*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on June 21, 2021. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Colorado Springs needs a worthy adversary. A competitor that pushes the city to make us sharper, stronger, better, more thoughtful. Author Simon Sinek describes a “worthy adversary” as “another player in the game worthy of comparison” that we choose “because there is something about them that reveals to us our weaknesses and pushes us to constantly improve.”
It’s nice that Colorado Springs lands atop “best of” lists. That we get to see some new travel organization’s declared the city’s greatness. But something about these labels should bother residents of Olympic City USA. Nobody should just get handed a medal. You’ve got to go head to head. You’ve got to go out there and beat somebody.
We should beat Omaha. Omaha’s close, almost exactly the same size (both cities were a little over 478,000 residents when measured in 2019). Each is affiliated with a prominent private college and one significant branch of the state university system. A Cold War-era major military command is headquartered in both. Each features great not-quite-top-professional sporting opportunities: the College World Series and U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha; college hockey, Olympic sports, and now soccer in Colorado Springs. Both feature amazing zoos. Both are tied to two wealthy residents in William J. Palmer of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Warren Buffett of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
We’re not exactly equal. Omaha’s a little bigger in total metropolitan population, and Colorado Springs has more land area. And then there’s the shape. Flat versus rocky, horizontal versus vertical, across versus up. In recent meetings there, I heard Omahans lament that they couldn’t attract young people to work there. That it’s not a walkable city. They’ve got geographic envy, which is understandable.
But not entirely correct. Omaha doesn’t have the vistas, to be sure, but I ran for several miles on Big Papillion Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River that cuts through town. The birds and waterfowl, the colors and chirps, were magnificent. And the pinks poking out from the gargantuan clouds that seemed to stretch farther than a sky should be able to stretch—Omaha has its own natural beauty.
The word “Omaha” itself means “dwellers on the bluff,” an accurate depiction in my estimation. Certainly more accurate than Colorado Springs’ title, which doesn’t actually have any springs to speak of (they’re over in Manitou Springs).
Both have “sister cities,” that silly age-old practice that may have held some meaning at some time for some reason. But those days are gone. Does it matter that Omaha has six sister cities, one in Lithuania? Does anyone actually care that Colorado Springs has a sister city in Kyrgyzstan, and a total of seven?
Instead of a near-meaningless expression of friendship with a foreign city, why not coordinate to compete with a domestic rival city?
I was born in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis and Saint Paul have had a friendly rivalry going since the Big Bang. One sits on the west side of the Mississippi River, the other to the east, which makes for quite a watery line in the sand. It’s not perfect — some take it a little too seriously — but it has driven both to being better.
Here’s how it would work. The mayors convene a small task force, including universities, nonprofits, newspapers, chambers of commerce, and other societal stakeholders. Make the rivalry zero in on governance and quality of life. Make it relative to each city’s current baseline. Make it about gains and growth (in startups and air quality) and drops and declines (in, say, homelessness and crime). Tie it to metrics, observable and transparent for all to see. Let the college professors and graduate programs score the competition. Call it “City Stakes.”
You could make these stakes friendly. The winner might receive a box of (Omaha) steaks from the second finisher. But you could also coordinate with local philanthropic communities to put some money on the table that’s intended for public benefit.
City Stakes would be the best kind of fight. Nobody loses. Sure, pride’ll get stung from time to time, maybe one city goes on a winning streak. But that’ll spur innovation and redouble efforts. Competition is part of all our lives and we’d be wise to make it work for us and improve our cities.
And besides, doesn’t Olympic City USA want to win its own gold? It’s time to declare war on Omaha. May the best city win.