Norris-Penrose scales back overhaul of horse arena as exhibition space 

Expansion redux

click to enlarge The unimproved arena as it stood earlier this year. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • The unimproved arena as it stood earlier this year.
A grand plan to convert a 54,000-square-foot horse arena at the Norris-Penrose Event Center into a steakhouse and indoor exhibition venue has been scaled back by abandoning the steakhouse component.

“We’re moving ahead,” Gary Markle, member of the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation says. “We have done a nice job in raising the money we need to do the project that we’re doing.”

The original plan called for spending $4 million to overhaul the building to accommodate dinner events for up to 1,000 people.

Now, the plan will cost about $2.5 million and will focus on interior upgrades to enable the arena to attract exhibitors in a city that lacks substantial indoor exhibition space since the July closing of the Mortgage Solutions Financial Expo Center on North Nevada Avenue. (That building is being remodeled into headquarters for the National Cybersecurity Center.)

The project, at 1045 Lower Gold Camp Road, hit a snag last year when the foundation discovered it needed to persuade El Paso County to relinquish its first right of refusal on the property, which gives the county first dibs if the land is ever sold, in order to borrow money for the project. Banks are reluctant to accept land as collateral that isn’t owned outright by the borrower.

The foundation acquired the property in 2005 for $10 from the county, which couldn’t afford to continue operating the center. County commissioners have been reluctant to forgo the first right of refusal in light of the county’s continuing liability for pollution at the site left from gold-ore processing operations that date back nearly 100 years and landfill debris accumulated during the 1940s and 1950s. A 1998 assessment found that dirt samples contained a plethora of toxic metals at levels above regulatory limits, including arsenic and cyanide. The Environmental Protection Agency termed the tailings not a big enough risk to warrant Superfund status, but the county would be liable if environmental issues surface, say from a new owner’s aggressive excavation to build houses or apartments.

El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf reports the commission never voted on lifting the first right of refusal, because the foundation found another solution, which he supports. “I’m glad they’re moving forward,” he says. “I think it’s important for our community
to have a space like this [for exhibitions].”

Without providing details, Markle says a combination of fundraising and a bank loan for which the foundation offered “other types of collateral the county has no control over” adequately finances the newly defined project. “At the end of the day, we just felt this thing gets done faster going the route we’re going,” he says.

All that has delayed the project, which the foundation originally wanted to finish by mid-2017. Now, Markle says electrical and plumbing work and pouring a new concrete floor will begin in March and be completed by the end of 2018. The project still includes a carriage museum, though outdoor patios and the steakhouse won’t be built. It’s worth noting the foundation is part-owner of Summit Catering, which will serve the exhibition center.

The goal is to widen the facility’s appeal to attract conventions and trade shows and increase the foundation’s revenue, which, in turn, would enable it to step up donations to its main beneficiaries — local nonprofits and military members and their families.

“The last time, there was a lot of moving parts that needed to come together,” Markle says. “I think we’ve solved a lot of that.”


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