City for Champions hits snags, generates controversy 

City for challenges

click to enlarge A pedestrian bridge will extend to ATB Park's entrance. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • A pedestrian bridge will extend to ATB Park's entrance.

As the U.S. Olympic Museum prepares to break ground in coming months, another of the four City for Champions projects remains something of a mystery, and a pedestrian bridge linking the museum to America the Beautiful Park continues to draw controversy. The City for Champions package — originally a downtown stadium, U.S. Olympic Museum, Air Force Academy visitors center and sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs — was approved under the Regional Tourism Act (RTA) by the state Economic Development Commission in 2013 and granted partial funding, $120.5 million over 30 years in state sales tax. The state money comes from incremental increases in sales tax in the regional tourism zone, which covers most of the city, as measured against the 2013 base year. So far, the city has received roughly $5 million.

Back in 2013, then-Mayor Steve Bach viewed C4C as his crowning achievement. Since then, it's run into a few problems.

The stadium

On Feb. 6, Mayor John Suthers said the city had abandoned City for Champion's downtown stadium and sports arena plans because a feasibility study showed the need for "significant public investment." The city has higher priorities, he said, and voters aren't likely to open their wallets for the project.

Suthers then substituted the National Museum of World War II Aviation, but the project couldn't go forward without a change in the state Regional Tourism Act, and a bill to make that change failed.

But the fat lady has not sung yet. "It's not over till it's over," says Suthers, noting the deal with the state gives the city until December 2018 to make substantial progress on all four C4C projects. "If someone walked into my office and said, 'I'd like to invest $28 million in a sports stadium,' we'd be back on track," Suthers says, though he admits, "I don't see that happening."

The downtown stadium has posed the biggest challenge and drawn the most criticism from citizens, who have questioned whether it can be self-sustaining. Recent developments have fueled more skepticism. Former City Councilor, mayoral candidate, and vocal C4C critic Joel Miller takes issue with the fact that Suthers decided to substitute the air museum without public input (although the city's resolution with the state gives the mayor that authority).

"Why even have a City Council?" he says.

Suthers, for his part, isn't the project's biggest cheerleader either. Citing a study funded by the civic groups Downtown Partnership and Colorado Springs Forward, Suthers says, "It showed, not surprisingly, no one is building stadiums without significant public investment. Sports teams are holding cities hostage. I have long believed that is not feasible at this point in history."

The study, by Chicago-based HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting, looked at building the stadium south of Cimarron Street on either side of Sierra Madre Street, on land now owned by the Lane Foundation.

While the study found "the market surrounding the proposed Sports and Event Center can support its development and operation," an indoor sports arena would show a cumulative net loss of $1.7 million in its first five years and a stadium used for AAA baseball and/or soccer would show cumulative net income of $4.1 million. But the latter figure is based on a sports team contributing significant funding.

The study also reported the stadium and arena would cost $74 million to build. State RTA money would provide $14.35 million, operating income revenue bonds could add another $10.7 million, and local incremental tax money, $21 million, the study said. That leaves a $28 million funding gap.

"It was just not coming together with anybody saying, 'Here's a funding source to add to the state funding,'" Suthers says.

But with another year before the project dies, there's still a chance the legislature could approve a change to the RTA in the 2018 session, which would allow the air museum project to go through.

The air museum board hired Jason Dunn, with the law firm of Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck of Denver, to help with this year's bill and to meet with state economic development officials, records show. (Dunn served as a consultant for C4C partners, including the city, in 2013 and was paid $100,000.)

But museum officials also are exploring new directions.

Airport Director Greg Phillips says they want to expand the footprint at the airport and are considering two additional parcels. "Now that it looks like that [downtown project], if not entirely dead is mostly dead, they certainly have space they'd like to expand into on the airport itself," Phillips says in an interview.

The bridge

click to enlarge A pedestrian bridge will extend to ATB Park's entrance. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • A pedestrian bridge will extend to ATB Park's entrance.

The city is planning a $10.6 million pedestrian bridge extending from the Olympic Museum to America the Beautiful Park — but it's not part of City for Champions, the city claims.

The bridge is cited as a required element in the city's Regional Tourism Act resolution agreement with the state, and $7.1 million in funding will come from the Olympic Museum's bond issue. But since it's not being classified as part of C4C, the logic goes, using city funds for the bridge won't break faith with voters after city officials vowed not to use city tax money for C4C without a vote of the people.

Those city funds are coming from the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.

PPRTA levies a 1 percent sales tax in the region for roads and bridges. It was approved by voters in 2005 for 10 years and renewed in 2012 for an additional 10 years (until 2025). Each measure included a set project list. The first ballot measure's list included "Pikes Peak Greenway Corridor Improvements," but no price tag for that.

PPRTA spokesperson Jessica McMullen says the allotment was $1.1 million, and all of that has been spent on projects not associated with the pedestrian bridge. The Greenway extends from the Air Force Academy in the north to the El Pomar Youth Sports Complex on the city's south side, a distance of some 16 miles.

The second ballot measure, in 2012, also pledged an unspecified amount to Greenway corridor improvements. McMullen reports that total was $3.9 million for the years 2015 to 2017. Of that, $2 million has been allocated to the pedestrian bridge, she says, although PPRTA board minutes show the desire to cap bridge funding at $3.5 million from PPRTA funds. (The PPRTA Citizens Advisory Board opposed spending more than $1.1 million on the bridge.)

In another confusing twist, a Feb. 6 accounting of costs for lower downtown infrastructure, found on the Urban Renewal Authority website, states the bridge "was included as a specific project in the PPRTA ballot initiative" and that the PPRTA board has approved increasing funding to $3.5 million.

So that means that most of the money for the Greenway will be concentrated in one spot. Bob Cope, the city's economic development officer, says, "that bridge was always planned" outside the scope of C4C. "America the Beautiful Park has been a stranded asset," he adds, noting the bridge will lead to the entrance of the park.

The diversion of money from the Greenway to the bridge didn't escape notice by the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

"When the pedestrian bridge project was first made public, we asked parks staff, 'What won't be accomplished on the Greenway Trail as a result?'" TOSC executive director Susan Davies says via email. "We were told it would not impact planned projects/needs on the Greenway."

All that gives former City Councilor Joel Miller heartburn. Leaving office to run for mayor in 2014, he's since bird-dogged the C4C projects, questioning if tax money will prop them up.

He disputes Cope's assertion that voters realized that by approving the PPRTA tax, it meant $3.5 million would be spent on a pedestrian bridge. "Who in their right mind would say, 'I'm increasing my taxes to build a bridge for 200 feet?'" he says. "Now the entire amount of improvements to the Greenway is going to this steel and concrete thing. It's absurd to me."

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