Restaurants and antique shops line Main Street in Florence. The town is trying to move on from a tumultuous year which included its city council resigning en masse. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At 8 p.m. on a summer weeknight, the setting sun slants its last warm rays through the trees along Main Street in Florence. The antique stores, bakery and coffee shops are closed, and the nearly empty dinner spots will soon follow.

The benches that provide a shady respite during the day are empty. There’s a livelier — though by no means raucous — spot a couple blocks down Pikes Peak Avenue to the south where the Florence Brewing Company and the Special Forces Motorcycle Club sit side-by-side at the edge of downtown.

Like most towns of fewer than 4,000 residents, downtown quiets at sundown yet offers a comfortable, welcoming spot for a short stroll.

It doesn’t feel like a town where the entire city council resigned, swept up in political turmoil over sordid revelations about the former city manager. Nor like a town on edge because the most notorious prison in the country is just out of view. Nor like a town that struggled alongside its rural counterparts to keep small businesses alive during the ongoing pandemic.

It seems more like a town embracing the merchants’ slogan of “Find It In Florence,” whether that be a kitschy knickknack, a haven for remote workers seeking relief from the rat race of large Front Range cities or a place with traffic-free access to hiking, biking and river recreation. 

“I call this place Oz,” said Millie Wintz, archivist with the Florence Historical Archive. “This is a town of mixed media.”

That eclectic spirit has made and remade Florence several times during its 150-year history, and it’s what many say they’re counting on as it elects an entirely new city council, hires a city manager, and tries to put a year of bitter upheaval behind it.

Trouble in City Hall

When long-time City Manager Mike Patterson was abruptly fired Aug. 31, it didn’t take long for things to unravel. Initially, demands for answers as to why were met with silence and requests for records were rejected.

The Concerned Citizens of Florence quickly formed to seek transparency instead of rumors, and reporters descended on the tiny town.

The details began to spill out and in November Patterson was arrested on suspicion of stalking, unlawful sexual contact and providing alcohol to a minor.

Town residents learned of previous accusations of sexual harassment against Patterson and former Police Chief Mike DeLaurentis by a former female employee that resulted in a paid settlement of $55,000 in 2019, according to the Cañon City Daily Record. And reports soon followed that Patterson had pleaded guilty in a domestic assault case in Oregon a decade earlier — a background that previous city council members were reportedly aware of when they hired him. The Oregonian reported that he was required to attend 18 months of counseling in that plea deal.

More victims stepped forward and in early 2022 two of them filed federal lawsuits against Patterson and the city, alleging sexual harassment and assault and claiming that city officials, including acting city manager Sean Garrett, ignored their complaints.

Settlements in both cases were reached this month but have not been finalized, according to federal court records.

Patterson’s criminal case, which involves a potential plea deal, has been delayed into August.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered city council in February halted its effort to hire a new city manager after interviewing Garrett and an outside candidate. Instead, it brought back former City Manager Tom Piltingsrud in an effort to stabilize things.

And then, a month later, on March 22, six of the seven council members resigned, effective immediately. Only Mayor Paul Villagrana, who holds the only at-large seat on council, remains.

Most provided little explanation, but Melissa Hardy cited stress and frustration with the ongoing turmoil and council’s seeming inability to steer the city to a better course.

“At this point, under the scope of my authority, I do not believe I am able to be of further assistance to the citizens,” she wrote in her resignation. “The council can only give so much direction and if it goes unfulfilled there is little recourse. We can try to set the example and expectation of the change we are seeking but that too can be rejected. We are also subject to making decisions with the information that we are provided, whether it is accurate and complete or not.”

The unprecedented lack of a council brought a flurry of interest from state and local officials and a special election was set for Aug. 2 to replace the six council members.

Piltingsrud said he believes things have calmed considerably but added that the new council faces a lot of catch-up work and a steep learning curve, especially for those with no previous government experience.

Several land use issues have been on hold and there’s $1 million in COVID relief money to allocate, among other things, he said.

But the town, he said, has provided all the basic services without missing a beat, and its signature summer events have brought visitors and success.

Reviving again

In mid-May, the Spring Junktique Antique Show and Market and the 20th annual Merchants Car Show brought back a normalcy the town hadn’t felt since before the pandemic. 

