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Mixed blessings 

Andrew Wommack's Bible college might change the face of Woodland Park, for better or worse

It's a Monday morning, and the regulars and a few tourists amble into the Hungry Bear in the heart of Woodland Park to drink stout coffee in a typical small-town diner.

But Woodland Park isn't a typical small town anymore. It has a Safeway, a Wal-Mart, a Denny's and other businesses that hug U.S. Highway 24 as it winds through town. Traffic is heavy outside the Hungry Bear. The town's seemingly outgrown the road, seeing as how its population has nearly tripled in the past 30 years.

And thousands more might move in if Andrew Wommack Ministries builds The Sanctuary, "A place dedicated to the glory of God," on land that neighbors have used for years to walk their dogs. It will include an outdoor amphitheater and a Charis Bible College campus, on the west side of Woodland Park.

Given that hard times have made jobs scarce, and that the big Wal-Mart that opened in 2007 hasn't brought the predicted sales-tax bonanza, there's lots to like about an expensive project by a well-heeled ministry — one that could generate dozens of jobs in the next three years.

"I think it's great," says Hungry Bear waitress Heather Malone as she pours coffee.

But some of Malone's customers worry about whether the town can handle the ministry's burden on roads, police, fire and water — the development will be the city's single biggest water user — with no tax revenue from the tax-exempt organization. Never mind the threat it poses to what's left of Woodland Park's small-town atmosphere — not only in terms of population, but also in spirit.

Wommack, who refused an interview for this story, has written several books and hundreds of messages available on his website that interpret Bible verses. In those missives, he preaches that "homosexuals ... aren't moral people" and that the Gospel renders psychology unnecessary. He says that years ago when he and his wife were en route to a religious conference and their car ran out of gas, he prayed over the car and drove it for a week. More amazing: He raised someone from the dead in a tiny southeastern Colorado town in the 1970s. (See "Wommack's pathway to prominence," for more on his personal history.)

Wommack is a multimedia Bible guru who broadcasts his lessons on TV to what he claims has the potential to reach nearly half the world's population.

But ideology won't be a measure of whether Woodland Park officials approve or reject the ministry. As the city attorney has made clear, they must confine their decision to whether the proposal meets development rules. Which it does.

That means the real decision about whether the $86 million spread gets built lies more with Wommack's followers than the city, because, as he explains in a video, "I've made a decision not to go into debt. ... I think that's what God wants me to do."

"If the money comes in, I'll do it," he says, "and if it doesn't, I won't."

The ministry

"When we started on TV in January of 2000, everything exploded. Our audience response has doubled every couple of years since."

Based on the ministry's past, raising money shouldn't be a problem. Even during the recession, Andrew Wommack Ministries Inc., saw revenue rise, from $15.2 million in 2007 to $22.3 million in 2009, mostly from donations. In five years, he's raised $72.6 million. Charis Bible College, started in 1994 and now operating on a campus in northwest Colorado Springs next to the ministry's headquarters, doubled its revenue, to $2.5 million, from 2007 to 2009.

In a video on his website, Wommack, 62, makes a pitch for viewers to become "foundation partners" by donating not just once, but every month for three years.

"To build the entire project, we would need an additional 16,000 partners giving an average of $60 a month for 36 months," he says. That level of giving from that many people would bring in $34.5 million, which doesn't include money already pouring in from "a total of 16,668 partners" who've already signed up, he says.

Wommack claims to "reach [a] 3.1 billion people potential" through his five-days-a-week broadcasts though it's more than a stretch to think that many people actually tune in. Still, he has small ministries set up in Russia, Africa, South Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, in addition to his headquarters off Garden of the Gods Road in Colorado Springs.

Largely apolitical, the Texas native preaches that a struggle between good and evil is under way.

"Our society isn't sick because of the government; it's sick because the church has not made faith in the teaching of the Bible practically universal in our country," he writes. "Once we cease to win the hearts of men, it is inevitable that ungodly men will make their way into leadership and take the country with them. If we change people's hearts with the Gospel, the people will change government with their votes."

Speaking about homosexuality, Wommack says Gen. George Washington gave birth to the phrase "drum out" by doing just that to soldiers discovered to be gay in his Continental Army. He calls it "one of the most destructive lifestyles possible," adding that gays and lesbians "aren't moral people who want committed relationships."

Wommack disputes that declaring homosexuality is wrong is hate speech. "Homosexuals average living twenty years less than their heterosexual counterparts," he writes. "THINK OF THAT! The government mandates that health warnings be put on cigarette packages, and smoking, on average, takes ten years off a person's life. That means that on average, homosexuality reduces a person's life 200 percent more than cigarette smoking. If there was any objectivity on this issue, people would speak out against homosexuality twice as much as they do against cigarettes."

