Weise, O’Neil perform business duet to move Conservatory downtown

Colorado Springs Conservatory founder Linda Weise and real estate investor Kevin O’Neil worked together to move the conservatory into a building in downtown Colorado Springs at 415 Sahwatch st.

An unlikely partnership between a group of attorneys, a development and investment company and a Julliard-trained musician has created a little corner of art in downtown Colorado Springs.

The celebrated Colorado Springs Conservatory, a private, performing arts prep school, has taken up residence in an 18,600-square-foot building at the corner of Cimarron and Sahwatch streets — a building owned by a group of local attorneys.

In the one-year lease deal orchestrated by The O’Neil Group Company, the conservatory has bought itself time to raise the money to buy the building and make it a permanent fixture in the downtown arts community.

For conservatory founder and CEO Linda Weise the downtown location is a dream come true.

“I keep pinching myself,” she said.

The Julliard-trained artist founded the small, private conservatory 17 years ago for children ages 4 to 19 to study music and theater. Back then it was run by a group of New York artists who came in for summer programs. Since then, Weise has put together a teaching staff of 46 performers with artistic pedigrees from such schools as Julliard School and the Oberline Conservatory who hold positions including top clarinetist in the country, Carnegie Hall fellow and associate conductor of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

In recent years, the conservatory leased space from Colorado Springs School District 11 and built its program in three classrooms and a shared auditorium at Galileo Middle School on North Union Boulevard. But, the conservatory needed to be in the center of the arts district, Weise said. One year ago, Weise said she was giving her self 12 years to fulfill her downtown dream.

“Any cool city has a strong arts community,” she said. “Now, we are so close to the Pikes Peak Center and Colorado College — we can walk to all those places.”

The red brick building at 415 Sahwatch St. was built in 1984 with M.C. Escher-esque staircases in the center of the building that lead s to different levels and nooks and is nearly surround windows on its second level. The staff has joked that “it’s so very 80s,” Weise said. But, they all agree, “it’s perfect.”

The building is a little beat up but has great curb appeal, said Ron Voss, partner in the Cimarron Investment Co., a group of attorneys who own the building. It’s a good place for creating a little drama — and dance and song.

The building has been vacant for several months. It’s most recent tenant was a group of public defenders who moved to a new location on Tejon Street. When they moved out, the Cimarron Investment Co. put the building on the market, Voss said.

Its $2.2 million price tag was out of the conservatory’s reach. Weise had raised some money for a new building, but not nearly enough to secure this building, she said.

But, Kevin O’Neil, CEO of The O’Neil Group Company, thought there was a deal to be made. He worked with the Cimarron Investment Co. to get a one-year lease at $1.50 a foot. O’Neil leases the building to the conservatory for even less.

O’Neil said the company is committed to relocating businesses to downtown. In July, his own company, which owns Braxton Technologies, announced its purchase of the former Chase bank building at the corner of Tejon Street and Pikes Peak Avenue, downtown’s most prominent intersection. Braxton’s move to downtown should be complete next month.

O’Neil’s interest in bringing the conservatory downtown is to resurrect an arts district vision for downtown — a plan that created America the Beautiful Park but has since been on the back burner, he said.

“We have not given up on that vision,” he said

It’s likely that the Cimarron Investment Co. could have leased the building for at least $10 a square foot, Voss said. And, under the deal with O’Neil, some of the partners in the investment company are not being paid, including Voss. But, building up that area of town, which neighbors several warehouses, is a good idea, he said.

“We had a building that we didn’t have an immediate need or buyer for,” Voss said. “This allows the conservatory to get into a nice space.”

The deal gives the conservatory time to raise money to buy the building — something that O’Neil and Weise are already working on, O’Neil said.

It’s going to require big-time fundraising. The Colorado Springs Conservatory Foundation already raises about 50 percent of the $700,000 annual operational costs; the other half is covered by tuition. But, Weise believes the new building will be an asset in fundraising efforts, especially because of its downtown location and proximity to the rest of the arts community.

“Yesterday, a group of kids were here and we were cleaning and painting and then we walked over (to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic) and we heard a little Mahler and then we walked back,” Weise said.

It’s the kind of day she has been dreaming about, she said.

The conservatory staff and students have already moved into the building and have decorated the music libraries, private offices, ensemble rooms, dance studios, student and teacher lounges and private study areas. About 400 children each week take private and group lessons at the conservatory in a two-tiered program, one for daytime students and one for after-school students.

During the day, Weise runs an enrichment program for children from public and private schools who are bused to the conservatory each week. In the afternoons, she offers lessons for students who pay annual tuition of between $1,150 to $3,170 for a curriculum that includes theory, history, composition and 45 minutes of private lessons.

“They thought they had died and gone to heaven,” Weise said about the student’s first day in their new school.

The past few months have been an emotional journey for Weise, who was in search of a new location for her school and was approaching the start of the school year.

“There are some really incredible business people involved, and not the typical arts players,” Weise said. “And, that is really a profound statement.”