“It was great,” said Rena Pryor, president of the Florence Merchants Association, noting a record-breaking number of cars and people.

Rena Pryor is president of the Florence downtown merchants group. She also runs the Loralie Antique Mall. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The success repeated itself with the annual Fourth of July Wet ‘n’ Dry Parade and fireworks show. And she expects it again with the Fall Junktique show.

“This is a great little town,” said Pryor, who manages the Loralie Antique Mall. “The level of history and the things we have to offer are huge.”

Businesses continue to be hampered by a lack of workers, and she hopes the new council will work with merchants to help find solutions. 

“We’ve got to keep the town going and keep the town full,” she said. “Twenty years ago we were a ghost town, so we’ve made huge strides.”

The town faded in the mid-20th century as the last of nearby coal mines closed and oil wells ceased pumping. 

Although the short-lived Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad once brought gold ore to processing plants in Florence, the town logo boasts an oil derrick as it had the first producing oil well west of the Mississippi.

As extractive industries declined, residents looked for new ways to keep the town alive. Some raised money to buy and donate the land for the Federal Correctional Complex — including Super Max that opened in 1994 — south of town. That brought jobs, although many workers come from Pueblo and El Paso counties.

Others looked at the beautiful old buildings on Main Street and decided to focus on art and antiques.

Peg Piltingsrud and her husband, Tom, and a couple of friends in 1994 bought the Mezzanine Building on Main Street so “we could get our painting studios out of our living rooms.” They had studios on the upper floor and an antique store — the first in Florence — moved in downstairs.

More followed, and before long Florence was dubbed the Antique Capital of Colorado.

“Then we needed more restaurants because people wanted to eat lunch while they were here,” she said.

Peg Piltingsrud was part of a group that bought a building for art studios that had the first antique shop in Florence and helped build the antique and arts community, including restoration of the Bell Tower Cultural Center. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Florence Arts Council formed in 2004 and got a huge boost in 2013 when the former First Baptist Church donated its 1898 building to the council. It became the Bell Tower Cultural Center with exhibit, performance and classroom space that helped put Florence on the international arts trail.

“People came out of the woodwork to help us renovate — engineers, HVAC, whatever,” Peg Piltingsrud said. “We had 38 volunteers show up to help with the mucking out.”

They’ve gone after grants to pay for trees and benches on Main Street and planters at the Bell Tower where children have planted a community garden. There’s summer camp for 120 kids, workshops by internationally known artists and concerts year-round.

“We have outstanding local artists who are always eager to learn something new,” she said, so they “go up a notch” and bring in artists to conduct workshops. In August, for example, Susan Blackwell, an internationally known watercolor artist from Arkansas, will hold a three-day plein air workshop.

All the effort has helped Florence earn a strong reputation in the arts world, Peg Piltingsrud said. 

The band Mark’s Midnight Carnival Show entertains patrons at the Florence Brewing Company during the town’s 2nd Saturday event in July. The town closes off a block of Pikes Peak Avenue and has food trucks provide an array of cuisines. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For a few years, Florence also was “the place” to dine in Fremont County with its surprising lineup of top-notch offerings — Ito Japanese Steakhouse Sushi and Thai Restaurant, Papa’s (Italian) Restaurant, Turmeric (Indian — now closed), Aspen Leaf Bakery, Quincy’s Steakhouse, Two Sisters diner and others.

The pandemic rippled through the town and slightly altered the offerings, but most survived and a new ice cream shop and Husky Burger recently opened in the hometown of the Florence High School Huskies.  

When Brad Rowland, general manager of Emergent Campus, moved to Cañon City from the San Francisco Bay area a decade ago, he’d drive the 10 miles or so to Florence to walk around town and get dinner. 

“The pandemic hurt the momentum,” he said. “And then the Patterson scandal. In the meantime, Cañon is bustling.

“We need to get past the election and get a new city council in place. If Mike Patterson was really getting away with the things that have been highlighted in the media, we needed a reboot.”

Economic reboot

While the community awaits the results of its political reboot, an economic one has been percolating for a few years despite the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic and its boost to remote working assisted.

The Fremont Economic Development Corp. in early 2017 announced TechSTART, a technology partnership program to provide co-working space and assist entrepreneurs.

As rural internet services improved, a trickle of tech workers began moving to rural towns to work remotely. They wanted to escape the high costs, traffic, pollution and stress of big cities.

