City Auditorium a testament to years of nothing

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

If ever you wanted an example of multi-generational governmental dysfunction, here it is.
In a report recently presented to City Council, which included cost estimates for renovating City Auditorium, this little gem stood out:
“In 1922, the City Auditorium was completed for city ownership and operation…. From records available, it does not appear that any major repair or renovation has been performed since its opening.”
I guess that we can give the city a pass up until, say, 1962, when the facility celebrated its 40th birthday. By then, a little updating would have been in order.
But the city didn’t do a thing. And despite the decades of prosperity since, which saw the city’s general fund budget double, and redouble and double yet again, the city continued its policy of not-so-benign neglect.
Since the early 1990s, elected officials and administrators have been perfectly aware of the needs of the auditorium, but they’ve chosen to ignore them. During the last 15 years, the city has spent billions of taxpayer dollars on other priorities, while allowing one of the Springs’ crown jewels to deteriorate.
At a given moment in time, a city is defined by the people who live there, by its economic, social, and cultural life, by its politics and by the collective decision-making that creates its future.
But most of all, a city is defined by its natural and built environment, and by the stewardship of its residents. Imagine New York without the Chrysler Building, Washington without the Capitol, Texas without the Alamo, San Francisco without the Golden Gate.
Colorado Springs is fortunate enough to be situated at the base of Pikes Peak, but that only gets us so far. For most of us, the peak is a picturesque backdrop or a close-in recreation area that we visit once or twice a year. It’s not where we live.
A city which preserves and enhances its natural setting, and which treasures the tangible reminders of its past, is simply a better place to live than one which does not. A city with a vibrant, historic downtown is far more attractive to the so-called “creative class” than one without a living center. A city whose leaders are content to allow a major historic structure to molder away within eyesight of City Hall is, to put it mildly, clueless.
It’s a tribute to the extraordinary construction of the auditorium that, after nearly a century of hard use, it can be completely renovated and updated for about $15 million.
We asked Chuck Murphy, our city’s leading contractor/renovator of historic properties, what it might cost to build a similar structure today.
“I wouldn’t try to guess,” Murphy said. “Just the ground alone would cost at least $40 a foot, and then before you start building you’ve got tap fees, user fees of all kinds, and then architects, engineers, and of course parking requirements, setbacks. It’d be at least $300 to $350 a foot — and then if you want to create a dome like the one that’s there, well that’s an enormous undertaking …
“But that’s just Chuck Murphy talking of the top of his head. You know, I’ve been in business since 1960, and I continue to be surprised by how much things cost.”
But assuming that Murphy’s in the ballpark, a generic auditorium-like structure (let’s call it auditorium lite) would cost somewhere north of $35 million — a far cry from the Aud’s original $424,000 price tag.
City Council seems to be in a state of passive denial about the situation. They’re fond of making sympathetic noises, while pleading poverty. “Of course we want to fix the auditorium! But, alas, (insert crocodile tears), we just can’t afford to … maybe all of you auditorium-loving citizens could come up with some ideas for us?”
It’s a great excuse, but it’s nonsense.
Sure, it’d be a stretch if the city had to write a check for the whole amount, but there’s no reason to do so. It’s simple enough to issue certificates of participation (COPs), debt instruments which require no voter approval, because they’re not, technically speaking, city obligations.
El Paso County used COPs to build the new courthouse and jail addition, and the city financed the renovation of City Hall with COPs.
Moreover, the recent designation of the auditorium block as “blighted” has created opportunities to partner with two powerful sets of developers, now working to break ground on a pair of exciting developments. Fully funding the Aud’s renovation might jump-start both projects, by highlighting the city’s commitment to the redevelopment of near-east downtown (now known as NEDo).
And let’s not ignore the obvious — a gleaming, renovated City Auditorium would bring life, people, events and excitement to downtown, and to the entire city.
So let’s hope that council can manage to overcome the torpor of 85 years of inaction, and actually, like, do something!
Meanwhile, it’s my sad duty to report that the upcoming April elections are going to be even less fun than watching grass grow or paint dry.
Mayor Lionel Rivera is as close to being a sure-thing as mortally possible, despite his flame-out in the Republican congressional primary. For some reason, no credible opponent has chosen to run.
That leaves us with the council candidates and they’re are tiptoeing around, making nice and being as careful and prissy as reformed sinners at a church singles group.
Are there, in fact, any issues? Apparently not — they’re all in favor of the same things. Just check their Web sites and read their so-called “positions.” If you have any trouble getting to sleep at night, this stuff’ll beat Ambien by a mile.
Bernie Herpin: We must have good City streets and safe bridges.
Jan Martin: I don’t consider myself a politician, just someone who cares a lot about this community. Can someone like me get elected?
Bob Null: If enough people ask about a particular issue, I will publish my position here.
Tom Herold: I want to work on the issues we are facing today and the ones we will face tomorrow.
Well, OK — I guess they’re all nice folks. But here’s a question for each and every one of them (even the ones too lazy, too technologically challenged or too mega-geezed to have a Web site — that means Larry Small, Randy Purvis and Tom Gallagher):
Renovate the auditorium, or just let it decay?
John Hazlehurst can be reached at or 227-5861.