Monday, May 16, 2011

Decoding Skorman: Founding Gill


"Skorman then moved on to co-found and serve as board member for the Gill Foundation..."

Richard Skorman: Hippie Sensibility Meets Big Politics
    Richard Skorman rifles through a box marked “personal.” The box sits open under a desk in the space Skorman shares with three other desks, three other computers, a couch, and copy machine, all in an office that shares the second floor with the Roundup Fellowship special education facility. He picks out several newspaper articles that he is happy to share and lend out, as long as they are returned. The articles range from the Gazette to Springs Magazine, and even to a news release by Topeka Kansas”s Westboro Baptist Church, but one thing remains the same: they are a lot more than merely “personal.”  

    Skorman has been in the public eye of Colorado Springs for decades as an entrepreneur, political activist, and former city councilman. “It”s difficult at times when it”s been all-consuming,” he says.    

    Skorman says at first it was hard to lead a normal life as a politician. City council “was very demanding, lots of late meetings, weekend gatherings,” he notes. Skorman adds that lately he”s been able to balance his personal life with life as a politician and local businessman. Politics, however, tend to get personal. He”s received death threats over the phone because of his political agenda. His personal experience is nonetheless what drives his political career in many ways.    

    Skorman graduated from Colorado College in 1975 as an art studio major, although film was his real passion. Halfway through his senior year, he opened his first used bookstore. Needing a job after graduation, and coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Skorman viewed the bookstore as a logical progression. Although he has moved on to bigger projects throughout the years, his entrepreneur spirit remains.
    Poor Richard”s Used Books was joined in 1977 by the pizzeria, Poor Richard”s Restaurant. The pair became known as Poor Richard”s Feed and Read, and featured a projector for nighttime showings of independent films. The film showings eventually evolved into their own entity, and Skorman opened Poor Richard”s Cinema.   

    In 1986 he worked as the only local film critic, writing for the Colorado Springs newspaper the Sun. His job was cut when the Gazette bought the Sun, and Skorman went to New York City to pursue a book deal. In 1988 he received a contract and wrote the book “Off-Hollywood Movies: A Film Lover”s Guide.” While in New York Skorman met and became movie buddies with Patricia Seator, an event he calls fate. They married in 1994. Out of his movie critic days came an interest in environmental films, which evolved into one of his top political crusades today, environmental preservation.

    Although he does not pinpoint a specific moment that spurred him into politics, Skorman says he was always involved in some form. Skorman grew up in Akron, Ohio, and was a high school student just five miles away when the Kent State massacre occurred. He recalls being politically active in college, protesting the war among other events. Several personal turning points have shaped his politics and developed into both public and personal campaigns.
    ”I had sad ones (turning points) that changed me,” Skorman says. When he was young, two of Skorman”s closest friends were gay. The both passed away early in life: “One friend from suicide, one from AIDS.” In 1992 Amendment 2 sparked his first big move politically. The amendment would have made it legal to discriminate against gays. Despite death threats and the vandalism of his business and home, Skorman spoke out and debated against the amendment. Skorman then moved on to co-found and serve as board member for the Gill Foundation, whose purpose is to secure equal opportunity for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. Now he says it is still one of his foremost concerns that “people feel welcome in the community for who they are.” Skorman has also championed for the community in another way, as an advocate for the environment.    

    Without hesitation Skorman declares hiking as his favorite pastime. His love for the outdoors and for his community merge and appear throughout his personal and political actions. Skorman”s environmental efforts began with founding the 1990 U.S. Environmental Film Festival, which was held in Colorado Springs. Although not financially successful, Skorman sees the publicity that it brought to the topic enough to regard it as a success. The festival screened 135 films and had 100 speakers, many of whom were major celebrities of the time. Skorman points out one of them among the myriad of pictures that flow off of the two bulletin boards and onto the walls of his office. The picture is of Chevy Chase and his family. Chevy Chase”s wife, Jayni Chase, ran the office for the festival the following year, which was held in Los Angeles.   

