Conservatory helps downtown economy and cultural vitality

A once-quiet downtown corner surrounded by warehouses and vacant lots has come to life with music, dancing and laughter.

Every week, 1,000 people descend on the Colorado Springs Conservatory, at the corner of South Sahwatch and West Cimarron streets, turning the sleepy end of downtown into a vibrant cultural center and an economic contributor to the local economy.

Since its move one year ago from North Union Boulevard, the Conservatory has flourished with a 40 percent increase in student enrollment; a 15 percent increase in employees; and has increased downtown cultural activities by 25 percent.

“We far exceeded really what we thought was even going to be possible,” said Linda Weise, Conservatory founder and executive director.

Now, the Conservatory, which is leasing its 18,000-square-foot building, is making a bid to become a permanent part of the downtown landscape. The Conservatory has made an offer to buy the building, which is owned by the Cimarron Investment Co., Weise said.

“We have presented a contract for purchase directly to the owners,” Weise said.

When Weise moved the Conservatory from Galileo Middle School into the downtown building, she had hoped for an opportunity to purchase it. The red-brick building had been vacant for months before the Conservatory moved in. The building was on the market with a $2.2 million price tag.

Instead, the Cimarron Investment Co. — which is comprised of Ron Voss, Susan Retherford, Steve Mullen, Neil Bruce and Pat Salt — struck a deal with the Conservatory and the O’Neil Group Co. Kevin O’Neil, CEO of The O’Neil Group Company, worked with the Cimarron Investment Co. to get a lease at $1.50 a square foot. O’Neil leases the building to the conservatory for even less.

Location, location, location

Before the move downtown, the Conservatory served about 400 children. Today, enrollment in all after-school classes, workshops and community partnership programs is about 700 children.

“I think location has a lot to do with it,” Weise said. “I also think that this building speaks more clearly to what we do.”

Stephannie Finley, Conservatory board president, says being downtown is important to the school, which has grown into more than after-school lessons for children. The Conservatory has ties to national performing programs in New York City and aims to put Colorado Springs on the arts map.

Buying the 28-year-old building has been part of the Conservatory’s goal, Finley said.

“It’s a huge commitment to downtown,” she said. “It says to the Downtown Development Authority, we are here to be a major contributor to the vibrancy of downtown.”

Weise, a Julliard-trained artist, founded the small, private conservatory 18 years ago for children ages 4 to 19 to study music and theater. At the start, 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 more than 50 performers with artistic pedigrees from such schools as Julliard School and the Oberline Conservatory who have held positions including top clarinetist in the country, Carnegie Hall fellow and associate conductor of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

Weise believed the downtown building would be an asset in fundraising efforts, especially because of its proximity to the rest of the arts community. About 50 percent of the Conservatory’s nearly $1 million budget comes from fundraising and 50 percent from tuition, which ranges from $1,170 to $4,200 a year.

Enterprise Zone

One thing that has helped this past year’s fundraising efforts is tax credits offered to donors. The state’s economic commission approved the Conservatory as an Enterprise Zone project, part of a program that began in 1986 to encourage job creation and capital investment in economically depressed areas. Across the state, there are 435 EZ projects with 47 in El Paso County, including the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs Teen Court and Kids in Need of Dentistry.

For the Conservatory, the argument of being an educational entity was not enough to qualify as an EZ project, Weise said.

“We really had to talk about what we were doing to make an impact to downtown Colorado Springs,” Weise said.

Some children travel as far as 100 miles to attend the Conservatory, and their families are coming to downtown to add shopping and dining while they wait for their children, Weise said. She estimates that 1,000 people come to the Conservatory each week.

Since 1996, the state has offered tax credits to businesses and projects to promote economic development activities. Anyone who makes a contribution to an EZ project can claim a 25 percent income tax credit. Some people who are regular contributors to the Conservatory have added 25 percent to their gift because of the tax credit, she said.

“That’s really very appealing to people,” Weise said.

The Conservatory is part of a downtown creative district envisioned by the Downtown Development Authority, said David Lord, DDA vice chairman.

“I see them as being part of a whole series of having cultural and art activities being located downtown,” Lord said. “The Conservatory, Cottonwood, the Philharmonic, the Fine Arts Center — all of these art and cultural offerings represent a necessary quality of life, especially as we try to get more people to live in downtown.”

Conservatory student performances have increased downtown cultural activities — with three full-scale productions, two plays and six to eight performances a week — by 25 percent since their arrival downtown, Weise said.

“When you talk about business and redevelopment — the (Conservatory board) has surrounded this place and has elevated it, not just because we are doing good work but also because what this environment and what this location does for the greater community,” Weise said.