Are we destined to repeat our 1989 mistake?

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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.

9 Responses to Are we destined to repeat our 1989 mistake?

  1. John, what a thoughtful article. I may not agree with everything you write, but I have to admit that you are a very interesting read. I hope that the civic leaders in our community are paying attention. I have great hope for the future of Colorado Springs

    David H. Moore
    February 11, 2014 at 11:37 am

  2. Really? You want to remember an old friend but that is no reason to drag the city down. The stadium has no tenant. There is no shortage of entertainment space available for all kinds of entertainers. THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO WILL MAKE ANY MONEY IN THIS ARE THE GREEDY DEVELOPERS WHO WILL EACH POCKET ABOUT $60,000,000 to be paid back by the cities grandchildren.

    Shane
    February 11, 2014 at 2:58 pm

  3. In hindsight though, would a city arena built downtown in 1989 have been successful while the city’s growth was mainly taking place to the north and east?

    Trying to ‘revitalize’ downtown doesn’t make a lot of sense in 2014 either – unless the city stops sprawling ever-outwards and focuses on redeveloping existing areas with higher-density, mixed-use development, the old downtown core is simply going to be remain unattractive and inaccessible to a majority of the city’s population, adding a few new attractions there isn’t going to change that.

    Investing in streets, parks, and trails across the city would be a much better use of public funds: these serve a much higher percentage of residents, make the city more attractive to visitors, and have a marked influence on our city’s quality of life – which is what inspires people to live and work here in the first place.

    David E
    February 11, 2014 at 9:41 pm

  4. Dear John,

    This is all great historic thinking of a bygone era when pouring concrete and building things was considered progress. So, what if we had a few motels, an Outback Steakhouse and a Carrabbas at the south end of downtown? Not impressed. We once had many locally owned businesses (as I recall, a hardware store and lumberyard, a plumbing supply house, appliance dealer), and affordable houses in that area that is now blighted only because developers couldn’t get the citizens to spring for the amenities that would make them millions.

    It’s 2014. Pouring concrete does not a great city make. Yes, it’s easy to be against something. It’s really difficult to be for doing the right thing, because there are plenty of people living in the past who just can’t see a future that’s any different than the past.

    Dave Gardner
    February 11, 2014 at 10:36 pm

  5. Put this thing in your own neighborhood, John.

    A. Teex
    February 12, 2014 at 3:08 am

  6. 1989 – great plans for an arena – didn’t happen
    1995 – great continuing plans discussed surrounding a downtown convention center – still isnt’ happening.
    – In this time frame there was discussion about moving SkySox stadium downtown. Once the city fumbled that ball (yes, pun intended) again, SkySox owners spent$$ and upgraded on the east side.
    – In this time frame, there was effort to build out the north end of the county – all we got is an abandon hotel (small convention center attached) and FraudGate Crossings.

    Honestly, when the team is down get back to basics…..we don’t know how to do that in COS. Rather, we form conflicting (both goal conflicting and personal interest conflicting) strong panels, non-profits, partnerships, etc that accomplish nothing but a bunch of empty promises. Our illustrious “management” continually comes up with exorbitant priced solutions to rebuild our city.

    Our city is a great beautiful city surrounded by great beautiful environment. People come to Garden of the Gods and a few other sites, then head to the mountains. C4C is a joke. The cost benefit analysis doesn’t balance into COS favor. Our grandkids and great-grandkids will be paying for C4C for decades, reaping no direct benefits.

    My family and friends that visit – don’t complain that COS doesn’t have a USOC museum, a better USAFA Visitors center or arena downtown – they mostly complain about the lack of affordable direct flights to COS and the congestion heading E & W on 24 to the mountains.

    Ken G
    February 13, 2014 at 4:06 pm

  7. to all you “Nay Sayers”…

    population in Colorado is expected to grow by 50% in the next 25 years and this means infill and more density so downtown is the place to be and where we should invest… Furthermore a city without a heart (that is what we are at the moment) will always lag behind place such as boulder and denver and so on.

    The city for champion would be one thing which should be followed by revamping west colorado avenue from downtown to manitou into a tourist and entertainment hub (wider sidewalks, patios and so on). Arcia park should become a plaza with concerts and restaurants and retail businesses on the east and north side of the current park…

    How beautiful and attractive could our city be with one of the most stunning backdrops in the country.. just do it and ignore you nay sayers..

    peter miller
    February 13, 2014 at 5:47 pm

  8. >> We once had many locally owned businesses (as I recall, a hardware store and lumberyard, a plumbing supply house, appliance dealer), and affordable houses in that area that is now blighted only because developers couldn’t get the citizens to spring for the amenities that would make them millions.

    …….. BS
    ….. the hardware store moved/closed because they couldn’t really compete w/Lowes & Homer’s Depot
    …. the lumber yard & plumbing supply moved their retail & fabrication shops to modern facilities closer to where construction was happening
    ……… the ‘affordable housing’ was minimal & for the most part dreadfully substandard
    ……. and the developers have taken it in the shorts in the years it’s set empty
    …… i’m tired of people dumping every bad thing they imagine @ the feet of developers.

    richard black
    February 13, 2014 at 10:25 pm

  9. The World Arena opened in 1998 and replaced the Broadmoor World Arena that was demolished in 1994. El Pomar Foundation contributed more than 50% of the building cost. The World Arena was intended to highlight Olympic training and other sports events. In the 15 years the Arena has been operating, it has not delivered what was expected of it in event hosting and its primary user today is Colorado College’s hockey team. The stadium component of C4C hopes to host as many as 20 Olympic training events and maybe a yet-to-be-formed minor league soccer team. However, UCCS plans to build a soccer stadium within the next few years. It is folly for the taxpayers of COS to spend $92M plus interest over 30 years to build a downtown stadium for the use of a “maybe” soccer team and 20 Olympic events. If the USOC wants to present their athletes in training events, they can use the World Arena. Building a stadium to “revitalize” downtown is dumb and doomed because the growth that is naturally occurring in COS is well north and east of downtown.

    j lee
    February 14, 2014 at 1:11 pm