Evolution is another topic in Wommack's crosshairs.

"The reason evolution is so popular today is because people don't want to accept the fact that they were created by God with a purpose in mind. If they admit to a creator, then they must become accountable for their lives," he writes. "If they can convince themselves that they weren't created but just evolved or that they are only the result of biology, then that basically makes them no different than a dog, a rabbit, or any other animal. It leaves them free to follow their instincts and fulfill the lust of the flesh and soothe their conscience while doing it. ... the truth is that there is absolutely no evidence that evolution is anything but a theory."

Those messages are part of Wommack's calling to teach thousands of people to minister worldwide, and the college is a project "God has laid on my heart to build."

In his video about the project, in which he appears in a button-down shirt and jeans and drawls in a down-home twang, Wommack tells viewers that 50 people are standing by on the phone lines to take donations.

"This is something that has the potential of literally impacting the world," he says of the unaccredited college that provides two-year programs in ministerial and Bible study and a third-year program for those wanting to start a church. "If you gave $15 a month, $10 a month, which isn't much ... and if you did that over this building project for two to three years ... you could wind up giving a significant amount."

Wommack wants to break ground next March. He calls the school "the most pressing issue" because at the present enrollment growth rate, "we will be maxed out in three to five years. It leaves us with the choice of expanding and building or limiting enrollment. I believe God wants us to expand, and He has just provided us with a miracle that will allow that to happen."

That miracle is 157 acres of land Wommack bought from Sturman Industries in 2009 for $4 million.

The town

"Money has power or influence. The rich are to use that power to do worthwhile things."

Wommack's land contains Woodland Park's signature pine trees, which led 122 people in 1890 to found the town, planning an economy based on timber harvesting for homes. Soon after, Woodland Park supported gold mining in Cripple Creek.

For 50 years, Woodland Park had fewer than 400 people and wavered between tee-totaling and gambling before settling into an easygoing tempo where rustic cabins were lived in, not preserved simply to add character.

By 1970, urbanites began to discover the "City Above the Clouds" for second homes or as a permanent retreat. Within two decades, the population more than quadrupled. The launch of the Internet enabled telecommuting, and Woodland Park's population spiked by another 56 percent in the last two decades to 7,200 today.

Though it has some chain stores, the town has retained an element of country charm where "live and let live" is the maxim, according to Elijah Murphy, who sports a moustache and shoulder-length hair as he serves drinks at the Ute Inn, a longtime local watering hole.

"There's been an influx of people here of the alternative lifestyle, but there's been an influx of all kinds of people," he says, including retired military.

Fearing urbanization, some residents vehemently opposed letting Wal-Mart in. When it was approved, the city required the giant retailer to downplay its profile by building the store with red brick and green gables to resemble a mountain lodge.

It got approved, in part, because of a prediction from Colorado Springs economist Fred Crowley that it would add $1.9 million a year in sales taxes to the city's coffers. But it's never generated that kind of revenue. In 2006, the year before the store opened, the city brought in $3.3 million in sales tax; last year produced $4.15 million.

Beth Kosley, director of the city-funded Office of Economic and Downtown Development, says Wal-Mart brought jobs, a chief goal of her office, "so we can grow people's wealth, their paychecks."

"We have become a community that has attracted high-income, second-home ownership, a number of retirees and Internet-based technical people," Kosley says. "When you ask them, 'Why Woodland Park?' they say, 'It is a beautiful mountain environment that you can get into for an affordable price, and it's close to two major metro areas and airports.' A lot of in-migration are people who have held down toney jobs."

In fact, Kosley notes one analysis based on buying habits labeled residents as "country sophisticated," and 2010 Census data tend to support that description. Eighty-four percent own their homes, compared to 63 percent in Colorado Springs. The median home price is $235,900, compared to $208,200 in Colorado Springs. Households here have a higher percentage of individuals with college degrees, and as for the median income, it's higher than Aspen's.

Yet, six in 10 residents work — and spend money — outside Teller County, Kosley says, adding, "We'd like to diminish that leakage."

The project

"This is something that has the potential of literally impacting the world."

Wommack envisions a 217,000- square-foot structure containing a 2,500-seat auditorium, classrooms, offices, a call center, banquet hall and IT services. The site also will have a 10,000-square-foot, open-air amphitheater for lectures and stage activities, a pavilion for outdoor dining, and a 170-unit apartment complex to house students.

The site's existing buildings — a 10,500-square-foot lodge and a 3,800-square-foot barn for maintenance — will remain, as will four small bunkhouses that lend Western authenticity to the acreage.

"One thing Andrew wants to do is to make sure the look of the property remains original," Wommack spokesman Jim Ertel says in an interview. "He wants it to be natural, so when you go on the property you feel like you're in the country."

