After months of uncertainty, revisions, controversy and discordant public opinion, the Colorado Economic Development Commission decided Monday to give Colorado Springs a chance to back up its promises.
Despite staff and third-party advice to the contrary, the commission approved full tax-increment funding via the Regional Tourism Act for an estimated $120 million to help finance and develop City for Champions, four ambitious projects totaling about $250 million, conceived to enhance the Pikes Peak region’s tourism industry.
“What a momentous occasion, knowing what this will mean for so many generations to come,” Mayor Steve Bach said at a news conference.
“This is something for all of us to celebrate.”
Other officials echoed the mayor’s sentiments, including Chuck Murphy, the area’s only representative on the state commission. Murphy, who recused himself from the vote because of his open support, compared the moment to when Colorado Springs secured the Air Force Academy in the 1950s.
“I don’t know when I’ve been more proud,” Murphy said. “A dream has become reality right here. We have made history today … and God knows we deserve it.”
The commission voted 10-0 in favor of the projects, and 7-2 to approve the full funding.
With that endorsement, local business, government, education and military leaders gave assurances that they would move quickly to solidify plans for the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, the Colorado Sports and Event Center, the UCCS Sports Medicine and Performance Center and a new Air Force Academy Visitors Center.
According to the terms of the state action, all four must be completed or the deal will be canceled and Colorado Springs would have to refund tax revenue.
The fine print indicates that plenty of work lies ahead, starting with multiple conditions that must be met in 120 days before the EDC gives its final approval.
Among those requirements: The city must establish governing entities to oversee each project, and work on a contract with the U.S. Olympic Committee regarding use of the USOC’s name, trademark and logo, along with exclusive rights to build and operate the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, as well as provide a shuttle service to help provide access for visitors.
Other specific benchmarks must be met, as part of the agreement between Colorado Springs and the state commission, before construction can begin. The most notable of those stipulations will involve the Sport and Event Center, planned as a 10,000-seat stadium along with a 3,000 capacity indoor arena.
Before that project can break ground, organizers must submit paperwork documenting that Colorado Springs has official agreements to host, in each of the facility’s first two years of operation, “at least 20 Pre-Olympic and amateur sporting events such as Olympic Time Trials, Qualifiers, Playoffs and World Championship events that will draw participants from outside Colorado or other events and meetings associated with the Olympic Sports National Governing Bodies. … At least 10 of these events each year must be new to the State of Colorado meaning that they have not been previously hosted in Colorado within five years prior to the opening of the CSEC.”
Organizers have indicated that the Springs-based governing bodies of Olympic sports have committed to help meet that goal as they plan their national-caliber and Olympic Trials-level events.
Also, as part of the approval agreement, the state commission specified that if “substantial work” has not commenced on any single venue within five years of final approval, “the Commission may revoke or modify the entire Project.”
Chris Jenkins, president of Nor’wood Development Group and leader of the City for Champions effort, said he saw no reason why Colorado Springs shouldn’t be able to meet all the conditions for moving forward.
Jenkins did say that the new AFA Visitors Center, which most recently had been planned to be located adjacent to Falcon Stadium, likely would move to another site closer to Interstate 25 and more easily accessible from the freeway.
Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson spoke as part of the City for Champions presentation to the state commission in early December, but there has been no official word about considering a different location. But early indications have focused on the visitors center being outside the main AFA security entrance, even if that might mean moving the security gate.
All of the projects also must stay in the size and overall cost range as presented to the state. They are:
• Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, 60,000 square feet, $59.4 million;
• Colorado Sports and Event Center, 340,000 square feet, $92.7 million;
• UCCS Sports Medicine and Performance Center, 77,000 square feet, $27 million;
• AFA Visitors Center, 30,000 square feet, $20.5 million;
• Infrastructure in southwest downtown, various sites, $51 million.
Not included among the four revenue-producing major projects, but clearly an integral part of the overall agreement, will be the city-promised major infrastructure improvements surrounding the downtown venues. According to the EDC’s documents, those improvements will include a 500-foot pedestrian bridge spanning the downtown railroad tracks, a “Wall of Fame” in America the Beautiful Park, structures to provide for 1,500 parking spaces, utility upgrades, Monument Creek waterway improvements and the vacating of portions of Sierra Madre Street and Vermijo Avenue.
Financing that $51 million project will be a major priority for the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, which has been designated as the “financing entity” and also will be charged with redrawing the downtown urban renewal zone.
As part of the agreement between the city and the EDC, other nonprofit entities must be quickly established to oversee the museum and the events center.
The state commission, citing certain details of the City for Champions final proposal, has also indicated that “the Olympic Museum Complex must have an ‘iconic’ design and architecture, with a ‘World Class Facility’ and ‘State of the Art’ technology.”
Bach said he would make it an immediate priority to set up groups to serve the function of overseeing each project and working separately with UCCS and the Air Force Academy.
In a 5-4 vote, the Colorado Springs City Council previously had refused to support City for Champions, with different members citing reasons that included lack of the chance for consultation with organizers and the potential for needing public funds to complete the projects.
Bach said he hoped that some of those City Council opponents might rethink their positions in light of the state commission’s approval of the entire tax-increment funding.
Council support will be essential at one juncture, because any revisions to the downtown urban renewal zone will require Council approval.
“As for the Council, we need to get them comfortable with this,” Bach said, “and I think we will.”
Kyle Hybl, El Pomar Foundation and University of Colorado regent: “I want to thank the Colorado Economic Development Commission for giving us the chance to take the strengths that our city already has and leverage them into more. The trustees of El Pomar have great faith in the people who are running each of these four projects and look forward to working with them. This is a momentous day.”
Mayor Steve Bach: “What a momentous occasion, knowing what this will mean for so many generations to come. This has meaning far beyond what we could possibly envision today. I don’t think that overstates our circumstance. This is something for all of us to celebrate. We’ve been through so much in the last two years. This is so uplifting for us — can’t imagine a better future for Colorado Springs.”
Dick Celeste, former Colorado College president and head of the Olympic museum effort: “The real work begins today. This is a tremendous vote of confidence from the state EDC. They have provided us with the tools. Now it’s up to us to see how those tools work. … It is a vision of the kind of community that we are, and the kind of community that we aspire to be. When we’ve finished, you won’t believe how much better what we will achieve is than what we dreamed. We’re going to make it happen, folks!”
Doug Price, CEO, Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau: “This date is December 16th, and we’ll remember this as the date when the state of Colorado told us they understand how much tourism means to our area, and that they’re willing to partner with us for the next 30 years. Today’s vote of confidence makes the sunshine a little brighter. Let’s celebrate a gold-medal victory for the City for Champions and America’s Olympic City.”
John Hazlehurst contributed to this story.