Unlike most men of his generation, my father was an accomplished cook. He was particularly proud of his rice pudding, which contained many ingredients, and demanded extensive and careful preparation. On one occasion, long celebrated in family lore, he removed a perfect rice pudding from the oven only to discover that he had omitted a key ingredient.
Reading the 80-page application that Colorado Springs filed requesting state funds under the provisions of the Colorado Regional Tourism Act may leave a few longtime downtown boosters feeling like our family when we dove in to the rice-less rice pudding. A baseball stadium, an Olympic Hall of Fame, a 1,500 space parking structure, a $14 million pedestrian bridge – all great projects, but isn’t there something missing?
Look at Denver, Columbus, Omaha, Albuquerque or any of our peer cities. Re-imagined and revived downtowns may have baseball stadiums, art museums, science museums, arts districts, history museums, new residential blocks or any combination of the above, but there’s one thing they all have.
Virtually every city of our size has a downtown convention center, usually coupled with a convention center hotel. That’s the rice in the rice pudding, the crucial ingredient in a revived downtown.
The synergy is obvious: Olympic Museum, downtown stadium, dozens of restaurants, iconic bridge, etc., etc. Suddenly, downtown would be an extraordinarily attractive venue for event planners. How many conventions might book our shiny new center annually? Twenty? Thirty? Fifty? And how much would attendees spend? And wouldn’t a convention center trigger the building of another downtown hotel? And wouldn’t that create jobs galore, and a bright new future for our city?
For years, backers of a downtown convention center argued for public financing of such a facility. The voters turned them down repeatedly, and finally approved an initiative forbidding the city from even planning a convention center, much less asking the voters to fund it.
That initiative, largely driven by Broadmoor Hotel CEO Steve Bartolin, may have put the final nail into the convention center coffin. Had voters realized that state funding through the RTA could have defrayed the cost of a convention center, they might have decided differently. Of course, the RTA didn’t exist then, and who can predict the future?
The city is the nominal sponsor of the RTA application, but the shot callers don’t work for City Hall. The overall project has no chance of state approval without the participation of the Anschutz Family Foundation and El Pomar – and neither would be involved if the application included a convention center. Why would Phil Anschutz want to advance a process that would lead to the creation of a convention facility that would compete with his own hotel? That would be foolish – and a man with a net worth of $7.8 billion is as far from being a fool as anyone can be.
Here’s a prediction of things to come: there will never be a downtown convention center. With luck, we’ll have the Olympic Museum and the stadium, and they may well ignite a modest downtown renaissance. The Broadmoor will benefit, Mr. Anschutz will be pleased at the city’s rebirth, downtown property owners will make a few bucks, and Mayor Bach will have put together the biggest real estate deal of his career.
It’s all good – and if some of us feel a little like the big blue bear peering wistfully into the atrium of the Denver Convention Center, too bad. To paraphrase Jimmy Buffett:
“Some people claim
Bartolin’s to blame
But I know
It’s our own damn fault”