Hindsight’s 2020, and in hindsight, 2020 was a pretty miserable year for a lot of Fort Collins, City Manager Darin Atteberry acknowledged in this year’s “State of the City” event.
But he and Mayor Wade Troxell hope that’s not all people will take away from a whirlwind year that brought Fort Collins three transformative events: the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastating Cameron Peak Fire and the movement for racial justice and change in policing practices.
Troxell and Atteberry delivered that message during their sixth annual State of the City address Monday night. The event, which is Troxell’s last as mayor, took place virtually this year.
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Both Troxell and Atteberry expressed optimism about the future of Fort Collins and said 2020’s challenges also gave the community opportunities to band together and create meaningful change.
“The state of the city is strong and resilient,” Troxell said. “We have great promise for the future. Let’s proceed boldly and realize this promise together.”
The virtual State of the City event included three videos focused on the most impactful events the community experienced during 2020 and live conversation between Troxell and Atteberry. Here’s a look at highlights from the event in case you missed it.
The challenge of COVID-19
It’s been nearly a year since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Larimer County on March 9, 2020. Within a week of that confirmation, schools, businesses and workplaces shuttered as the community dealt with a frightening and ever-evolving pandemic.
Since then, the virus has killed more than 200 people in Larimer County.
“We realized this was going to be a really big deal,” Larimer County Health Director Tom Gonzales said in a video aired during the State of the City event. “Nothing in our emergency plans was quite ready for the volume of resource requests at the same time throughout our entire country.”
Fort Collins Emergency Preparedness Director Jim Byrne said the city had to “ramp up really fast to figure out these challenges we weren’t really prepared for.” City leaders were watching the situation develop in January and February, “but even in the emergency management world, there really wasn’t quite that clarity of, ‘what does this mean?’ ” Byrne said. “We hadn’t had a significant pandemic in 100 years.”
As the parameters of the pandemic seemed to change “almost hourly,” it was hard for the city to keep up, city recovery manager SeonAh Kendall said. But the city rallied, Kendall and others said, distributing information and aid to small businesses and eventually allocating about 70% of federal CARES Act money directly to community needs like housing, food security and utility bill assistance. The city worked with the county and other partners to launch the “Keep NoCo Open” campaign to promote a sustainable balance of public health measures and an open economy.
Businesses like Old Elk Distillery pivoted operations to produce hand sanitizer for city employees and other essential workers. City Council adopted a mask requirement for visitors to local businesses, making Fort Collins among the first Colorado municipalities to do so. The city partnered with Colorado State University to begin testing wastewater for coronavirus loads to assess where cases might be spiking.
“We realized very quickly that there’s energy that comes from doing these things together,” Byrne said.
“I just saw our behaviors change,” Gonzales added. “I didn’t want to wear a face covering. I don’t want to stay home. But we all did that. We made those sacrifices to save lives.”
Atteberry thanked CSU leaders, health care providers, and others for helping the community respond to the pandemic. He thanked Gonzales in particular for his service to the community.
“We thank you for your resiliency, your accessibility and your professionalism,” Atteberry said. “You have really stepped up. Not everybody agrees with every decision you’ve made, but you’ve modeled civility and professionalism, and we’re grateful for that.”
The racial justice movement
The COVID-19 pandemic had already highlighted existing disparities in equity and health outcomes for non-white people in Fort Collins and beyond, Atteberry and Troxell said — and then, in May, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests rippled through the nation and across the globe, including in Fort Collins. The police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others prompted outrage and “showed the world the painful price of white supremacy,” said DeAngelo Bowden, a specialist with the city’s social sustainability department.
“The effects of COVID-19 made these disparities painfully obvious,” Bowden said. “The country seemed to pay attention in ways we had not seen in decades. The outpouring of demands for racial justice rivaled the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
As primarily peaceful protests took place in Old Town, at Colorado State University and and Fort Collins Police Services headquarters, Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said he supported the protesters and acknowledged that police brutality needed to be addressed in America.
In response, City Council created an ad-hoc community impact committee focused on creating a safe and equitable community for all. The committee continues to meet and is expected to make supplemental budget requests early this year. The city also launched its Equity Indicators project, which is assessing equity gaps in Fort Collins and will soon present data online with targets to address outdated systems that perpetuate racism and oppression.
The city launched another new program focused on improving recruitment, retention and leadership for employees of color, Bowden said. Atteberry added that the city is beginning recruitment this month for a new position that will report directly to his office: chief equity and inclusion officer.
“This will not be embedded down in the organization somewhere,” Atteberry said. “This will give a highest-level voice of authority to this important topic throughout our organization and externally in the community.”
The Cameron Peak Fire
The final transformative event of 2020 was the Cameron Peak Fire, which this fall became the largest wildfire in state history at about 208,000 acres, or more than five times the size of Fort Collins.
More than 2,000 personnel from 46 states and Puerto Rico staffed the fire at its peak, Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint said.
The fire was first reported Aug. 14 at Cameron Pass and spread rapidly, fueled by extreme temperatures, low humidity and hurricane-force winds. The effects of climate change exacerbated an already dangerous situation. The blaze ripped through rugged terrain and burned stands of drought-stricken and beetle-killed trees and burned more than 78,000 acres in just three days, DeMint recalled, threatening CSU’s Mountain Campus, the Red Feather Lakes area and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Hundreds of people had to evacuate their homes, and the fire ultimately damaged or destroyed almost 500 structures, includes 42 permanent homes. The blaze also burned about 75% of Fort Collins’ Bobcat Ridge Natural Area and is expected to have heavy impacts on water quality in the Poudre River, much of which will play out during snowmelt this spring.
DeMint recalled the days in October when heavy winds pushed the flames toward the Masonville area. The skies went dark and ash again rained from the sky.
“The fire created a different kind of alarm as it entered PFA jurisdiction for first time,” DeMint said. “Distant flames could be seen from the streets of Fort Collins. Many of you felt a more acute concern or even fear.”
Crews, aided by a few well-timed snow storms, ultimately got the fire 100% contained in early December. The containment marked the end of a chapter for DeMint, who will soon be retiring after more than 30 years with PFA.
Atteberry called DeMint “a consummate leader” and said the city will miss him dearly.
Troxell’s last address
Looking ahead, Troxell and Atteberry said they have high hopes for the city’s future. They emphasized 2020 achievements in the continued rollout of Connexion, the city’s municipal broadband service, and the city’s commitment to providing essential services every day despite COVID-19 impacts.
Troxell said he’s proud that the city “came together” to address the challenges of 2020. He reflected on the city’s population boom since he was born at Poudre Valley Hospital, when about 20,000 people lived in the growing agricultural town, to today’s community of about 175,000.
“This community isn’t defined by some number, but it’s really captured as a wonderful community of friendly, supportive individuals building a better community for the future,” Troxell said. “Fort Collins is a great community, not defined by the awards or the best-of recognitions, but by the wonderful people caring for each other in aggregate and for the love of Fort Collins.”
He thanked the city’s staff and leaders and said it’s been an honor to be mayor for nearly six years and on council for eight years before that. He added that “average thinking” is the key barrier Fort Collins must overcome in the future, and he encouraged the community to work to transform mobility systems, create a more circular climate-friendly economy, enable affordable housing for everyone and encourage local food production and access to nature throughout the community.
“We need to think aspirationally, be bold, and come together as a Northern Colorado region,” he said. “We need to lift our heads up and look to the horizon and intentionally chart the path to our future state, and correct as necessary. Let’s be purposeful about Fort Collins and about Northern Colorado.”
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.