Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation plans overhaul of Norris-Penrose Event Center 

Western expansion

Wearing a dark business suit, white shirt and tie, Gary Markle looks out of place wiping grime from a plastic chair with a paper towel as gusty winds blow open a metal door and kick up dust from the dirt floor.

It's not the most likely place to find a banker with Central Bank & Trust — seated in a 54,000-square-foot shell of a building designed as a horse arena. But Markle is here to explain to a reporter the grand plans he and other Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation board members have in mind for the cavernous metal structure at the Norris-Penrose Events Center at 1045 Lower Gold Camp Road.

click to enlarge Board member Gary Markle at the outdoor arena. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Board member Gary Markle at the outdoor arena.

The foundation, whose mission is to preserve Western heritage and a sense of community, plans to borrow $2 million and raise another $2 million in donations to fund an overhaul of the building into a convention and expo center that can seat 1,000 people.

The idea 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.

But Markle and the other eight members of the board, many of whom own and ride horses themselves in their off hours, have some wrangling to do. First, they need to persuade the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners to release the county's title restriction from the land that enables the county to buy it back if the foundation ever wanted to sell, or if the land were foreclosed upon. The approval would clear the way for a bank loan.

Next, they'll need to win approval of the project from city planners, while rounding up donations at a time when competition among charitable projects is acute. Securing those essential dollars might prove challenging for an entity that's lost money in four of the last five years and still owes $1 million borrowed from one of its board members in 2006.

Finally, they'll have to rope in business. That might prove the easiest step.

Colorado Springs is one of the few cities of its size without a convention facility. The city's efforts to build a convention center have faced fierce opposition from voters. Most recently, in 2005, voters adopted a measure that bars the city from "planning, building, funding or financing" a convention center sans voter approval. Since then, there's never been a ballot measure asking voters to approve such a project.

But the city's inability, without voter approval, to get into the convention business means one less potential competitor for the Rodeo Foundation that hopes to absorb business from the Mortgage Solutions Financial Expo Center, which will close in July. Though the foundation planned to pick up where the expo center left off, the project is behind schedule by at least eight months.

Nevertheless, Markle and other board members say they are committed to keeping alive the area's Western traditions while building a money-making venture that would host a variety of events, and even draw national sports competitions.

"The arena now hosts four or five events a year," Markle says. "We want 50 a year, and we're going to keep going till we get it done."

click to enlarge The roughly 50,000-square-foot arena as it sits today. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • The roughly 50,000-square-foot arena as it sits today.

The 70-plus acre property comprises an outdoor stadium that can seat up to 10,000, the indoor arena that was expanded by half several years ago and a variety of stables, corrals and gravel parking lots.

The foundation's signature event is the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, held in July, which raises money to support local programs for military families. But the foundation's tax filings from 2011 to 2016 reveal that revenues fell short of expenses by a cumulative total of $187,694 for those five years. The foundation's total assets, meantime, have declined by about $300,000 to just over $3 million in recent years. Still, the nonprofit managed to donate about $360,000 to various military bases and local health care agencies in the past four years.

Foundation board members believe expanding and improving the indoor arena from a bare-bones facility to an expo and convention center with a steakhouse and a carriage museum will refill its coffers.

While the indoor facility has hosted periodic meetings, home shows and beer tastings, "It's grossly underused," Markle says.

"The renovation will create a multipurpose, western style event center that will be a destination for businesses and individuals seeking a unique western experience within the Pikes Peak region," the board's business plan states. "There is no other facility that offers such a comprehensive western experience."

The Flying W Ranch might have begged to differ some years ago, but its Western town and large restaurant featuring the Flying W Wranglers band burned to the ground in the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012. It's never been rebuilt.

And nothing has sprung up to take its place either. In fact, the foundation's business plan notes its indoor arena is the largest free-span space in its market area, and if renovated could attract out-of-area sporting, nonprofit and corporate events.

As Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, wrote in a letter of support to the board, "The size of this proposed venue fills a need for a variety of events, including tradeshows, dinners, receptions, appropriate sport competitions, military reunions and other special events. Our CVB receives frequent requests to host meetings, conferences and other events that our local hotels are unable to accommodate due to limited floor space."

The renovated arena, Price continues, "will allow additional events that in turn will generate hotel room nights, which will then produce higher revenue for increased marketing opportunities." Besides that, Price adds, the project would add to the local "Western hospitality" image.

That legacy inspired Pikes Peak or Bust Days, an event established in 1936 by mining magnate and entrepreneur Spencer Penrose. The next year, he staged the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, a professional competition, at grounds he built on the west side of his Broadmoor hotel's lake. Penrose died in 1939, but the rodeo lived on.

It's been held annually, except during the World War II years, and has evolved into a tribute to service members killed in that war.

In 1973, the rodeo arena was dismantled and transported to its current location, then owned by the city. It's a site that carries a different kind of legacy also grounded in the region's history — that of contamination from gold ore refining and garbage.

click to enlarge An artist's illustration of how the 50,000-square-foot arena could look. - COURTESY CSNA ARCHITECTS
  • Courtesy CSNA Architects
  • An artist's illustration of how the 50,000-square-foot arena could look.

