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City for Champions predictions miss the mark on money and timing 

C4C is no home run

click to enlarge At least the U.S. Olympic Museum is underway downtown. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • At least the U.S. Olympic Museum is underway downtown.
City for Champions isn’t off to a winning start. In fact, the city’s much-touted collection of tourism projects could be on its way to losing nearly a quarter of the state funding that was famously allotted to support it.

In 2013, the city applied for $120.5 million in state tax money to fund four tourism venues — the U.S. Olympic Museum, the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the Air Force Academy’s Visitor Center and a downtown stadium. Collectively, known as City for Champions (C4C), the city initially predicted:

  • it would work with the Sky Sox Triple A baseball team to form an entity to own the stadium, where the team would play;
  • that the state sales tax revenue allocated to C4C would total $22.4 million in the first four years alone;
  • and that all four venues would be open by 2016.

None of that has happened.

No deal has been made with the Sky Sox, which will move to San Antonio for the 2019 season. The tax has raised only $9.3 million in its first four years. And only one of the venues, the Olympic Museum in southwest downtown, is under construction.

That’s a problem because the state Economic Development Commission, which awarded the money, required that “commencement of substantial work” be achieved on all four projects within five years — by Dec. 16, 2018 — and opened in 10 years. If not, the city would forfeit money associated with any venue that was not in process.

Only the $75 million museum and the $61 million UCCS center have made “substantial progress.” (The Olympic Museum is under construction and due to open in late 2019, while the main contract for the UCCS facility has been issued, and others soon will be. It’s due to open in summer 2020.) But the status of the visitor center isn’t clear, and the downtown stadium remains stuck in the starting blocks.

Though interest has been revived in the stadium project and rumors are swirling about a potential new site, no one will discuss it publicly. Asked about that, city spokesperson Jamie Fabos says via email, “We don’t have anything to announce at this time. Sorry!”

C4C relies on state sales tax increment financing (TIF). Under a TIF, a government (in this case the state) takes a snapshot of sales tax collections in a certain year (2013) and for a certain area (the Regional Tourism Zone, which covers most of the city). The recipient (usually a developer, but in this case the city) is then allowed to keep a percentage of the tax money collected above that base (here it’s 13.08 percent) for a set number of years in the future (30 years) until a cap is reached ($120.5 million) to help pay for a project. The idea is simple: A project improves an area, the tax collections thus increase, and the entity responsible for its success keeps some of those tax collections to pay for the cost of developing it.

But not all TIFs produce as much as planned and so far C4C’s TIF has raised the aforementioned $9.3 million, not the $22.4 million the city predicted.

“This is just the organic growth the city has realized in state sales tax revenue since the plan was put in place,” says Carrie Bartow, an accountant who works for the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, C4C’s funding repository. “The theory is once the venues are open, it [TIF] will generate more tourism that will increase that number.”

The $20 million Academy visitors center is allotted $6 million in TIF, and bids are reportedly under consideration, though no opening date has been announced.

The stadium is allotted up to $27.7 million of the TIF, far short of the project’s estimated $93 million cost, leaving a gap to be filled by taxpayers or investors. Citing a feasibility study, Mayor John Suthers said a year ago the stadium, which would seat 8,000, would require municipal funding, which the city can’t provide. Instead, he said, the city would scout for an alternative, such as the National Museum of WWII Aviation. But that change required a revision of the Regional Tourism Act, the vehicle for the state grant, and legislation that would have allowed a switch failed last year.

In addition, it’s not clear who the anchor tenant for a stadium would be. After this season, Security Service Field, the Sky Sox field that’s located east of Powers Boulevard, will be occupied by the Pioneer Baseball League’s Helena (Montana) Brewers. The team will play fewer games over a shorter period of time, meaning it may not be an ideal tenant for a new stadium.

The United Soccer League’s Switchbacks play at a 5,000-seat stadium next to Security Service Field, but would love to have a new 8,000-seat facility, says team owner and executive vice president James Ragain.

A further complication, though, is that the state also requires the stadium’s business plan to include “hosting pre-Olympic and amateur sporting events, such Olympic Time Trials, Qualifiers, Playoffs and World Championship events that will draw net new out-of-state visitors to Colorado ... including events that have not been hosted in Colorado within the last five years.” There’s been no mention of such a deal in the works with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

After several years of inaction, the stadium topic was recently resurrected by hotelier and attorney Perry Sanders, who proposed that Antlers Park be converted into a soccer stadium. But the idea was dismissed due to city restrictions on the park.

While the city previously identified CityGate, 16 acres southwest of Sahwatch and Cimarron streets, as the preferred site, word of another candidate has been circulating, though city officials won’t discuss it.

“We don’t have anything pending,” economic development officer Bob Cope tells the Independent. “If and when it happens I will let you know.”

That makes Ragain worry the city will miss the December deadline. “It’s been hush-hush for awhile. It’s been frustrating,” he says.

While the city could ask the state for more time, no such request had been submitted as of early March.

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