No reason for city making LART tougher to get

The news that the Colorado Balloon Classic will leave Colorado Springs in 2015 for greener (or maybe less bureaucratic) pastures was dismaying, to say the least.

A press release from the Classic’s organizers cited “politics within the city, increasingly rigid special event procedures and an onerous 2015 LART [city sponsorship] application” as driving the decision.

Event promoters seeking city funding through the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax have to jump through numerous hoops, which may discourage many applicants.

Receipts from the tax, paid almost entirely by visitors to the region, are theoretically used to fund events and entities that “attract visitors and enhance the economy of the Pikes Peak Region.” Uses of LART revenues are “limited to tourist promotion and visitor attraction as well as for economic development activities.”

For decades, Colorado Springs elected officials paid little attention to those guidelines.

The biggest dog of all, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, automatically was awarded two-thirds of the pot, leaving lesser mutts to snarl and scuffle for the remaining pieces of the action.

Since 2002, the City Council has funded the Colorado Balloon Classic, the Festival of Lights Parade, the Firefighter Memorial, the July 4 Symphony in the Park, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo parade, the Rocky Mountain State Games, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, several major golf tournaments such as the U.S. Senior Open and Women’s Open, Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, the Zebulon Montgomery Pike Bicentennial, the Pikes Peak Highway, the Global Advisory Council of the Office of International Affairs, and free admission days for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

That’s only a partial list, but it seems to show that funding decisions have been made on the bases of custom, seat-of-the-pants analysis and budgetary mandates.

For example, the Pikes Peak Highway received $780,000 in 2006 to “assist with the erosion and sedimentation project on Pikes Peak.” The city had to cough up the dough because of “a consent decree stemming from litigation with the Sierra Club.” That litigation concerned the city’s egregious violations of the Clean Water Act while (mis)managing the then-unpaved highway.

It may have been a reach to use LART money to satisfy the city’s legal obligations, but it was there for the taking — so why not?

Organizations seeking funding must now submit an accompanying “economic impact analysis,” including specific outcomes.

Then the year 2013 brought the election of six new City Council members. Four of them (Don Knight, Andy Pico, Joel Miller and Helen Collins) won election to district seats without the support of the city’s business/nonprofit elite. They brought a lively skepticism to the LART funding process.

Were LART funds distributed on the basis of rational, politically neutral economic development criteria? Or was LART a de facto slush fund, restricted to the powerful, the connected and/or the politically astute?

Council’s desire to reform the process led to the “onerous” new application. Organizations seeking funding now must submit an accompanying “economic impact analysis,” including specific outcomes. How many visitors? How many hotel room-nights? How much spending?

Sounds reasonable, but maybe it’s not.

As respected economist Fred Crowley once told me, “Every economic action has an economic impact.” But figuring out how to measure that impact can be tricky.

Would a downtown sports stadium so boost the local economy that it deserves public funding? Or would it benefit only a few canny developers? Reasonable people can (and do!) disagree.

Maybe the hurdles for LART funding ought to be lower, not higher. After nearly four decades, the Colorado Balloon Classic has a tiny budget, a largely volunteer staff and the deep affection of the community.

We should be asking what they need, not telling them what they have to do.

Let’s be more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic.

Memo to Council: Building a city is not like managing an Army supply depot. Forget phony economic impact analyses — let a thousand flowers bloom. 

Cities thrive and prosper by supporting and nurturing events and venues that delight both visitors and residents, while also enhancing our overall quality of life. Consider the Colorado Springs Philharmonic and fireworks on July 4, the Balloon Classic, Sunday’s car show in Old Colorado City and the Rocky Mountain State Games. Consider the Uncle Wilber Fountain, the Fine Arts Center, Pioneers Museum, City Auditorium, Pikes Peak Center and our amazing parks/open space/trails. 

Permit yourself to be optimistic — you were right about pickleball, to my amazement. Don’t be driven by fear of failure. Fund the unlikely as well as the obvious. And don’t throw away community treasures.

First step: grovel to Patsy Buchwald, and convince the Colorado Balloon Classic to stay.