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A 60,000-Person Town And A 100-Person City? How Colorado's Communities Get Named

Black Hawk City
Jeffrey Beall
CC BY-SA 2.0
The city of Black Hawk, Colorado, has a population of about 100 people.

Welcome to the town of Superior, a "friendly" and "quaint" community nestled into Colorado's front range. At just over 13,000 people, it is also larger than half of Colorado's cities.

If population size doesn't set "city" apart from "town" in Colorado, what does?

Nothing. Not consistently, at least. There is no single difference between the two designations that can be applied to all of the state's communities equally. What a place calls itself has more to do with the community's desired image, priorities and history than anything else.

Despite the lack of clarity, these labels matter a lot to the places that hold them. The smallest city in Colorado, Black Hawk, got so tired of being called a "town" by media outlets and others that the community passed a resolution in 1994 which reaffirmed its name.

"There is a great deal of pride in that for the residents here in Black Hawk and for the businesses," said Mayor David D. Spellman. "It's good marketing, it's good Colorado history."

Other mayors from across Northern Colorado also expressed a deep reverence for their label. They wanted to maintain their community's connection with history and affect how it is seen by insiders and outsiders alike.

"Does it really matter? It does if it matters to them," said Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. The League advocates for municipalities at the state level and connects them to each other. "And that's really what Colorado as a local control state is all about."

Colorado's emphasis on local control is at the center of why it's so difficult to pin down the difference between cities and towns.

When a municipality is incorporated (formed and officially recognized by the state), it can choose from various forms of government. This choice will determine just how much local control the municipality gets.

Almost all Colorado municipalities fall under either home rule or statutory government types.

Home rule is all about local control. Generally, they can create laws within their limits that override state law. They can organize their government as they see fit and call themselves whatever they want. About a third of Coloradan municipalities are home rule.

On the other hand, statutory municipalities are more strictly confined to state law. Whether they are called town or city is actually based on population: cities have greater than 2,000 residents, towns have fewer. However, this is only a requirement when the community is first incorporated.

The majority of the state's municipalities are statutory. About 20% of Colorado's statutory towns have grown beyond that population cutoff, but haven't switched to the city designation. The statutory town of Erie, for example, now has more than 25,000 people. There are also a few statutory cities that are below 2,000.

Made with Flourish

"Whether a municipality is statutory or home rule, the idea of self-governance is a strong one, and self-determination," Bommer said. "And that includes the decision not to do something."

There are a few reasons that municipalities don't change their label with population size.

For one, names are really important to many of these communities, regardless of whether they are home rule or statutory. For Black Hawk, which has a population of about 100 people, being called a city is partially about marketing, said Mayor David Spellman. It helped attract mining and milling investments in the 1860s and helps attract the gambling industry today.

With about 29,000 people, Windsor is the third largest town in the state and the largest in Northern Colorado. The community has considered calling itself a city due to its sheer size, but decided against it.

"I've got nothing against cities. We love cities," said Mayor Kristie Melendez. "I just feel that what we want to represent Windsor as, town helps us make that representation better. Being known as the town of Windsor, that's (a) friendly, local, connected place."

Windsor and Black Hawk are both home rule. So, compared to the state's statutory municipalities, they have fewer strings attached to being called a city or town.

Along with the impact of the name itself, statutory municipalities have to consider whether it is worth it to change their government structure once they cross that 2,000-person threshold.

Statutory cities must have a city council which represents individual wards or districts, according to Colorado municipal statutes. Statutory towns don't have wards; instead, they get a board of trustees that is elected by the whole community. So, some municipalities may just want to stick to the form of government they've always had. But that may not always be best for the town.

The town of Estes Park has a population of about 6,000. It is a statutory town, so it has a board of trustees that gets elected by the town at large.

"I think that especially the downtown corridor and even some of the residential areas would be better served by individuals that represent those areas specifically, rather than the town as a whole," said Mayor Todd Jirsa.

Also, switching from a town to a city, or becoming home rule, is a time and resource-consuming process for a statutory municipality. Unless such a change is a priority, the community may decide it has more important issues to focus on.

"With the reorganization involved, It's not just something you can snap your fingers and do," said CML director Kevin Bommer. "For most of those municipalities, they're happy staying with that distinction of statutory town and operating under the way that they're organized."

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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