An array of Skyway residents, neighborhood associations and equestrians are accusing the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners of giving away the barn in what they say is a "mad rush" to get rid of the Penrose Equestrian Center.
On Monday, the commissioners pushed forward a vote to divest itself of its equestrian center, the county-owned facility that has been the venue for the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo and Little Britches annual events, as well as other horse-related events. The center, adjacent to Bear Creek Park in southwest Colorado Springs, was previously owned by the city, which sold it to the county last year for $1.
On Monday, commissioners voted to end the county's control of the 156-acre equestrian center by turning over the aging stadium and facilities to a private group that would take over the Center's operations. The group of investors includes real estate investor Jon Schultz and Renee Zentz, who currently runs the center. The two plan to establish a nonprofit foundation to run the organization, lease the facility from the county, and eventually purchase the land and all amenities for a yet-to-be-decided amount.
The move would end the county's annual $129,000 subsidy of Center operations.
However, in its next order of business, the county commissioners awarded the foundation a $3.5 million subsidy, payable over five years. Schultz and Zentz said the county subsidy will be combined with $10 million from other investors, who the two refused to identify at the county hearing. The money, they said, will be used to renovate and expand the equestrian center into a "community events center" that will host up to 700 events a year.
The $3.5 million payout is generating considerable backlash from critics who point out that the foundation will not be required to pay any portion of the massive subsidy back to the county.
Jeanne Matthews, an equestrian center neighbor who is former president of the Horseman's Council and a former CONO president, chastised the commissioners for their funding priorities.
"You're going to spend $3.5 million to set up a private enterprise that will operate in the form of a public foundation," she told the commissioners. "In effect, you're subsidizing an expensive hobby for a small, elite group."
Casting the lone dissenting vote, Commissioner Jeri Howells argued that the foundation should pay back at least part of the $3.5 million once it becomes self sufficient and begins turning the substantial profits it projects in its master plan.
"I like the equestrian center and I think the foundation makes sense," said Howells in a subsequent interview, "but this county is under severe financial constraints that prevent us from fully funding the Sheriff's department, the parks department, or paying for pressing drainage needs. The other commissioners must have information I don't."
The county, Howells pointed out, is undergoing a budget crunch that was created by a 12 percent cut in property taxes and a recent termination of a tax on business equipment and machinery. The $10 million reduction in tax revenues has left the county scrambling to fund mandated programs and services.
Both Howells and Matthews noted the irony that county administrators claimed the agency doesn't have any money to rebuild the Bear Creek Nature Center, the popular center that attracted 50,000 visitors a year until it was torched by arsonists last year. The county is asking voters to pay for a new center on the Nov. 7 ballot.
"Why is it," Howells asked of the payout, "that we can't dig up $300,000 for the Bear Creek Nature Center, but we can fund the equestrian center at $700,000 for the next year?" (That $700,000 amount represents the county's first-year payout to the new foundation.)
"I'm not sure why the equestrian center is so high a priority."
Commissioners Betty Beedy, Duncan Bremer, Ed Jones and Chuck Brown disagreed, however, and voted for the no-payback provision. "This action will put an end to the county's annual $129,000 subsidy, increase the county's property- and sales-tax revenues, and create a valuable community and cultural asset," argued Bremer.
Rush to privatize
The foundation's Schultz conceded during questioning at a commissioners' work session that the foundation could probably afford "some sort of payback compromise," but he insisted that such a provision would make the foundation's other potential contributors -- whom he refused to identify -- "less than excited" about continuing their support.
He requested that the commissioners vote to establish the foundation and award it $3.5 million at either the November 7 or 9 meeting so that foundation proponents could get a lease and operating agreement drafted that would pave the way for construction to begin early next year. The commissioners responded by calling for a more immediate vote which sailed through four days later.
Project critics, however, questioned the "mad rush."
"This keeps getting pushed forward and moved up like there's some kind of a emergency," said Margaret Brettshneider, president of the Skyway Association. "If this is such a good deal -- and who knows, maybe it really is -- it will still be a really good deal in January. There needs to be a market study and a lot more public input. We need to slow this down to make more careful and informed decisions."
Both the Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO), which serves 45 neighborhood and homeowner associations in Colorado Springs, and the Skyway Association, which represents 1,300 Skyway-area homeowners, asked the commissioners to put off any decisions until the new board is seated in January.
"Hey, that's wonderful!"
Instead of discussing the possibility of delaying a vote, however, Bremer noted that the four commissioners who were at the work session when the matter was discussed at length last Thursday favored a $3.5 million subsidy without payback. Howells was absent during the work session.
When county administrator Terry Harris replied that a vote during that session wasn't possible, Bremer proposed a vote at the November 2 meeting, at which point Beedy interjected, "Why wait until November 2? Why not vote next Monday (Oct. 30)," to which Harris added, "Hey, that's wonderful!"
Commissioners Brown, Bremer and Beedy proceeded from there to explore the possibility of structuring the proposed contribution in a way that future boards couldn't rescind or "back out on the deal."
Last Friday, Brown denied any attempt to "rush the vote," or that the project "is any kind of slam-dunk, done deal."
"This master plan has been in the works for about a year," he said, "and we have a whole series of processes to go through before any final decision is made. This isn't a rush-through thing."
Brown dismissed criticisms of the project as "nothing more than bad-mouthing."
"This will leave the community with a valuable asset," he said. Brown claimed the concept has good community support, and dismissed critics as being a small group of disgruntled individuals.
Riddled with problems
During Monday's meeting, approximately 15 people testified against the plan, complaining the master plan is riddled with problems.
For one, they said, the proposal calls for the permanent closure of Rio Grande Street at the center's northern edge, allowing the foundation to build a private, gated entrance.
"This is an area prone to wildfires," said Brettschneider, "and Rio Grande is the only local straight through between 8th Street and 21st Street for residents and fire fighting equipment."
Another potential problem, critics note, is the noise and traffic congestion that would result in the 700 events a year.
"You can hear things like tractor pulls and monster truck rallies all the way up into the hills," complained Linda Carlson, president of the Horseman's Council, a group of local horse enthusiasts.
Artis Bruce, a Fountain resident, member of the county Parks Advisory Board, former world champion barrel racer and frequent user of the Penrose Equestrian Center, told the commissioners that "there are many things on this master plan that are grandiose and unnecessary.
"I've used equestrian facilities all over the country in the past 30 to 40 years, and I agree that improvements need to be made on this particular facility," she said. "But this plan has a number of grandiose amenities. I think that $3.5 million expenditure could be chopped down considerably."
The master plan includes non-equestrian amenities, such as a satellite branch of the Pioneers Museum, a branch of the Fine Arts Center and the Bemis School of Art. And various retail outlets and a "full-time restaurant" will be included, additions that will let the Equestrian center host a new array of non-equestrian activities.
"Please slow down on this," Bruce urged. "It's not as though there's a midnight death sentence threatening this project."