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Fort Collins’ City Council District 1 race is the only one on the April 6 ballot with an incumbent facing off against a challenger.
Incumbent council member Susan Gutowsky was elected for a partial term in 2019, a few months after council members appointed her to fill the seat left by county Assessor Bob Overbeck. The other candidate is Nick Armstrong, a small-business owner and president of the Maple Hill HOA. His campaign message is largely focused on neighborhood connectivity and the lack of infrastructure that leaves north Fort Collins largely cut off from the rest of the community.
Gutowsky is pointing to her experience navigating Fort Collins through the COVID-19 pandemic and her history of advocating for environmental issues as “clean, safe, livable neighborhoods.”
GUIDE TO APRIL’S ELECTION: Get to know the candidates and the issues
District 1 covers almost all of Fort Collins northeast of the intersection of Drake Road and College Avenue, including the most northern reaches near Richards Lake.
Armstrong has raised about $5,900 to Gutowsky’s $7,300, as of the March 2 campaign finance filings.
Nick Armstrong: ‘The status quo is way too expensive for all our neighbors’
If you want nice things in the northernmost neighborhoods of Fort Collins, you might have to get creative.
Just ask Nick Armstrong, a community leader who has led elaborate projects to get speed bumps in his neighborhood, secure irrigation for Crescent Park and cover up graffiti with a 190-foot mural off Richards Lake Road, among other things.
Armstrong lives on the northern edge of District 1, in the Maple Hill neighborhood east of the Fort Collins Country Club. With limited or nonexistent trails, sidewalks and infrastructure for walking, biking and public transit, north Fort Collins is largely disconnected from the rest of the community, Armstrong said.
That’s why he built his City Council campaign around the community’s need for connectivity, a problem he sees as stretching “from Drake to Richards Lake” in Fort Collins. Residents shouldn’t have to circle the block looking for parking before they give up on visiting a local business or play a pedestrian-style game of Frogger to cross the street or get in their car to drive somewhere they could easily walk or bike to if only they had access to a bike trail or sidewalk, Armstrong said.
Armstrong thinks the city has kicked the “connective infrastructure” can down the road for decades.
“Problems are hard to solve here,” he said. “They’re not impossible, but they do take effort, and effort is what we’ve been lacking over the last 30 years.”
The result is a higher cost of living, degraded cyclist and pedestrian safety, and disproportionate impacts to one-car households and parents who have to work and get their kids to school every day, Armstrong said.
Part of his campaign tagline is, “No matter where you live in Fort Collins, your neighbor on City Council should have your back to listen, learn and take action.”
“I truly with all of my heart believe that, and I will act on it when elected,” he said. “From Hughes to northeast Fort Collins, to southeast and southwest Fort Collins — the farther you get out from the city center, the more prevalent those (connectivity) issues become. We have to have a council that’s willing to work on collaborative, creative solutions for all areas and understand that talking to the neighbors is the first step at solving some of those problems. The status quo is way too expensive for all our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable in our community.”
Armstrong said the feeling among some of his neighbors in District 1 is that Gutowsky does “a lot of listening but not a lot of action or follow-through” on the issues that they care about most. He considers himself the ideal person for the seat because he’s skilled in wrangling red tape and getting people together to solve problems. He owns a small marketing firm, WTF Marketing, is president of the Maple Hill HOA and sits on the board of Boxelder Sanitation District. He was also the lead organizer for Fort Collins Comic Con and Fort Collins Startup Week.
He envisions a Fort Collins where more members of the community, including residents and local businesses, are involved in the work on things like housing affordability, environmental sustainability, economic recovery and a “360-degree solution” for homelessness. He lists detailed proposals for each of those issues at nickforfoco.com/issues.
For housing, he wants to see more community hubs like Old Town spread throughout Fort Collins so people throughout the city have access to grocery stores, libraries, retail and parks within walking or biking distance of their neighborhoods. He thinks that will require more collaboration because at this point, “we’ve put so much pressure on community builders to create mobility in their neighborhoods, to have walkable shops to honor the land, and to make sure there’s open spaces and parks and that everything looks pretty.”
Armstrong wants those things for development, too, but he said the current approach often misses the mark because it’s one-sided and not cohesive enough. He cited the lines of dying trees at the Ridgen Farm subdivision, the result of insufficient irrigation water, as an example. A problem closer to his neck of the woods is the traffic on Country Club Road, which has led many north Fort Collins residents to oppose the proposed Montava development because it could make the problem worse.
Armstrong, for his part, thinks Montava could be a real asset for north Fort Collins — if it’s paired with needed road and infrastructure improvements.
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“We have to have our neighbors’ backs by insisting that the infrastructure development occur concurrently with the development itself,” he said. “Responsible development has to be paired with responsible infrastructure, otherwise, you create even more of a meat grinder situation along Country Club Road.”
