Colorado Springs in need of convention center

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Many believe Colorado Springs is an excellent city.

It is home to the U.S. Olympic Committee, several important military installations, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the five star Broadmoor Hotel, the World Arena. There is Pikes Peak International Raceway, even Pikes Peak, gateway to the Rockies, home of the famous Race to the Clouds.

Yet the city lacks a critical element needed to bring millions of low-impact, short-term tourist dollars to town year round, business leaders believe. That component is a convention or civic center. However, residents have refused to fund in it four votes over the past 20 years.

Nevertheless, need for the center is obvious to many, who see up to $60 million in gross revenue going to other cities every year. Studies also show the city would collect $6 to $8 million annually through room taxes and other revenues.

“There is a disconnect there,” said Will Temby, president of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. In general, Temby said, people are not looking at the entire picture, and he described the following example.

At a recent meeting, Temby said he asked people to raise their hand if they had ever attended an event at the World Arena. “Practically every hand in the room went up,” Temby said.

Temby noted the World Arena had little support before it was built. Now it hosts graduations, sporting events, concerts and other community-based happenings. The need was there before, but the general population did not realize how much it would be utilized.

That attitude is not unusual, said Temby. Yet, after 20 years in the hotel business in major cities such as Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, Temby said he has experienced the business synergy resulting from locating civic centers in major cities.

Besides conventions, civic centers host a variety of community events including concerts, boat and car shows, bridal festivals and other gatherings.

Unfortunately, Colorado Springs is unable to host such conventions, said Terry Sullivan, president of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. In addition to legitimizing its name, a convention center would do nothing if not further increase the city’s downtown vitality, especially at night.

“We’re the only city in the largest 80 cities in the nation without a convention or civic center,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got a beautiful location, and we hate to lose revenue to cities like Denver and Pueblo.”

Pueblo’s Convention and Civic Center has 46,000 square feet of exhibit space and the attached 150 room Marriott Hotel.

One scenario places the center south and west of the city’s center. A hotel is part of the proposal. Nearby, the area would blossom with the addition of trendy shops, restaurants, and bars. A short distance away, the growing arts district. A new Sky Sox minor league baseball stadium proposed for the area would bring thousands downtown for games. The city’s already lively nightlife would increase.

The proposed civic/convention center would have about 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, and a 26,000-square-foot ballroom, and an attendant hotel with about 350 rooms. However, the funding issue remains paramount, and supporters are now researching alternative funding mechanisms.

One proposal is a public-private partnership removing from the public the burden of funding the full cost through a tax increase. In the partnership, businesses or corporations benefiting from the center would pay a special tax.

“Even in a down economy, most conventions still happen,” Sullivan said, adding that those dollars are lost to nearby cities with convention facilities.

Denver is doubling the size of the Colorado Convention Center, funded through hotel, auto and restaurant taxes.

When complete, the $268 million expansion will give Colorado Convention Center 584,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space on one level, 100,000 square feet of meeting space on one level, and two ballrooms of 35,000 square feet and 50,000 square feet. It will also have an auditorium with 5,000 fixed seats, and a 1,000-car garage will add to existing parking.

General obligation bonds and a hotel tax funded the Albuquerque Convention Center, and Seattle’s Washington State Convention and Trade Center was built with private and government grants.

“A civic center has been on the drawing board since 1992,” said Beth Spokas, director of The Downtown Partnership. “It has always been part of our master plan.” Spokas said it has been shown “over and over” that when a convention center is located in the downtown area the spin-off factor is colossal.

“The spin-off of the entertainment factor is enormous,” Spokas said. People who have attended meetings all day want to go out at night and maybe attend a nightclub, listen to music and dine at nice restaurants, she said.

Additionally, said Spokas, business generated for the entire community is significant. “There are always demands made on hotels and restaurants outside the immediate area (of a convention center) as well,” she added.

A finance committee led by local attorney Pete Susemihl, chairman of the board of the World Arena, continues to study methods to fund the center. Both Susemihl and Sullivan were instrumental in construction of the World Arena.

A Chamber-sponsored trip last spring to Washington, D.C., provided Temby and center supporters with information about how Richmond, Virginia, obtained funding to expand its Richmond Centre convention facility.

A study by KPMG Peat Marwick for Richmond looked at ways cities across the country funded their convention centers. Of 26 centers studied, 22 used a hotel tax to pay the bill, with some of those supplementing that source with taxes on meals, liquor, auto rentals and government grants. Only the Minneapolis Convention Center used sales tax as a source of funding.

The debt instrument of choice was general obligation bonds and revenue bonds.

In an earlier interview with the Business Journal, City Manager Lorne Kramer said he sees many benefits from a convention center.

“A civic center would be very beneficial to this community,” Kramer said. “But I think we have to listen to what the public has said over the years.”