Celeste-ial power drives museum

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With the potential for dynamic design, the United States Olympic Museum could quickly become the epicenter of new downtown development.

With the potential for dynamic design, the United States Olympic Museum could quickly become the epicenter of new downtown development.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series examining the city’s Regional Tourism Act proposal.


“There’s no point in doing this if we can’t do it right,” said Dick Celeste, the driving force behind the proposed United States Olympic Museum.

Celeste is not just behind the effort to create the museum in Colorado Springs; he is the effort. He’s worked on it for more than a year, and has brought the project far closer to reality than ever before.

The museum is one of four projects in the City for Champions proposal to the Colorado Economic Development Commission. If successful, the city will receive state tax increment funding amounting to $82.1 million, to be divvied up among the four projects.

The $59 million museum would receive $26.7 million of tax funding, leaving $32.6 million to be raised from private sources.

This is not Celeste’s first rodeo. An Ohio native, he graduated magna cum laude from Yale in 1959 and received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1970, as lieutenant governor in 1974, and served as director of the Peace Corps from 1978-1981. In 1982 he was elected governor of Ohio (defeating Cleveland Mayor Jerry Springer in the Democratic primary) and served two four-year terms. Appointed ambassador to India in 1997, he left the post in 2001 and became president of Colorado College.

While governor, he was instrumental in the 1986 selection of Cleveland for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To win that particular competition, Cleveland and Ohio had to raise $65 million and beat out a half-dozen, well-financed competitors.

As CC’s president, Celeste was a prodigious fund-

raiser, launching an ambitious $300 million effort in 2003 titled “Vision 2010.” The $33.4 million Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center, made possible in part by $10 million grants from El Pomar and the Inasmuch Foundation, opened in 2008.

Early attempts fail

First pursued by Colorado Springs community leaders in the 1980s, the idea of an Olympic Museum/Hall of Fame has surfaced frequently since.

In 1987, Banning Lewis Ranch developer Frank Aries offered project backers a multi-acre site off Colorado Highway 94 on the ranch’s eastern boundary. Ground was ceremonially broken at the remote location, but the project eventually died for lack of financial support.

“The USOC wanted a reserve for building maintenance and operations,” said Mike Moran, U.S. Olympic Committee chief spokesperson for more than 30 years, “but the backers couldn’t raise the money.”

Other cities made desultory attempts at building a facility during the next two decades, without result.

“There was some talk that Coca-Cola might fund a project in Atlanta,” said Moran, “but nothing came of it.”

Given our national obsession with sports of all kinds, and how the Olympic movement has inspired the nation for generations, it’s somewhat surprising that America has no national Olympic museum.

The Lake Placid Olympic Museum, which commemorates the two Winter Games (1932 and 1980) hosted by that small resort town, occupies a 3,000-square-foot space in a downtown building. It’s the only such facility in the country.

The International Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, is the flagship facility of the Olympic movement, welcoming more than 250,000 visitors annually. Twenty other countries have IOC-accredited Olympic museums, including Qatar, Singapore, France, China, Estonia and Israel.

“If the Royal Gorge can get 350,000 visitors, shame on us if we can’t get 300,000.”

— Dick Celeste,

Olympic museum organizer

Unaware of previous failed efforts in Colorado Springs, Celeste, now 75, began working on the museum project more than a year ago.

“If I’d known about the history, I might have thought twice,” he said. He made it clear that the current iteration is a new proposal, not a dusted-off version of plans from a quarter-century ago.

Celeste called upon Dennis and Kathy Barrie to prepare a feasibility report. “I’ve known Dennis for more than 25 years,” said Celeste. “He was a founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since then he and Kathy have advised on close to 300 projects.”

Most recently, the couple put together the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, a $50 million project that commemorates the intersection of crime, racketeering and law enforcement. Dennis is the museum’s creative director, Kathy the curator.

Before the Mob Museum, the Barries oversaw the creation of the International Spy Museum in Washington. The couple’s firm, Barrie Projects, is comfortable working with long-established organizations such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it specializes in startups.

