Another hurdle for Copper Ridge

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The Colorado Springs City Council gave the Copper Ridge project a green light this spring but the proposed 2.8-milion square foot retail project faces what could be a big roadblock before the El Paso County Commission.

Developer Gary Erickson plans to ask the commissioners to grant a sales tax waiver for the project, mostly to help pay for a 4.5-mile road extension that will connect Powers Boulevard to Interstate 25 and provide access to the new mall.

The Powers extension is expected to cost $81 million. Commissioners expect Erickson will ask for a half-cent reduction of the county’s one-cent sales and use tax for the next 25 years to pay for the extension.

“That’s a big price tag,” said Commissioner Amy Lathen. “I wouldn’t be talking about this if it weren’t for Powers Boulevard and improvement to our regional infrastructure. I’m going to have to know that if the county participates, it’s for Powers.”

Commissioner Dennis Hisey expressed a similar sentiment.

“What keeps me at the table is the carrot of completing Powers,” Hisey said. “That’s really the only reason I keep having the discussion.”

The Powers extension is what drove the City Council to grant urban renewal status to the project in May. The council reasoned that doing so might be the only way to see the Powers connection completed.

It also reasoned that tax breaks now could be beneficial to the city down the road when sales tax revenue from the mall starts rolling in.

But that’s exactly what is keeping Commissioner Jim Bensberg from supporting the project.

“This is an ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ scenario,” he said. “Well, I’m not sure they will come.”

“I don’t know what their business model is,” he continued, “but I don’t think they can attract a Cabelas or Bass Pro Shops. Nordstrom’s said they aren’t going any place with less than a million people, and we’re 400,000 short of that.”

Commissioner Wayne Williams questioned whether the tax-waiver proposal is even possible.

“There may be some limitations as to what the county can do,” he said. “The issue is whether we can make a commitment to the sales tax waiver. The developer wants to have a payback method and I don’t know if the county has the ability to make the commitment.”

Commissioner Sallie Clark said she wants more details before lending her support.

Colorado Springs Economic Development senior analyst Bob Cope, who has been working on the project for two years, believes the project could be in jeopardy without county help.

“Copper Ridge would develop to some extent, but the magnitude would be completely different,” he said.

Erickson, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, has not submitted a formal proposal to the county yet, so there’s a chance it will not go before commissioners before new members are elected to the board.

City Councilman Daryl Glenn, a Republican candidate for the District 1 commission seat, supports the project and a sales-tax waiver.

“When you look at the return on investment to the city, county and School District 20, the sales tax numbers and the return is going to be a tremendous economic stimulus for the region,” he said. “The major selling point for me is the public benefit of the project with expansion of the Powers corridor.”

His Democratic rival, Steve Kjonaas, said that, if elected, he would like to see a business plan and some commitments from anchor retailers before making a decision.

“Without a quantifiable plan, with who is going to move in there and the type of money we know we’re going to make, I think it’s premature to ask for a waiver on sales tax,” he said. “Right now I see it as a loss to the school district. With the (urban) blight designation, the school district doesn’t have the authority to tax Copper Ridge for some 20 years.”

Peggy Littleton, the Republican candidate for District 5, would also like to hear more details.

“I am for finding creative and innovative solutions to solving county problems, but I would like to be more informed about the project before taking a position,” she said.

Michael Merrifield, the District 5 Democratic candidate, strongly opposes the measure.

“Instead of encouraging growth on the periphery of the city we should be encouraging re-growth and rejuvenation within the inner core of our county,” he said. “We shouldn’t be blackmailed with the completion of Powers over this project.”