FEDC saw opportunity and found space in Cañon City to launch TechSTART. A little more than two years later, the partnership bought the old Florence High School building and converted it to the aptly named Emergent Campus.

The shared business space has brought a variety of tech and non-tech businesses to the heart of Florence. Many offer high school and community college internships and provide higher-paying jobs for young people who want to stay in the area. 

One of the success stories is Pax8, a Denver-based startup that helps companies manage cloud technology. The company, recently valued at $1.7 billion, opened its first remote office in Florence with 15 employees. 

“There are some people who met our project with skepticism,” Rowland said. “But the tech workers were already here, working from home. About 90% of people at Pax8 live here — local people in better jobs.” 

A new a subdivision, Willow Creek, has been annexed into the city of Florence. The development, just south of town, is expected to have 220 homes. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A challenge for workers, though, is finding housing.

The Fremont County population has been flat for a decade, and little new housing has been built. Additionally, older homes often have not been well maintained or updated and there’s a lack of rental units, according to a November 2019 housing report.

The Upper Arkansas River region also has seen an influx of retirees seeking less expensive homes and an escape from Front Range cities, which means more people 

who want to eat out and enjoy community amenities but no expansion of the workforce.

A long-platted subdivision on Florence’s south side is expected to soon offer single-family homes, but some, including Rowland, say more variety is needed.

The Willow Creek subdivision south of downtown along Colorado 67 will have up to 234 homes with construction of the first five beginning this year, said Jay Stoner, owner of Land Developers Inc. of Colorado Springs. 

He bought the development-ready property about a year ago and is negotiating with home builders to begin construction. He’s also working with SunPower to ensure all homes are outfitted with solar panels, although the subdivision also will have natural gas.

Stoner said he specializes in development in smaller communities, such as Brush and Wiggins, that larger companies aren’t interested in.

“They need housing,” he said of Florence. “It’s the perfect scenario to be wanted, needed and unique.”

It helps, too, that Florence has a secure and bountiful water supply, an increasingly valuable benefit in the drought-stricken West. Although the Arkansas River doesn’t play prominently in the city’s attractions and passes well to the north of downtown, it is its lifeblood. The city has senior municipal rights on the Arkansas River, a state-of-the-art water treatment plant and several reservoirs.

The Arkansas River flows past tiny Florence. The town pays a lot of its bills by selling water to the Federal Correctional Complex and other nearby towns. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In fact, a chunk of its income comes from selling water to the Federal Correctional Complex and surrounding towns.

While most welcome the new subdivision, some say it won’t solve all the housing problems. The town also must embrace rentals, accessory dwelling units (which are now allowed) and even tiny home developments.

“The young people who want to stay here are interested in alternative housing,” Rowland said. “If you want the young people to stay you’ve got to recognize they don’t want to spend their time mowing the lawn.

“You cannot put a wall up around the community,” he continued. “So how do we want to see the growth? It can’t be all retired people, we need other people to work.”

Focus on Florence

Despite the challenges and upheaval, Florence residents are ready to move forward and reclaim their friendly small town — even if they do plan to be more watchful as new city council members are sworn in and a new city manager is hired.

“We need a go-getter, someone who loves a small community and gets a small community,” Pryor said when asked what qualities she wants to see in the new city manager. “They’re going to have to be a doer, someone who can start fires in people, get groups and organizations working in tandem.”

Jerry Denney practices guitar at the Aspen Leaf Bakery in Florence . Denney was preparing for an upcoming Open Mic Night at the town’s Bell Tower Cultural Center. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kristen Espinoza, owner of the Aspen Leaf Bakery, said everyone must pay attention to what’s going on and communicate better.

“I think we’re ready to head in the right direction,” she said. “Let’s all get involved — don’t stay in your own little hole and expect things to change. We can’t just sit back and complain.”

Others agreed, including Roger Duncan of Concerned Citizens of Florence. It formed to seek accountability from city hall when Patterson was fired. It’s held candidate forums and is now focused on Florence’s future.  

“We love Florence,” he said. “We want to see it flourish.”

That’s why, at a recent forum, candidates who are opposing each other were asked to collaborate on questions posed by the community.

“If they get on council,” Duncan said, “they’re going to have to collaborate.”

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.