First step upcoming for new Academy visitor center

air.force.academy.afaThe Academy will move forward next month toward building a new visitor center just west of Interstate 25, according to Carlos Cruz-Gonzalez, the director of installations.

Cruz-Gonzalez, in a news release, stated the Air Force’s Financial Management Center of Expertise in Denver conducted business case analyses on several alternatives, including sites at Falcon Stadium, on the east side of I-25, using leased space in an unfinished office complex near Interquest Parkway or using the existing visitor center site, before settling on a site just north of the Santa Fe Trail parking lot on the west side of I-25, just outside the north gate.

“It gives us an opportunity to simplify our security situation,” he said.

The Academy will use a public-private partnership to build the new facility, Cruz-Gonzalez said. The Academy uses a public-private partnership for base housing, as do several other Air Force bases.

“It’s an attractive location,” he said. “If private parties want to collaborate with us and can build a facility for what the land is worth, we see it as an opportunity to leverage a public-private partnership.”

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson asked staff to consider intangible factors such as campus security, accessibility to the visitor center and the capability to expand. Only the I-25 site met these requirements, as Falcon Stadium lies within the Academy’s security cordon.

Another benefit to the site is that the cadet area and cadet chapel — and soon the Center for Character and Leadership Development — are all visible from I-25. What’s more, locating the visitor center near I-25 would save people from making the 3-mile drive to the center’s current location.

The construction process will begin with an environmental impact assessment scheduled to take about six months, Cruz-Gonzalez said, and If that goes favorably, a request for proposals will be drafted.

“We’re taking under-used assets, in this case acreage, and making it available at fair-market value for a private agency to develop and provide the Air Force Academy a service in kind,” he said. “In this case, the service in kind would be a visitor center. The Civil Engineer Center will issue a request for proposal, and we’ll see what comes up — who’s interested and what proposals they’ll put on the table.”

Based on the RFP’s complexity, that process could take anywhere from six months to two years, Cruz-Gonzalez said. The assistant secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Logistics will award the contract. Actual construction would take at least two years, meaning the Academy could finish construction by 2020.

“We’re very proud of the architectural heritage here, and we would expect the facility to reflect that,” Cruz-Gonzalez said.

The new visitor center could improve the visitor experience by listing everything that’s available to people before they set foot on the campus, Cruz-Gonzalez said.

“We have the chapel and the CCLD, but we also have the Falcon Athletic Center; we have activities at the cadet fieldhouse; we have several overlooks where people can get a great view of the cadet area, and if they visit at the right time of day, they can see some of the wildlife here. We have the Association of Graduates’ Heritage Trail. The visitor center then becomes the foundation of a program to better manage the visitor experience.”

The Academy’s Public Affairs Directorate would run the center, as it does now, with space set aside for a gift shop and a food operation. A new visitor center would also include a 250-seat theater and large conference room.

David Cannon, the Academy’s director of communication, said the current visitor center could be used as a museum and for admissions activities.

“We are a part of the Pike’s Peak region,” Cannon said. “We are a part of that destination and want to see our visitors to the Air Force’s Academy back to pre-9/11 levels. Having the visitor center near the north gate and I-25 can help us do that. We want to be in the discussion when people think about visiting the area.”