DENVER — With its single ally on the inside of the process changing sides from the dais to the audience, a contingent of civic and government leaders from Colorado Springs presented their case Wednesday for the City for Champions project to the state Economic Development Commission.
EDC member Chuck Murphy, after confirming Tuesday that he would recuse himself from voting on whether to allow sales-tax funding for the Colorado Springs proposal, spoke as a “citizen” during the public-hearing portion of the meeting. About 150 people made the trip from the Springs, with a large majority in support of the proposals.
“I remember when we got the Air Force Academy [in the 1950s],” said Murphy, president of Murphy Constructors and a Springs native. “There were naysayers then, and there are naysayers now.”
Murphy was just one of an impressive array of speakers touting the City for Champions, including Bill Hudnut, former Indianapolis mayor and Indiana congressman, who led an Urban Land Institute group that explored Colorado Springs in 2012 and made recommendations for revitalizing the downtown area.
At a crossroads
Hudnut said ULI supports the City for Champions effort, saying that “Colorado Springs is at an inflection point. Cities either go forward or they go backward. They don’t stand still.”
Springs Mayor Steve Bach agreed in his comments, reminding the commissioners that “we need to recover from two epic fires and subsequent floods. I’m committed to working through the process with City Council.
“I would submit to you that this is our city’s defining moment.”
Bill Hybl, chairman and CEO of El Pomar Foundation, said City for Champions is “an idea which can transform our city both economically and culturally — and an opportunity for the entire state.”
Hybl added that he had talked to the entire El Pomar board, “and we will make a substantial commitment. We’re in this 100 percent. Also, my friends who run foundations in Denver can expect a friendly visit.”
Dick Celeste, the former Ohio governor and Colorado College president heading the effort for an Olympic museum, spoke about that project along with U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun.
Blackmun said the museum will become reality, “and when it’s built, there will not be another one.” Celeste reported that the goal is to open the museum by summer 2016 to coincide with the Summer Olympics that year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak, pushing for the school’s planned sports medicine center, called it “shovel-ready” but that the Regional Tourism Act funding “closes the gap.”
Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, addressed the plans for an AFA visitors center. Johnson said she could not “officially” endorse City for Champions, but she made it clear that “increasing visitor traffic is truly a priority” and also implied that private donors as well as a public/private partnership would help.
But the comments were not all positive to the commission, which didn’t even know for sure that the meeting would happen until 5:30 a.m. Wednesday because of the winter storm. To start the meeting, representatives of Denver-based third-party analyst Economic and Planning Systems indicated that Colorado Springs still hadn’t fulfilled all the requirements for funding.
Later, City Councilor Joel Miller tried to shoot down any reason for moving forward with the project. But Councilor Jill Gaebler spoke fervently in favor of City for Champions, as did University of Colorado President Bruce Benson and Regent Kyle Hybl.
Tuesday afternoon, Murphy had confirmed what had been widely assumed: He won’t vote on the City for Champions proposal. Here’s the text of an email from Murphy, El Paso County’s only representative on the 11-person body.
“I thought you would appreciate knowing I’ve decided to abstain from voting on the City for Champions proposal that is now before the state Economic Development Commission. While I’m confident I could objectively assess the project’s merits, I also have a duty to the commission and to the public to avoid even the appearance of any conflict and to ensure public confidence in the commission’s deliberations. I have a long history of deep involvement in the civic life of my community — it is my hometown, after all! So, I understand if there might be reservations about my objectivity even though I also know I could have faithfully acquitted myself of my duties on this matter. So, I’ve decided not to vote on it just to make sure we do the utmost to uphold the public’s trust.”
Although the city may have lost its only guaranteed vote on the EDC, which will make a final decision on Dec. 16, the game is far from over. Murphy indicated he’s confident that the commission will view the proposal in a favorable light, and saw no reason for him to cast a vote.
The EDC members now have several options on the table.
• They can approve the project as presented, and award Colorado Springs $53 million in state tax-increment funding for the four projects. That would be a giant win for Bach and his team — but there would still be much work ahead. Private and public funding for all projects would have to be secured and approved, final designs created, costs firmed up, and construction begun.
• The EDC can reject the entire proposal. That would be a defeat for Bach (and Colorado Springs), but the city would have lost only employee time and $75,000. Opponents would crow and gloat, and local politics would become even more of a blood sport.
• The EDC can fund the proposal at a reduced level. Depending upon the amount of the reduction, and whether the reductions are project-specific, local public and private funding might be able to take up the slack.
• Finally, the EDC can kick the proposal back to Colorado Springs and ask for more data, or even suggest that it be re-submitted next summer for the 2014 funding cycle.
If the EDC gives approval, Bach still can’t expect that his foes on Council will simply give up and fall in line. Miller, Keith King, Don Knight, Helen Collins and Andy Pico may find it difficult to alter their previous positions.
Asked about that, Bach told the commissioners that he has the support of four Council members and is hoping for more.