This is a series profiling Denver’s City Council members. Each month we grab coffee and take a car ride in their district. Along the way, we get an intimate look at their lives, their worldview and most importantly, their goals for their districts. Go here to read past profiles.  

Colorado winters don’t bother Mary Beth Susman who represents District 5 on the Denver City Council. Growing up in the Arctic Circle, Susman was accustomed to wearing snowshoes, bundling up in her parka and traveling by dog sled.

“When it was 40 degrees below zero, we couldn’t play outside. But when it was 20 below zero, mom would put us in our parkas and out we would go. It was a wonderful childhood. Dad became an arctic survival expert and would travel around with the Inuits across the tundra with dog sleds,” the Councilwoman told 303 Magazine.

“When I first came to the United States, I had never seen a grocery store, escalator or television,” she added.

Mary Beth Susman and her family pose for a photo on a dog sled. Young Susman is the second from the bottom. Photo provided by Mary Beth Susman.

Being an “Air Force brat” took Susman on adventures all over the world, and she developed a love for learning and for service.

“I am the only person in the United States who has created three online colleges,” the Councilwoman shared, referencing the colleges that she helped build in Colorado, Louisiana and Kentucky. 

Susman began her career as a teacher at the Community College of Denver.

“Many of my students were older than I was,” she said. “That was one of the best experiences of my life because the community college environment is so diverse. It is people from all backgrounds and races and ethnicities and experiences. I remember I had a student who was homeless and living in her car with her kids.”

In 1995, Susman was asked to help start an online community college and by 1997, she had founded Colorado Community Colleges Online.

“Creating online colleges was the devil’s work when I started. It was quite controversial. [People said] ‘Are you kidding me? You are going to put all of us out of business. This is so stupid. How can you learn online and not be in front of a teacher?’”

Despite the pushback, Susman had trained herself to be forward-thinking and worked to create the first system-wide online community college in the United States. Later, she helped to build Kentucky Virtual University and Louisiana’s virtual universities.

Susman retired as the Vice-President of the Colorado Community College System in 2004.

Working in higher education, growing up in different cultures and being the daughter of a service member certainly shaped Susman’s worldview and gave her a unique perspective on the Denver City Council.

District 5 — which is in east central Denver — is made up of Bellevue-Hale, Crestmoor I & II, East Colfax (also known as East Montclair), Hilltop and Lowry. It also encompasses Mayfair, Mayfair Park, Montclair, South Hilltop, South Park Hill, Windsor Gardens and Winston Downs.

Lowry Beer Garden is a popular hangout that falls in District 5. Photo courtesy of Lowry Beer Garden on Facebook.

“I have a very large refugee community from Bhutan, Nepal, Somalia and Ethiopia,” she noted, adding, “When I have meetings with them, everyone comes.” The meetings look different than other neighborhood gatherings. Four interpreters are usually present when bringing the community together.

“When you say a sentence, you stop and the interpreter talks. You seat them according to their languages. Many of them dress in traditional dress. It is just so gorgeous,” the Councilwoman said.

Women sew at the African Community Center in Councilwoman Susman’s district. Photo by Heather Fairchild.

As we drive down Colfax — which was once a busy hub for tourists traveling to Colorado — it is obvious that things have changed quite a bit.

After I-70 was built, Colfax suffered from a decline in tourism, and the liveliness and vibrancy of its heyday subsided. Abandoned buildings paved way to parking lots during the urban renewal period. More parking lots, fewer business density, and decreased investment contributed to issues of blight and crime in the corridor,” the Colfax Ave BID said.  The organization is dedicated to cultivating a clean, safe and friendly environment on Colfax.

“I am working on getting Colfax redeveloped so we can get some neighborhood-serving businesses there,” Susman said. “I am trying to see what I can do about relighting the neon signs.”

Colfax at Night. Photo by Danielle Webster.

The street has indeed underwent a lot of change. The motels that once held tourists now “keep the Denver Police Department very busy,” the Councilwoman commented.

Susman said — “The motels are problematic. We have had a lot of problems with them because sometimes the management is not what you would want. It is interesting. It is not the motel people who are the problem. It is that they are the victims of drug dealing and prostitution. You get a lot of drug dealing around the motels and a lot of other nefarious activities.”

There are many groups working to combat these issues — the Colfax Ave BID, the Fax Partnership, the East Colfax Neighborhood Association and the East Area Plan.

Although they share the same district, the neighborhoods of District 5 are starkly different. Right down the road, there is great wealth and opportunity. 

In fact, Niche ranked South Park Hill the No. 1 best neighborhood to live in Denver.

The district varies from area to area, but there are problems that transcend neighborhood lines — problems such as traffic. “Transit and mobility is my number one cause that I work for and fight for,” Councilwoman Susman remarked, sharing a few of her proposed solutions.

The Councilwoman is a proponent of microtransit, which are vans that are on demand. “We are working to get a pilot project between Cherry Creek and downtown. If it goes successfully, we will expand to Lowry. We need to look to private companies who have venture capital and can provide routes.”

Susman hopes to combat what she calls “a donut hole of transit,” with these measures.

RTD’s whole model is a “reductionist one,” Susman explained, going on to describe what she sees as major pitfalls. “They need to have riders before they can have routes. If they don’t get riders, they reduce their routes, which reduces their riders, which reduces their routes. We need to have some kind of transit that has 10 minute headways.”

The RTD Light Rail zooms by on an early summer morning. Photo by Kyle Cooper.

The District 5 representative has also made it a priority to create a mobility department that is separate from Denver Public Works.

“Public Works does infrastructure. It builds our roads. It paves our roads. We need a department to talk about how things move on top of the infrastructure. We need them to be future-oriented. What about these autonomous vehicles? What kind of things are we going to be doing?”

She asked the mayor and he agreed to create a Mobility Department separate from Public Works, but it will be a process and will require a charter change — a vote of the people.

“We only have so much curb space. Now we have all of these deliveries coming. Where do they park? We need that space for bicycles and for pedestrians. We need it for Ubers and Lyfts. Where are they going to drop people off?” Susman questioned.

“What is coming very soon is drones that are going to be delivering packages. We have to worry not only about the ground, but the air. In LA, they are expecting the flying car very soon. So, it is going to have to be like the air traffic control system of an airport that we have to start managing? We need a department that is just focused on what is coming,” she said.

The Denver City Council continues to discuss creative solutions to these issues.

A gorgeous pink sunrise paints downtown Denver, Colorado during the early morning hours before traffic picks up (via thinkstock).

Susman spoke highly of her fellow Councilmembers. “We disagree on the way to get to where we want to go sometimes. But, there is no questioning people’s motives. There is nobody who is in it for themselves.”

As Susman goes through life, she keeps her five-year vision in the back of her mind. When she has to make a decision, she asks — “Will this be related to the next five years?”

Her vision is simple. “In five years, I am going to be 76. I am 71 years old right now. I am going to be very active and very engaged. I am going to have a lot of friends. I might even write a book.”

Until then, she is hard at work on the Denver City Council.

Go here to check out our other profiles on city council people in our Coffee and Car Rides series. Send Councilwoman Susman an email or follow her on Twitter

A map of Denver districts. Councilwoman Susman represents District 5. The map was provided by Denver Community Planning and Development.