Will we ever build anything in southwest downtown? Or will we just let the blight age like a fine single-malt whiskey?
Surely the deserted area would be more picturesque with more cracks in the few sidewalks that remain, more broken windows, more potholes in streets that go nowhere, more parking lots where no one parks, more burned-out streetlights, more empty lots that were never developed, and fewer occupied buildings.
If history is any guide, that’s where we’re headed. The debate over the City for Champions downtown proposal is eerily reminiscent of a similar debate 25 years ago.
In 1989, the city’s economy was on the skids. A commercial real estate bubble had burst. (Sound familiar?) Commercial and residential construction had almost stopped, as the savings and loan institutions that had propped up the market imploded.
Things were bad and would get worse, when the Wall Street Journal dubbed Colorado Springs as “the foreclosure capital of America.”
A mildly progressive City Council welcomed the efforts of a coalition of civic leaders to build a downtown sports arena. It would, proponents claimed, revitalize the dreary industrial area between the railroad tracks and the gleaming Pikes Peak Center. It would replace the aging Broadmoor World Arena, encourage additional infill development, ignite a downtown renaissance and jump-start economic development in a city that sorely needed it.
The plan called for public funding through a multi-million-dollar city bond issue, to be supplemented by private donations. El Pomar Foundation was said to be committed to the project, but everything hinged upon the proposed bond issue.
A well-funded effort to win voter approval was launched by arena supporters. There was no organized opposition — until longtime Springs businessman Tom Fischer called upon a few friends to help him make the case against the proposal.
“It’s a lot easier to oppose things than to create them, a lot easier to tear down than to build.”
In those days before the Internet and social media, political messages were filtered through the media. To get attention, you staged a press conference, which people actually attended.
And so it was that I found myself before a crowd in a conference room at the Antlers Hotel, making the case against the arena.
Fischer had anointed me as the group’s spokesperson, saying they needed a younger face to put before the public (yeah, it was a long time ago!).
I made the same arguments that today’s naysayers make against the C4C project.
The cost and attendance projections of arena backers weren’t based on anything but wishful thinking! No private funding sources had committed money! The economic benefits were illusory! The good citizens of our city couldn’t afford to pay new taxes! The only certain beneficiaries were real estate speculators and scoundrelly insiders who would somehow contrive to make big money from the deal!
The voters bought it, slapping down the bond issue by an 80-20 margin. I thought I was pretty hot stuff, a major player who had brought low the mighty establishment.
I even preened a little to my pal Charles Ansbacher, conductor of the Colorado Springs Symphony. He had kept his mouth shut during my foray into city politics, but he finally spoke his mind.
“John,” he said, “I know that you’re glad that you won the election, but please remember one thing. It’s a lot easier to oppose things than to create them, a lot easier to tear down than to build.”
Charles spoke from experience. With Phil Kendall and Bee Vradenburg, he had led the long but finally successful effort to build the Pikes Peak Center.
I was abashed. A few years later, when I was serving on City Council, the arena project resurfaced. Funding came primarily from the private sector, albeit with significant contributions from the city, county and Colorado Springs Utilities. I was happy to support it.
It wouldn’t be downtown. Developer David Sunderland gave arena backers a deal on a site, vacant ground in south Colorado Springs that development had long bypassed. He expected that the arena would spur other development — and, as we all know, it did. A once-desolate area was fully developed within a decade, and it continues to flourish today.
That development could have been downtown. We already might have build an Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, a downtown stadium, a science museum, children’s museum and even a Tinseltown.
Charles Ansbacher died three years ago, but the Pikes Peak Center is his memorial. Let’s hope that today’s City Councilors can help create their own memorial in southwest downtown.
And if not, they can expect a regretful old age.