The location

As currently envisioned, the museum will be located in southwest downtown, at the foot of Vermijo Street, east of the railroad tracks. Buildings currently on the site will be razed, and the museum will be connected to America the Beautiful Park by an “iconic” pedestrian bridge, where an Olympic “Wall of Fame” would be erected. The Wall of Fame would cost $1.2 million, while the 500-foot bridge is estimated at $14 million, or $28,000 a foot.

The museum may share a 1,500-space parking garage with the proposed downtown stadium, but that isn’t absolutely essential.

“There’s already a county parking garage nearby,” said Celeste, referring to the parking facility attached to Centennial Hall and the Pikes Peak Center.

Plans call for infrastructure improvements to be funded by a combination of state funding through the Regional Tourism Act and public funds from the Urban Renewal Authority, the city’s parking enterprise and Colorado Springs Utilities.

Asked whether the museum might find a closer-in location if stadium funding doesn’t materialize, Celeste said that he’s satisfied with the proposed site.

“The consultants examined eight sites, and recommended three,” he said. “The No. 1 site was at the foot of Vermijo (where the museum is shown in the city’s RTA application).”

Illustrations in the RTA application show a boldly modernist structure not unlike Eero Saarinen’s iconic 1962 TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. An interior view shows a nondescript exhibit hall, with static displays along a featureless corridor.

Economic impact

Barrie Projects estimates that the museum will attract 350,000 visitors annually, 82 percent from out of town. These figures may seem fanciful, but they’re based on visitor surveys at comparable facilities, including the NFL Hall of Fame, Baseball Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the International Spy Museum. Out-of-area visitors account for more than 80 percent of attendance at each attraction, creating economic bonanzas for their cities.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a powerful example. Since opening in 1995, it has welcomed more than 9 million visitors and had a cumulative economic impact of more than $2 billion on the Cleveland area. It has created an estimated 950 jobs with an annual economic impact of more than $100 million.

The NFL Hall of Fame is the principal reason to visit Canton, Ohio, where it has been located since 1962. Attendance has averaged about 200,000 for the past 25 years, peaking during the annual enshrinement week that alone has an annual economic impact of $33 million.

If in fact the Olympic museum can attract 285,000 net new visitors annually, it will become a major economic driver for the city. The city estimates that per-person expenditures during an average “marketable trip” amount to $327, suggesting that 285,000 new visitors would inject more than $90 million into the local economy.

That didn’t escape the notice of Ken Lund, executive director of the Colorado Economic Development Commission.

In a letter to the city accepting the city’s RTA application, Lund noted that “of the four components in your application, the Olympic Museum appears to most closely satisfy the statutory criteria for award of RTA support.”

Show me the money

“We’ve created the beginnings of a board,” said Celeste. “Susan Edmondson and B.J. Hybl have agreed to help. We still have work to do, to get our application for 501(c)3 status approved (and fill out the board). We expect to be going in the next 60-90 days.”

Celeste already has identified three potential large donors. According to the application, one foundation is “willing to entertain a request” for $5 million, another for $5 million to $10 million, and a third “is prepared to consider” a matching grant.

The application also notes that “funding will be secured outside of current USOC sponsors and donors. The Olympic Museum is closely coordinating their fundraising with the USOC.”

In addition, museum backers may have to raise a $10 million endowment “to augment operations during the startup phase.”

That might imply the USOC will discourage its corporate sponsors and other donors from contributing to the museum, but such is not be the case. According to sources familiar with the deal, USOC leaders don’t want the museum to approach their sponsors and donors — they’ll do it themselves, if appropriate.

That’s because the USOC knows its donors and sponsors, and can more accurately gauge whether approaching any of them would be both appropriate and welcome.

Celeste isn’t worried.

“My model for this (based on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) is that it has to meet certain goals, it has to be run right and it has to be operated in a way that maintains financial viability,” he said. “If the Royal Gorge can get 350,000 visitors, shame on us if we can’t get 300,000.”

Isn’t the prospect of raising tens of millions for a start-up museum a little daunting?

“I’ve spent much of my life asking people for money,” he said. “I’m pretty confident about this ask.”