When Ertel denied us a tour of the property, saying he didn't have time, he added that "all it really is, is trees and dirt. That's it."

Apartments at The Sanctuary will house hundreds of people, but many of the college's students will live in and near greater Woodland Park, Wommack operations manager Larry Bozeman has said at a public meeting.

Gary Erickson, a Colorado Springs developer and general contractor for the Wommack project, has said the apartments originally were planned to be part of the ministry's project, but that Wommack changed his mind on that, in response to residents' comments at a September public hearing. Wommack, Erickson said at an Oct. 13 Planning Commission meeting, decided the apartments will be built by a for-profit entity so that the project will generate property and use tax money — about $23,000 per year.

"Andrew wants to be the best neighbor he can be," he noted.

But the for-profit company might be owned by Bible College students, Wommack says in the video, which means local contractors wouldn't get a crack at owning the apartment complex. "We've got students going together and are putting together a corporation," he says. "They will be able to build dorms and housing and things like this."

Other requirements include adding walking paths, shielding light fixtures to limit light seen by neighbors, building an entry gatehouse and providing a 551-space parking lot.

Like other developers, Wommack Ministries will be required to pay one-time charges to mitigate impacts, such as adding turn lanes to the U.S. Highway 24 and Trout Creek Road intersection and upgrading Trout Creek Road, the main entry point.

LSC Transportation Consultants, Inc., of Colorado Springs, hired by Wommack, says the ministry project will increase traffic on Trout Creek from 1,000 cars per day now to about 4,000 new vehicle trips per day for the first phase to be completed in 2013, and 5,000 when the project is completed in 2022 — similar to the impact of a big-box retail center. Special events will increase the traffic by 6,425 new trips a day for the duration of the events.

The intersection of U.S. 24 and Trout Creek Road handles 22,000 vehicles per day now. The project will add from 4,000 to 5,000 more vehicles per day, engineers say.

The ministry also will pay water and wastewater development fees and will be barred from developing within a 100-foot buffer zone adjacent to neighboring Westwood Lakes subdivision.

Despite those requirements, some residents have complained at public hearings about noise, light, traffic, interruption of forested lands and wildlife migratory paths. Others have worried about a potential water shortage, though Woodland Park utilities director Jim Schultz says water is no problem. Wommack will use 30,000 gallons per day when fully built and in use — more than Woodland Park's school system — but will constitute only 2.3 percent of the city's available water supply, Schultz says.

The nagging question for planning commissioners, judging from comments made Oct. 13, is how much ongoing demand the ministry will create on the city, library, schools and county, leading several commissioners to seek more information about a payment in lieu of taxes, a mechanism not used by Woodland Park in recent memory, if ever.

The fruits

"God wants His people to prosper."

The Wommack ministry won't pay a dime in taxes to build and own the $86.55 million project, apart from the $18 million apartment complex, but that doesn't mean it won't create a financial benefit, according to an economic impact analysis done by former Colorado Springs Assistant City Manager Mike Anderson, now with Summit Economics.

Anderson forecasts the college will employ 61 people when it relocates in 2013, and 157 by 2022. Demand for goods and services created by those people and the students will create 108 additional jobs in the community by 2013, and 283 by 2022.

Those 440 jobs translate to an average annual payroll of $10.2 million, which Kosley calls "pretty compelling." The forecast is based on a conservative assumption that only 35 percent of the college's workers and 77 percent of its students will live in Woodland Park.

Added impact will come from Wommack hosting several special events a year, attracting 2,250 people annually who will spend money in Woodland Park for meals, lodging and fuel.

Property and sales tax revenue generated by the spinoff businesses bolstered by the ministry, its employees and students will total $1.7 million for Woodland Park from 2013 to 2022. That's an annual average of $154,090, or about 2.4 percent of the town's $6.5 million budget for 2012. Teller County can expect nearly $1 million in additional sales and property taxes over 11 years, Anderson said, an annual average of $89,545.

Taxes aside, several residents have spoken in behalf of the project at hearings. Margaret Fitzwater said the project would bring thousands of new visitors to Woodland Park, is environmentally clean and helps counter cyclical economic downturns. Bill Page noted the project will provide immediate and long-term economic stability, because college towns are less susceptible to economic fluctuations.

Dianne Majoue, who runs Buster O'Brians café, welcomes the project. "Let them have their land. Let them open it up," she says. "Growth helps everybody. They're not going to be in their little town and not go anywhere. They'll support the whole town."

And according to Ertel, they'll be good neighbors. He notes the average age of Charis students is 45, and that they are "serious about their Christian life."

