Last month, eight people from Colorado Springs, including city employees, boarded a plane for New York City to talk about improvements to the streetscape and infrastructure surrounding the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame with the project's New York-based designer.
In an unusual move, the nonprofit Colorado Springs Sports Corp. used a donation from an unnamed "private foundation" to fund $15,748 in travel expenses for three city employees and two others associated with the city.
City Attorney Wynetta Massey ruled the city could have justifiably funded the trip with tax money and that no ethical breach occurred, according to city spokeswoman Julie Smith.
But ethics expert Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, says the trip poses an "appearance problem" and adds, "The way the state system works, this might very well have been an illegal trip if governed by the state [ethics] law."
In any event, the trip signals the city is moving forward with infrastructure for the $73 million museum, which will include a parking garage, pedestrian bridge and streetscaping.
Time is running short to get those things in place — the museum plans to open before the Feb. 9, 2018, kickoff of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Those on the New York trip included city Chief of Staff Jeff Greene, Kathleen Krager with city engineering and Planning Director Peter Wysocki. The Sept. 28-Oct. 1 trip (Greene left Sept. 29) also included Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority board chair Wynne Palermo and URA consultant Jim Rees, whose travel costs also were paid by Sports Corp. Others included Downtown Partnership President/CEO Susan Edmondson, who also serves on the museum board, and Nor'wood Development Group's Chris Jenkins and Jeff Finn.
Nor'wood donated 1.7 acres for the museum project and also owns adjacent property where a downtown stadium is envisioned. Both are part of the City for Champions tourism venture, for which the city has snagged $120.5 million in state sales tax money over 30 years through the Regional Tourism Act.
Jenkins describes the reason for the trip via email: "The purpose of the workshop was so the City, Downtown Partnership and Urban Renewal representatives could provide input into how the public realm spaces fit into the larger neighborhood and the Olympic Museum."
Specifically, Smith says the group is trying to define streetscape designs along West Vermijo Avenue, district infrastructure, and the pedestrian bridge's planning and design by working with the museum designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro, district master planners Skidmore Owings and Merrill, and MIG, consultants to the Downtown Partnership and Downtown Development Auathority on its Imagine Downtown plan update now underway.
Smith says while Mayor John Suthers preferred the meetings take place here, but the number of people working in New York made it impractical.
"It was necessary for the employees who attended to be there to collaborate on the Museum project, particularly on the design of the downtown pedestrian bridge and how to incorporate public improvements and redevelopment in southwest downtown," she says.
Edmondson, who also oversees the Downtown Development Authority, which is updating its Imagine Downtown land-use plan, called the museum "a very key component" within downtown, making it crucial that she and DDA's planners were at the table.
The downtown plan, Edmondson adds, should ensure the museum grounds connect with the historic downtown core "so that people have a seamless experience downtown."
Discussion with the museum's designers focused on which streets would be major vehicle routes, which would be designed to encourage people "to linger," and how they would accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles, she says.
"It was definitely productive," Edmondson says. "It was a really good opportunity to understand the importance of this space that will be experienced by everyday residents and commuters in our city, as well as visitors to our city, and how important it is that we get this right, and how this connects with downtown."
City officials couldn't recall another trip funded by outsiders, but Smith said it was justified because the museum is a "significant community and economic development project that our city has not seen for a long time."
The City Attorney's Office, she says, termed the trip "city business" so it would have been "appropriate" for the city to pay for it. Accepting the Sports Corp. money, the attorney ruled, posed no legal or ethical issue, and the trip "does not implicate the Ethics Code whatsoever," Smith says.
But Toro notes if the city's ethics rules mirrored those of the state, it would require more scrutiny. The state's ethics law, adopted by voters in 2006, allows nonprofits to pay for travel, but only if they receive 5 percent or less of their funding from corporations. It's unclear how much of Sports Corp.'s budget is funded by corporations.
The state Ethics Commission, he says, sometimes approves nonprofit-paid travel regardless of the 5 percent rule if commissioners judge that the trip is not a benefit to the individual who is traveling.
"This is probably the area the [state] Ethics Commission spends the most time on — privately funded public travel," Toro says. "It becomes very common for agencies in this time of tight budgets to seek private funding for government business."
Toro called the city's arrangement "ethically troubling, because this is a nonprofit that obviously has an agenda that the city is in a position to benefit."
Sports Corp. CEO Tom Osborne didn't grant an interview, but says via email the trip money came from a private foundation that he did not name. But the expenditure is uncommon — IRS filings show Sports Corp. didn't pay for any public officials' travel in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the most recent records available.
An exception was made for the New York trip, Osborne says, because the museum project "fits our core mission of supporting the Olympic Movement in Colorado Springs."
City officials have said the pedestrian bridge, which would link the museum to America the Beautiful Park, could be funded in a variety of ways. Among those:
• Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales tax money;
• The city's parking enterprise;
• Tax increment financing, which is the increase in sales tax collections above a baseline that's attributed to a development itself that's overseen by the Urban Renewal Authority;
• The $120.5 million in state Regional Tourism Act money.
In fact, says city economic vitality official Bob Cope, the RTA allocation requires the bridge, parking facilities, streetscape and utility improvements be built before the state considers a tourism project completed. (If funded projects aren't done within 10 years, the city could lose funding or have to repay some of it.)
The most controversial City for Champions project, the downtown stadium/events center, is the topic of a privately funded feasibility study to be completed next year. The study will recommend who should own and operate it and how it should be financed.