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Looking outside the frame

It's been a long, strange trip for the Colorado Springs Convention Center. Never a building, it's just an idea, a dreamy scheme that's captivated politicians, boosters, downtown promoters and assorted hangers-on for decades. Never mind that the idea made absolutely no economic sense; never mind that the hapless voters had turned down the idea a couple of times; never mind that no private investor ever committed one thin dime to the concept. It just wouldn't go away -- until now.

Thanks to last month's voter-approved initiative that forbids Council from even thinking about a convention center, the last lonely conventioneer is packing his bags and hitting the road. The Economic Development Corporation's Rocky Scott is off to greener pastures, and the convention center is officially dead.

So what are we going to do with southwest downtown? Confluence Park is pretty nice, but other than that there's nothing but railroad tracks, boarded-up industrial sites and a big honkin' power plant. The power people are right for a change: We need a big, bold project down there, something that'll jump-start development, benefit the city and capture the imagination of the entire region.

So what'll it be? A downtown baseball stadium is no longer in the cards, and an Olympic Hall of Fame, once intended to be a minor adjunct to a convention center, isn't enough, by itself, to make a big difference.

But there's a way, at little public expense, to create an enduring regional landmark, a building that would serve the community, draw tens of thousands of visitors and become the proud symbol of our community. And here's how:

Consider the Fine Arts Center. Under CEO Mike DeMarsche's inspired leadership, the FAC is no longer a sleepy little dump, catering to the few. Thanks to crowd-pleasing shows like Linda McCartney's photographs and the current exhibition of Dale Chihuly's work, we know many more supporters of serious contemporary art than most of us ever imagined are in this community . And we know that the existing FAC, north of downtown at 30 W. Dale St., was built for a city of 30,000. It is woefully inadequate to provide for today's vibrant city, let alone for the future.

So what do we do? Expand it? That's fine, but its current site is tiny -- there's no room for a good-sized expansion, no room for parking, and the cost of shoehorning in a modest annex plus a parking structure is astronomical. But there's an alternative.

Colorado College, the FAC's next-door neighbor, plans to build the so-called Cornerstone Arts Center across Cascade Avenue, a facility that would pretty much duplicate the FAC but principally serve the college community. It's slated to cost $20 million or so.

Suppose the FAC sold its building to Colorado College for, say, $15 million. The college gets a magnificent existing facility, and the land designated for the Cornerstone facility is now available for other needs. It's a clear win for the college.

The FAC takes its $15 million, gets another $15 million from The El Pomar Foundation, plus another $10 million or so from other private sources. The city, county, and utilities kick in a few million worth of roads and utilities (just as they did for the World Arena). That comes to about $50 million. With that, the FAC can hire a world-class architect (Santiago Calatrava? Daniel Libeskind?) to design a spectacular new art museum. Imagine a bold, soaring, graceful building, visible and accessible from the Interstate, with easy parking on an expansive site.

Imagine much of the FAC's magnificent collection on permanent display, liberated at last from Dale Street's dank basements. Imagine an arts center that would serve our entire community, one that would belong not just to the core city, but everybody from Briargate to Fountain.

Can it be done? Sure, but a lot of powerful people will have to work together. El Pomar, Colorado College and the FAC board would have to agree to at least study the idea -- and any one of them could torpedo the deal at any time.

But the end product, an art museum better than that of any comparably sized city, would take our breath away. Sometimes even the largest, most unlikely dreams can be realized -- just rely on inspiration, faith, and lots of hard work.

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink. net

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