Wednesday, December 4, 2013

City for Champions hearing attracts an impassioned crowd

Posted By on Wed, Dec 4, 2013 at 8:35 PM

click to enlarge Kids chime in to urge state officials to fully fund City for Champions. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Kids chime in to urge state officials to fully fund City for Champions.

A spark. A legacy. A recruiting tool for young professionals. An inspiration. Something spectacular.

All were used as descriptors of Colorado Springs' City for Champions tourism proposal on Wednesday at a hearing before the state Economic Development Commission, which was inundated with comments from 70 people.

Most urged the commission to approve $120.5 million in state sales tax rebates to help fund the $250 million plan to build four tourist attractions: a downtown events center, Olympic museum, Air Force Academy visitors center and sports medicine center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Backers sponsored two buses from Colorado Springs to attend the Denver meeting. Seventy-three got there that way, and just as many found their own rides on a snowy day to try to overcome a recommendation from the state's consultant that the proposal be given only $53.1 million. (Disclosure: I was among the journalists who also hitched a ride on the bus.)

A sampling of comments:

Mayor Steve Bach called the proposal the city's "defining moment." Several said it would be a catalyst for a transformation of the downtown area. UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said it would result in $5.2 billion increase in state gross domestic product over 30 years, and former Ohio governor and Colorado College president Dick Celeste called it a prime opportunity to cash in on "America's No. 1 brand," that being the Olympics.

"If we are to succeed at this time of globalization, we need to focus on leveraging unique and world-class assets," he said.

A group of young people from the Colorado Springs Conservatory burst into song to make their point, with lyrics about dreaming big. Another commenter quoted a poem about building a bridge to the next generation.

Wayne Laugesen, Gazette editorial page editor, told the commission that the paper's editorial board, publisher and owner all "fully support" the City for Champions.
Offering a somewhat more sober outlook was Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson. While acknowledging the school wants a new visitors center, she noted, "Sequestration has forced us to examine priorities. Frankly, we would need significant donor involvement or a public-private partnership, and either option would be a challenge."

The six-hour hearing wasn't without comment from full-fledged critics, with Springs Councilor Joel Miller being first up.

Noting he was speaking for himself, Miller said the proposal has changed several times and was "devoid of any public process at all."

"Nobody asked if they [public] wanted their city transformed," he said. Miller also noted that the Urban Renewal Authority, a key financer of the plan, has already defaulted on one bond issue involving another urban renewal area and just two days ago failed to make a payment on another bond issue involving the same project, University Village Colorado.

Jason Hann, a local resident who formerly served on the city's stormwater committee, accused backers of "cronyism" in an "unscrupulous" scheme that's based on a "trust me" mentality, but actually is a huge gamble for taxpayers.

Councilor Jill Gaebler, speaking after several opponents, said detractors shouldn't be "blinded by black-and-white ideology," adding, "They are but a fraction of our citizens and represent a voice of continued mediocrity."

Councilor Val Snider also spoke in support, while Councilor Helen Collins spoke against it.

EDC Commissioner Chuck Murphy, a contractor in Colorado Springs, announced he wouldn't vote on the matter to avoid an appearance of a conflict, given that he owns property bordering the downtown development area. Later, he stood at the podium and urged his fellow commissioners to back the proposal with full funding.

Commissioners plan to hold a teleconference Dec. 11 to get answers to any lingering questions. State Economic Development Director Ken Lund will submit his recommendation on Dec. 13, and the EDC will decide how much to fund on Dec. 16.

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