The Gazette's series, panelists reiterated that residents need to become involved in finding solutions and use the power of the ballot. They conceded that investment from developers who have largely avoided the area for decades is critical.

Afterward, when Pacheco and Deluna asked Avila, who represents the southeast, how they can get started, she responded, "Oh, my gosh," what is it you like to do? What's your baby?"

She suggested the couple join a city board or committee that represents their interests. That way they report directly to the City Council and have an impact.

It's work, Deluna said. But work that needs to be done. "It's just so much easier to stay ignorant and bury your head in the sand. There are too many people staying away, not getting involved."

Part of that involvement, means eating at southeast restaurants and shopping at area businesses, Walker said. That can give money to local business owners, create jobs and fuel the area's economy.

For his part, Walker said the city is making the southeast a priority - along with southwest downtown and the South Nevada Avenue corridor - for new development, particularly urban renewal areas, which fund revitalization projects using property and sales tax dollars from within the area's boundaries.

None exist in the southeast. But Mayor John Suthers said the city needs to establish them there. On Tuesday, Walker echoed that goal.

But urban renewal areas present a challenge, Walker said. The city can create one, but that boosts property values, often to the detriment of those in the area, if real estate speculators begin buying up distressed properties. And with that approach, existing property prices can soar, and there is no guarantees a developer will make an investment.

Or the city can wait for a developer to show interest - which isn't a given in the southeast, where incomes are far less than other areas of the city, Walker said.

Walker praised the Ivywild School redevelopment, where a former school was turned into a brewery and restaurants, as the type of project that could benefit the southeast.

The panel was asked about affordable housing in the area, and the answers left Pastor Ben Anderson of Solid Rock Christian Church, 2520 Arlington Drive, unsatisfied.

"We have people who need affordable housing," Anderson said. "They are living in apartments that are substandard - where the only thing they can afford is substandard."

"We just got to make that better," he added.

The panel briefly addressed during the discussion, but offered no concrete answers.

"The affordable housing market just isn't that palatable for people who are trying to make a return on their investment," Walker said of builders.

Avila had a suggestion for cleaning up some of the southeast's crime- and pest-ridden apartment complexes - for many, the only affordable place to live.

In its series, The Gazette interviewed tenants of apartment complexes owned by Terry Ragan, which account for more than half of all city code enforcement housing cases and about 80 percent of housing code violations. Living conditions at Ragan's apartments have deteriorated in the past decade while promises from past council members to crackdown on landlords who don't maintain their properties fell by the wayside.

"We are going to be tightening up those codes significantly," Avila said, alluding to a possible increase in fines for repeat offenses.