Nicole Nicoletta sits on her front porch in the late-morning sunshine, sipping from a cup of hot tea. The view in front of her is wide, and wide open. Red Mountain is dead-center, Iron Mountain to its left. The Miramont Castle rises from its downhill seat a stone’s throw across the street.
The Incline climbs up the right side of this postcard scene, with a helicopter that periodically thwump-thwumps in with its next load of Incline repair supplies dangling below it.
And Nicole, the Mayor of Manitou Springs in a reelection bid that’s in its final weeks, fields questions for Humanitou. Nicole’s “number one campaign manager” — daughter Grace, 12 — rests nearby, home from school with a fever.
As with the recent interview with Nicole’s opponent, Ken Jaray, we try to make this a get-to-know-you interview, something that goes past the politics. That’s tough to avoid. Politics and civic service are a big piece of who Nicole is now.
Which is to say, people are a big piece for her. Nicole, 43, is an adjunct sociology professor at Pikes Peak Community College. She owns the Downtown Sunday Market, the six-Sunday summer collection of local farmers and artisans in Acacia Park in Colorado Springs.
And Nicole holds down this kinda-sorta part-time role of being mayor, which in reality is as consuming as one would imagine town leadership to be.
“It can take me more than an hour to walk to a council meeting,” Nicole says. “People stop me on the street, wanting to talk. But I love that. I love talking with them and hearing what they need.”
We talk about Nicole’s three-year adventure of finding herself while living in a ’72 Volkswagen van. We talk about her connections to food and community, one of her favorite sit-and-think spots in town, and what she loves about teaching sociology.
And what’s on her mind should the mayoral vote tally not stack in her favor this go-around.
Humanitou: What is it you love about Manitou? You’re a Colorado Springs native who has chosen to live here the past eight or nine years.
Nicole: I’d lived here for a couple years around 1999, but I’d say what got me here this time around, having moved here in 2009, is knowing that it’s a safe place to be a single mom and raise a kid, and that we could walk everywhere and use mass transit, if need be. And that there was plenty for she and I to do without having to spend a penny, without having to go anywhere.
The natural beauty piece is a big part of why I’m here (gestures toward the sweeping, unblocked view of Red, Iron and the surrounding mountains).
And I like the people, the characters. I love chatting and that I know almost everybody, that it’s small enough I can know almost everybody. There’s always something to get involved in, whether it’s a potluck or a big two-year plan, even setting aside the mayoral seat.
Humanitou: What drew you to sociology and what do you like about teaching? I’m assuming you like it, maybe you don’t.
Nicole: I love it. I love introducing new ideas that get people to critically think about issues.
It’s funny, because growing up in a military family, when I would get fired up about social injustice or something that happened at school or whatever, my dad would say, “One of these days, Nicole, you’re going to have to figure out how to talk about how you feel without it being so emotional.”
And I used to get so mad at him. “This is what matters, right? This passion and these feelings.” Then, I realized how important it is to critically think about issues, mainly so you can help solve them.
Humanitou: You helped to start a food pantry in Manitou a few years ago.
Nicole: First off, I want to give all the credit to Joanne Garrison. She’s a lifetime resident here in Manitou Springs, graduated from Manitou High. She came up to me one day in 2014 and she said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a food pantry in Manitou Springs for the seniors?”
We do it at St. Andrews Episcopal Church because that’s where the Golden Circle nutrition lunch program is served (Monday through Friday). The seniors are already there. The food pantry is every Wednesday. We serve the seniors from 12 to 12:30.
It’s almost all whole food. It’s amazing produce. And then they leave, we shift things around and the pantry opens to the public from 1 to 2. Manitou Springs residents only but we don’t turn anyone away.
Humanitou: Why does doing that matter to you?
Nicole: Well, number one, the senior piece. As simple as this sounds, I love my grandparents so much. They were such an important part of our very large, extended Italian-Irish family. I’ve just always been moved to be around them. I liked listening to their stories and learning from them.
It’s been an incredible project that brought the community together. We have folks who come every week, and others who it just helps get through rough times. To me, it’s a simple and enjoyable way to help each other out.
And Joanne still is our longest running volunteer.
Humanitou: What do you enjoy doing, aside from your teaching and civic responsibilities?
I love to sit by the creek. When I have some time, I want to be by the water. I love the bench that was put in Soda Springs Park, right by the black iron bridge. It’s the most perfect spot. The sun, the view, it’s quiet. That’s not very exciting nor is it very active.
