Once nearly handed to developers to turn into an apartment building, downtown's historic City Auditorium has resurfaced as a funding priority for Colorado Springs' City Council.
The 84-year-old theater is No. 2 in a Top 10 list of unfunded capital improvement projects finalized Tuesday by council. But the city has not identified a funding source for what it's estimated to be $1.9 million in needed repairs, leaving some skeptical about its commitment to the building.
"It is kind of like having a big Victorian house you can't maintain," says John Hazlehurst, former city councilor and past Independent columnist, who led an effort four years ago to stop the city from selling the auditorium to Nor'Wood Development Group. "You are ashamed to have such a shabby place in the neighborhood."
Repairs and renovations to the auditorium which some city officials say would require far more than $1.9 million include installation of an air conditioning system and fire sprinklers, floor resurfacing and plumbing and electrical updates. The main hall's ceiling is covered in beach-ball-sized holes, and the theater's fire curtain is made of asbestos.
According to its five-year capital improvements plan, the city has known about the auditorium's deficiencies some of them public-health risks for more than 20 years. Other projects on the Top 10 list were identified as problems between two and 10 years ago.
The City Auditorium had been listed at No. 1, but was bumped to second place earlier this month by a north side refueling facility for city snowplows.
Vice Mayor Larry Small promises the auditorium, which he says is in "crucial need," will receive funding for improvements at some point.
"We will take some action in the next five years," Small says.
The auditorium currently receives $214,000 annually from the city to cover routine maintenance costs. Its fees and events bring in an average of $179,000 a year in revenue.
Despite Small's assertions that the City Auditorium won't be sold, developers continue to nose around the block's historic edifices. Nor'Wood has shown interest in buying a small city-owned building just south of the auditorium. Known as the "annex" by the theater's staff, the structure may have been used as a construction trailer and office for the building's original contractors in 1922. Workers supposedly carved the auditorium's heavy wooden doors and doorframes in the workshop, and then transported them into the main building.
If Nor'Wood acquires the building, it could be razed to allow for better traffic flow to the developer's other nearby properties. In exchange for the building, Nor'Wood may provide free air conditioning to the City Auditorium, according to Recreation Services manager Lamont Gizzi.
The plan, he says, has a "good possibility" of coming to fruition.
A long-range strategy for the City Auditorium will be discussed at a Feb. 12 council meeting. Downtown Partnership's Beth Kosley will present a study on the theater's potential. But without funding, those ideas will remain on paper.
"I don't think there are any bad guys," says Hazlehurst. "If there are bad guys, it is the simple, continuing, long-term inaction of the City Council, and this kind of forlorn and stupid hope that someone is going to come along and bail them out."
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