"They work hard. They're looking for jobs. They're putting their kids in school. A lot of people are wealthy retired people," he says. "This isn't like you're putting a university up there with a bunch of 18-year-olds who are crazy and wild. It's not like most colleges where they're there to party.

"All I'm saying is the Bible students tend to be people who live a reasonably lawful life, a good life," he adds. "We're not bringing in problem children. We're just about educating people about the love and grace of God. The heart of this ministry is to serve the people in our community and to be a blessing to them and not a pain to them. He wants the people to be blessed because we're there. We see it as bringing so much good up there."

The politics

"Our Charis Bible College, I believe that God is raising it up to be a major influence and force in the body of Christ."

Former Colorado Springs City Councilor and Vice Mayor Richard Skorman distinctly remembers the high hopes that surrounded Focus on the Family's entry into the region 20 years ago; business boosters, he says, helped persuade the evangelical Christian ministry to move here from California. Those same people, he adds, later privately regretted it.

While on Council, Skorman says, he was called upon several times to allay concerns that gay or gay-friendly business people had about this city. Focus and other conservative groups had made plenty of headlines in the '90s, but perhaps grew most well-known once the Springs birthed Amendment 2. That measure, steadfastly supported by Focus, denied protected status to gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Voters passed it in 1992, only to see it struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.

"I would get calls from [economic development executive] Rocky Scott, saying, 'Richard, we want you to meet with this prospective new business to reassure them that Colorado Springs is a place where everyone can feel welcome,'" says Skorman, who adds that he feels the Springs' reputation for radical religious conservatism is overstated. "They were concerned it was a town that would not welcome them, and it wasn't a good place to do business, move their business or start up a new one."

Of course, Focus was politically active from the start. But just because Wommack hasn't sought the political limelight yet doesn't mean that he won't, says Dr. Lerone Martin, an assistant professor of American religious history and culture at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.

"Jerry Falwell made a complete change," notes Martin, who holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Emory University. "In the 1960s, he was against preachers being involved in politics. Ministers are supposed to be preaching the gospel and have no business in politics, he said. Then the late 1970s came around, and he was in politics."

Mayor Steve Randolph won't discuss the project, because City Council will rule on the development plans in coming months. But during an annexation hearing last spring, Randolph spoke against it. As summarized in meeting minutes: "He noted it will change the character of the community from a small mountain western town, and reported that you can't mitigate the character of a community. He noted the aggregate benefit of this project doesn't outweigh the aggregate detriment to the community's lifestyle."

He was joined by Council member George Parkhurst in opposing the annexation agreement, which passed 5-2.

And now, there's no more time to consider their line of argument.

"Discussion of or inquiry into the applicant's or any other person's political and/or philosophical beliefs should not occur during a hearing on a zoning case," City Attorney Erin Smith wrote in an advisory to the Planning Commission.

The waiting

That, of course, isn't stopping locals at the Hungry Bear, and elsewhere, from talking about it themselves.

Lynn Harrison, who lives in Westwood Lakes adjacent to the project, says she's concerned about traffic, but also about the ministry's fundamentalist beliefs. Phil Layton, who moved to Woodland Park five years ago from Manitou Springs, says, "I wouldn't be real big on this community becoming another big religious center."

Bill Barron, a teacher living in Westwood Lakes, has lived in Woodland Park only a year, but grew up in Colorado Springs' far north side and saw what happened there after the arrival of Focus and New Life Church in the 1990s.

"I saw a bunch of those religious developments, if you will, and the way they've taken over," Barron says. "It's a way of life.

"I'm quite happy that I'm not dealing with the politics brought in by the religious groups. Obviously the impact of such a highly conservative group that has political interests more than just being in the area is going to change the whole nature of the school district, influence what's being taught, who's on the school board."

Gary Clark, who lives just outside Woodland Park and calls himself a "left-wing liberal radical," questions how the city will pay for ongoing services without tax money from Wommack, and wonders if the ministry's followers would want to shut down gambling in Cripple Creek — a significant source of county tax revenue.

He calls the ministry "cult-like" based on what he's heard, and says he's offended by Wommack's teachings on gay and lesbian individuals.

"When a religious organization makes it their business to try to interfere in other people's rights, when you get into that and are preaching hate, I don't remember hating as being any part of the church experience," Clark says. "I don't think that's what we in Woodland Park should be known for."

The gist of these concerns sounds reasonable to Dr. Martin.

"I think they should be vigilant, like the Bible says," he offers. "It is very possible that the school may get there and they may think the town has become their mission field. The administration of Wommack may decide it's time to take their message to the community."

But Kosley sounds almost offended when asked for her response to residents' worries.

"My take is: This is America. We are a melting pot," she says. "We're tolerant of all types of people.

"We're tolerant. This is a tolerant community."

zubeck@csindy.com

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