If I’m not hiking — I love Red Mountain and Iron Mountain — sitting by the water makes me happy.
Humanitou: So, hiking also is a thing for you?
Nicole: Yeah, I love hiking. I love doing the Incline. I was raised on the Air Force Academy. We always went camping, hiking or would just sleep outside. We had the best yard on base and everybody came over to our house.
If I need to get grounded, or just regroup, that’s what I’ll do. I also love riding my bike.
Humanitou: You mentioned food shed before. What does that mean?
Nicole: From seed to mouth and everything in between. Land, water, distribution, who owns it, seed saving. Corporations like Monsanto versus a five-generation family that saves their seeds. Or Mexican women in fields picking tomatoes for Taco Bell for their sauce.
And not looking at it as though anything is right or wrong, just authentically looking at it: What does it mean to be an Hispanic woman in a field picking these tomatoes. How do these pesticides and herbicides affect you, and your birth rate. It’s just fascinating.
Humanitou: You started teaching sociology in 2012. It sounds like your line wasn’t right from high school to college to teaching.
Nicole: Right out of high school I worked for a year, saved up and moved to Ashland, Oregon. I lived in my van for three years, my Volkswagen that I wish I never would have sold. I wish I had it here just to look at.
Humanitou: Nice. I have a ’75 bus. What year did you have?
Nicole: A ’72, with a Porsche engine. (laughs) I drove it from Oregon back here. My sister drove it out there. I loved that van. I was a nanny and it was before cell phones. It was in ’93. I just lived in my van and went to the redwoods and beach. It was so great.
Humanitou: What has that experience meant to your life?
Nicole: I turned 21 out there. For the first time I had moved away from my parents. It was a huge time, an incredible time.
It was my first experience with an organic farm. My sister and I moved out there and didn’t have anywhere to stay, so we stayed at some hot springs. The hot springs were connected to a CSA, a community-supported agriculture farm. We didn’t know anything about that.
So, we started working on the farm and traded for produce, and started eating differently. The whole thing was just one of those evolutionary times, for sure. Without even knowing it’s happening because it’s so fabulous.
I think if I hadn’t gone through all that I’d probably still be wandering a bit right now. But I got so much out of that time. It really just allowed me to find myself. I know that sounds so cliché, not that I left looking for it but everything was so new and fresh. It was fantastic.
And then driving home — I’d decided to come back and go to school — I was roadtripping it back and stayed in a national forest somewhere. My van didn’t start for three days.
There was no one around. I didn’t know what to do, so I just hung out for three days and journaled and hiked. I think I just had to work through some stuff.
Humanitou: And what happened after those three days?
Nicole: It just started! (laughs)
And then I found out what the problem was but I couldn’t get it fixed until I got back to Colorado Springs so, when I stopped for gas, I had to make sure I stopped on a flat location or one with a little bit of a slope. I’d have to open the door, push it, run, jump in and pop the clutch.
And, of course, for a young woman I was just, “I am the coolest, most amazing person ever!” It was an amazing time.
Humanitou: I’m guessing something about all that experience has informed your life since. What did you learn?
Nicole: I didn’t realize how capable I was. I pretty much did everything by myself out there. I had lots of friends, but some of those adventures and those three days, just realizing how resilient I am, that’s it’s OK to be patient and it’s OK to take some chances.
Humanitou: Speaking of chances, how and why did you get involved in elected roles in Manitou?
Nicole: I was fascinated with my first experience working with the council, in 2013, working on the Manitou Springs Forward: A Vision & Planning Guide. I worked with Ken (Jaray) and many other people on the steering committee.
When that was over, seeing the citizens and some staff bring something before council, and the council to review it and vote on it, and adopt it as a guide, I thought was fascinating. I felt very rooted in the citizen aspect of it and was very interested in the elected official aspect of it.
Humanitou: What would you move on and do if you are not reelected as mayor?
Nicole: Well, I’m counting on it. (laughs) I need that to just happen, because that’s my plan. I actually get incredible enjoyment out of being mayor. That’s what I enjoy doing.
So, if I wasn’t doing that, I would have to find something to do, because that is what my world revolves around right now.
I like government. If I don’t win, I would imagine I’d do something still with government. I do enjoy it very much.
Humanitou: Is there one word you can choose that describes why you enjoy it so much?
I spoke to a squadron at the Air Force Academy not that long ago. The first question from one of the cadets was, “What do you like best about being the mayor?”
I said, basically, helping people get what they need. Just being totally available and using this seat to the best of my ability for my people is extremely rewarding.