Armstrong said the community has “had my back,” from his time at Colorado State University to his experience starting his business and raising a family here. Running for council is his way of “send(ing) the elevator back down” to lift up other community members.
“This is not just me blowing hot air as a politician,” he said. “It’s informed optimism. There is a pathway for us to take our leadership position as a truly representative and diverse community that is leading the way on art, science, culture — you name it, we can do it here. I have seen the structural framework of that in our community, and we just need to tie it together.”
For more about Armstrong, see his website: nickforfoco.com. View his answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.
Among Armstrong’s endorsements are Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell; Cathy Bartlett-Jones, marketing and events manager for ChildSafe Colorado; Aquiles Quiroga, owner of Quiroga Interpreting Services; the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Collins Board of Realtors.
Susan Gutowsky: ‘There is no better thing than experience’
Being the only incumbent on the ballot puts Susan Gutowsky in a unique position.
On one hand, she’s the only candidate who has experience governing Fort Collins through the pandemic. On the other, she’s the only one who has a record to defend that is fresh on the public’s mind.
She’s at peace with that.
“I look back at what I’ve done on council as the most valuable experience I could ever have,” she said. “What I’m focusing on is using that experience moving forward, because we’ve experienced, hopefully, the worst of the pandemic, but now we’re focused so keenly and aggressively on recovery. And I think when we’re looking at recovery, there is no better thing than experience.”
Gutowsky said she’s proud of the work she’s done on council. She wanted to “put people over profits” in the city’s distribution of federal pandemic aid, much of which went toward utility bill and rent assistance, small business loans, assistance for the homeless population, public transportation and other community aid.
If she’s reelected, she plans to advocate for the city’s next round of federal aid to be concentrated primarily on social and economic health. She said she’s particularly concerned about the mental health impacts of the pandemic and that council will need to focus on “rebuild(ing) the economy in order for us to survive as a city.”
Gutowsky was first elected to council in 2019. She ran on a platform of maintaining clean, safe, livable neighborhoods and protecting the Poudre River.
She feels her actions on council have done all of the above: She voted against the city permit for a pipeline associated with the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), though the majority of council approved it, and she has consistently sided with residents who’ve expressed concerns about the proposed Montava development, the lockers for homeless people at the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship and the usage of the Northside Aztlan Community Center as an emergency homeless shelter. She was also a proponent of council’s efforts to create a legal defense fund for immigrants and put a single-use plastic bag ban on the April ballot.
Her vote on the Aztlan Center in particular inspired backlash from some of the community. The city and service providers had been using the center to provide 24/7 shelter for the homeless population during the spring and early summer, but council in June had to decide between continuing to use the space as a shelter or holding a scheduled summer day camp for kids with working parents. Gutowsky voted with the majority of council, which opted to close the shelter so the camp could go on as planned. The city later worked with service providers to secure an overnight shelter and a separate day shelter location for inclement weather, but it never found a suitable location for day-and-night shelter.
Gutowsky said she circled back with some homeless service providers who were upset about her vote, and she found the conversations fruitful.
“They may still not feel good about me and the other people who voted that way, but at least I knew that they understood why I voted the way I did,” she said. “I was pretty sure that the city and service providers would find another places for the homeless to (sleep). But there was no other place for the neighborhood to do their child care or the other things that they use the Aztlan center for.”
Gutowsky’s opponent, Armstrong, is running on a platform that encourages voters to look beyond the “status quo.” Gutowsky said she finds the message “amusing.”
“The pandemic, back in March, turned our status quo completely upside down,” she said. “There is no status quo. What we’ve done in the meantime is make every effort to recover so that we can get back to the economic level that we were at before this all happened. So right now, before we move way ahead, we have to catch up and have a recovery period.”
She said she agrees with Armstrong’s points about the need to connect northeast Fort Collins with the rest of the community.
“Up to this point, we didn’t see that necessity,” she said. “A lot of people who live up there moved there because they kind of wanted to get out of the city. But now, the dynamic of the demographics has changed, such that they’re looking for neighborhoods that are connected with schools, that are connected with each other, and I fully support that.”
But she also said she’s more in tune than Armstrong is with the bureaucratic and financial limitations of municipal government.
“I was in that same position two years ago, where I was saying, ‘Well, we need to do this and we need to do that’ — making promises,” she said. “Then I got into the job and realized that I was one voice of seven and that lived experience was so humbling. And then the pandemic hit, and we were in survival mode.”
“You can’t come in with your agenda, and I would counsel anybody to avoid that,” she said. “Come in with hopes and dreams but always knowing that you’re going to have to work with the other six as a team to accomplish what’s best.”
For more about Gutowsky, visit her website: susan-gutowsky.com. View her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.
Among Gutowsky’s endorsements are U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, Larimer County Commissioner Kristin Stephens, former District 1 council member and county Assessor Bob Overbeck, council member Julie Pignataro and mayor pro-tem Ross Cunniff.
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.