October 21, 1982. It was opening night at the brand-new Pikes Peak Center, our city’s just-finished, sparkling 2,000-seat theater-auditorium. I was there; in fact, my then-spouse and I walked into the auditorium arm-in-arm with the legendary Bee Vradenburg.
Bee, Charles Ansbacher, Phil Kendall, Kathleen Collins and scores of other dedicated community leaders/activists had conceived the project, persuaded El Paso County voters to support it and raised millions in foundation grants and private donations to completely fund the $13 million building.
It was an exciting time. I had just returned to my hometown after a 20-year absence, and it seemed to me that we were on the brink of an amazing future. A new downtown would rise to replace the one that had been gutted by ill-conceived urban renewal projects. We would preserve what remained of the old, learn from our mistakes and build for the future.
What would downtown be in 25 or 30 years, I wondered. Would we have a museum of contemporary art, jazz clubs, coffeehouses and really cool bars? Could the dreary warehouses next to the Pikes Peak Center be replaced by brick and brownstone row houses? Couldn’t developers build a high-rise or two, and hire great architects to design them?
Cool bars, yes. Coffeehouses, yes. Everything else, no. Developers managed to build a couple of medium-rise buildings (the south tower of the Plaza of the Rockies and the Wells Fargo Tower), but civic energy migrated east to the suburbs, to Briargate and Powers Boulevard. The vacant lots created when speculators demolished Victorian buildings in the heart of downtown would still be parking lots 31 years later.
And while downtown Colorado Springs slept, Denver awoke. Effectively landlocked by the Poundstone Amendment, Denver turned inward. Dana Crawford revived Larimer Street, John Hickenlooper opened a brewpub (what’s that?) in the warehouse district, and the once-moribund area known as Lower Downtown became home to bars, galleries, restaurants and bookstores. Vacant commercial lofts were transformed into living space, and then development exploded. Coors Field! Pepsi Center! Highland! Central Platte Valley!
The transformation has been amazing, even incomprehensible. In 1987, I tried to put together a deal in Denver to buy a derelict eight-story loft building at the corner of 17th and Wynkoop, diagonally across the street from the Oxford Hotel. The price: $600,000. Cash required: none — but any buyer would need to take over a note and be ready to invest a few hundred thousand more. I needed partners, so I tried to persuade a friend to invest in the deal. He passed — too risky, and the stock market had just taken a dive. I moved on to other things.
So how much is that building worth today? Don’t tell me — I don’t want to know!
With state funding in place, the C4C teams have a clear path ahead.
Are we on the verge of just such a transformation? I think so, thanks to the extraordinary promise of City for Champions. In the space of a few minutes, the 10 men and women members (not counting Chuck Murphy of Colorado Springs, who had recused himself from voting on the proposal) of the Colorado Economic Development Commission gave us the tools to remake our city.
With state funding in place, the C4C teams have a clear path ahead. They’ll have to secure private funding as well as local public funding for the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, for the multiuse stadium complex, and for downtown infrastructure improvements.
Given El Pomar’s support, as well as that of other major donors, the private component shouldn’t be a problem. Is it overly optimistic to suppose that the anti-C4C troglodytes will slink away to their caves and let things go forward?
The message will be clear: You can be on the bus, or off the bus — but don’t be trying to slash the tires.
It’s OK to ask questions and try to improve the projects, but it’s not OK to torpedo them.
It was tough to assume a neutral reportorial mask Monday afternoon as ecstatic C4C supporters, including city and county elected officials, gathered at UCCS to celebrate.
“In three years I’m going to make a few phone calls,” said County Commissioner Amy Lathen. “I’m going to call some of the people who opposed this, and invite them for a cup of coffee on the (Olympic) plaza. You should join us and write about it!”
That timetable sounds about right. Yesterday’s insurmountable hurdles have become trifling obstacles. Thanks to our driven, stubborn “strong mayor,” and to our city’s united business and nonprofit leaders, a new era is at hand.
It’s 1982 all over again — so here’s a word of advice for all you dewy-eyed optimists.
This time, don’t blow it!