    Skorman also campaigned for the TOPS (Trails, Open Space, and Parks) ballot initiative in 1995, and eventually saw it successfully pass in 1997. He also did significant fundraising to help preserve the Stratton Open Spaces, an event that increased his credibility as a public figure in the Colorado Springs community. In 1999 Skorman was elected to the Colorado Springs City Council, and then reelected as the “lone liberal” in 2003. Although often on the losing end of 8-to-1 votes, Skorman considered himself the “social and environmental conscience for council.”  

    More recently, Skorman successfully advocated for the protection of Red Rock Canyon in Colorado Springs. Nearing the end of his two-term limit, Skorman resigned from city council in 2006, and moved on to help people in a new political post. Now, as Colorado Senator Ken Salazar”s regional director, Skorman is involved in local renewable energy efforts. Along-side his flourishing political career, Skorman”s businesses have grown as well.
    In addition to the bookstore and the restaurant, in 1995 Little Richard”s Toystore was born. Finally, the baby of the complex, Rico”s Caf” and Wine Bar, opened in November of 2005. The four now operate side-by-side in downtown Colorado Springs. Skorman says that running his businesses and having a political career simultaneously is difficult. “Sometimes it”s tough to separate the two,” he says. The businesses sometimes suffer when customers refuse to be patrons because of Skorman”s political agenda. Skorman says some people “assume they are unwelcome” because they may have a different political stance.   

    On the other hand, “Customers support us because they appreciate my politics”the people who work here”s politics,” he adds. He says that a lot of people let things slide that they normally would find unacceptable in another restaurant. For example, in the last presidential election Skorman says there were many pro-Kerry stickers and signs up in the businesses, and some anti-Bush items as well. He is sure the businesses have customers that voted for Bush, and that that probably made them uncomfortable. In this respect, “It”s not always best for business.”   

    Through all of his politics and business, Skorman”s generosity and his compassion have left the deepest impression. He considers one of his biggest victories to be organizing local relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Skorman started by using his businesses as call and drop-by centers for local donations and volunteer efforts. He proudly lists the accomplishments and attributes them to the community; what became known as Richard Skorman Outreach bundled local efforts and raised around $50,000. Skorman says they raised countless airline miles that were used to reunite and relocate families.    

    Under his efforts, Colorado Springs was the first city to have a relocation booth at the Houston Astrodome, and there were twenty people on site in Louisiana and Mississippi involved in relocation and rescue. Once in Colorado Springs, evacuees were not abandoned. Skorman Outreach set up one-stop shopping in an abandoned building, attended to medical needs, and helped six babies be born. There were no fatalities and no evacuee spent a night in a shelter. There were 650 leases signed and people were brought here in families. When it is all said in done, that”s what Skorman cares about most. “Family was all they had,” he notes, and many came in families as large as eight to ten.   

    Skorman”s family priorities are evident in his businesses, and his generosity is lauded among his employees. Terri Loughlin, general manager for the restaurant and caf”, has worked for him for 12 years this April. “He”s always willing to see the best in people,” Loughlin says, “which is also his greatest fault.”

    Bookstore employee Aaron Boudoin is most impressed by the way Skorman takes action. “There aren”t many people who look at something bad and refuse to turn away. He has to do something to fix it,” Boudoin said.   

    Life has taken what Skorman calls his “old hippie sensibility” and fashioned it into an openness that makes him accessible to almost everyone. This accessibility is a major component of his success both as a businessman and as a politician. “Don”t get personal, respect other opinions,” Skorman says. “I try to understand the logic, even if I don”t agree with the conclusion.”  

    Now, at 54 years old, there are still traces of the young man who finished his art major with a cartoon exhibition. Skorman”s personal experience floods into his public and political agenda. Skorman says the influence of his personal life has made his political career easier. If it is “something personal, you are more passionate about it,” Skorman notes. “Passion is important.”   

    The same man who will gladly pull a picture off the wall to illustrate his story, or put an apron on and help make pizza when the restaurant line is to the door (which is often), will also gladly pull his “personal” items out of a box. What is apparently personal about Richard Skorman and his life sneaks out through his passion, his generosity, and his compassion, and governs his businesses and his politics. Skorman may have a quiet demeanor and a straight face, but they do little to hide what some would call his bleeding heart.

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