After running what was then called the El Paso County Equestrian Center for more than 30 years, county officials decided they could no longer subsidize the facility. So when the Rodeo Foundation asked to buy it in 2004, the county agreed and closed the deal in January 2005 for $10. The county also gave the foundation $300,000 to fund deferred maintenance and other expenses but retained a first right of refusal so if things didn't work out, the county could reclaim the property.

Commissioners are now hard-pressed to fund such an operation. But former El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who represented District 3, which includes the property, and served from 2005 to January of this year, says, "The people of El Paso County expect that to be a public facility into perpetuity." The right of first refusal — which allows the county first dibs if the foundation wants to sell the property or a bank forecloses — was seen as a way to assure that public use to taxpayers, she says.

But to obtain a loan, the restriction has to go, Markle says, because banks lending money need to be able to foreclose and sell property used as collateral in cases of default.

The foundation and county officials have been in talks since last fall, and on April 20, commissioners held a closed executive session to discuss the county's first right of refusal. Commissioners gave the County Attorney's Office direction during the closed session but didn't vote on the issue after the closed session.

Commissioner Mark Waller says he has "no idea" when commissioners will take action, adding he thinks "it's going to take awhile." Not exactly what the foundation board wants to hear.

And Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, who replaced Clark in January after she left office due to term limits, says a public hearing will be held prior to commissioners making a decision. He adds the county doesn't want the property back necessarily, but needs to ensure it will serve the public into the future.

"The intent of the foundation is excellent," he says in an interview. "But we need to be sure we pay attention to 20 years down the road, because without the first right of refusal, they would have the right to sell it."

He noted the county also wants to be "comfortable" with environmental liability issues it might be left holding. All that doesn't mean the county should gear up for taking the facility back, though, he says.

"I have no interest in running that facility," VanderWerf says. "It's better for a company or private agency to run it than the county. You can count me in for doing what's necessary to keep that as an equestrian center, but not being entangled in it. It's been a great place for equestrian events. My interest is to preserve that legacy."

He also notes there's another deed restriction, imposed by the city when it sold the land to the county in 1999, that remains intact. It requires "that the property shall be owned and used in perpetuity as open space, recreational and equestrian activities only and for no other purpose." The restriction clarifies that the word "recreational" is to be "broadly construed" to include trade shows, concerts and other public uses.

"That may be sufficient, right?" VanderWerf says.

Markle says if the bank ever foreclosed on the property and offered it for sale, "The bank would be required to sell it to someone who would honor that [city] restriction."

click to enlarge The indoor arena is a shell of a building today. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • The indoor arena is a shell of a building today.

The foundation also has other chores, like city approvals, which could take two to three months to obtain, says Peter Wysocki, the city's director of Planning and Community Development.

As of mid-April, Wysocki says, no formal application had been filed, though city staffers have met with Norris-Penrose officials to discuss the project.

Wysocki reports city code requires new parking lots be paved, although some flexibility exists in cases of redevelopment. The facility's definition as one of "public assembly" means one parking space is required for every four seats. That would mean a minimum of 250 paved spaces are needed around the facility. (The rodeo foundation's business plan calls for 400 spaces.) The Norris-Penrose property has several other parking lots to the west and north, but they're gravel, and Markle says the foundation has no plans to pave them at this time.

"Since they have not filed an application with the City," Wysocki says in an email, "we do not have the details of their request and it would be speculative on my part to determine how much parking they need, where it will be located or how much parking they can accommodate."

In addition, city planners would review the plans for drainage facilities, as well as traffic flows. It's worth noting that Lower Gold Camp Road and Rio Grande Street, which feed into the facility from Eighth and 21st streets respectively, are just two lanes, which could become jammed with traffic on event days.

Approval of all those things precedes issuing a building permit, Wysocki says.

Raising $2 million in donations also might pose a challenge, considering the number of fundraising efforts underway. Among those are the Summit House project atop Pikes Peak; the Springs Rescue Mission, which is addressing the area's homeless issues; Pikes Peak United Way, which saw donations drop by 13 percent between 2012 and 2015 before recovering last year, as well as dozens of other worthy causes ranging from Urban Peak that helps homeless youth to the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.

Add to that the reality of the foundation's past shaky financials, which are acknowledged in the business plan. "A key component for sponsors and pledges is the ability for the Center to be self-sustaining through normal business operations," it says. "Those pledging support want to know that the Center won't need to continue to seek financial support to remain viable."

In recent years, the foundation has eaten into its assets to offset operational losses. According to IRS filings, the foundation's operations ran in the red between 2011 and 2014, with losses ranging from $14,243 to $78,293 a year. It finished the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2016, the most recent filing available, just under $3,000 in the black for the first time in at least five years.

Markle says the group hopes to raise a good portion of the money it needs through corporate donations and naming rights, but didn't disclose what companies are being solicited. Another small funding opportunity might come from the city's Lodger's and Automobile Rental Tax, which gave the foundation $20,000 in 2015.

click to enlarge An artist's rendition of the renovated facility. - COURTESY CSNA ARCHITECTS
  • Courtesy CSNA Architects
  • An artist's rendition of the renovated facility.

The closing of the Mortgage Solutions Financial Expo Center at 3650 N. Nevada Ave. gives the rodeo foundation a perfect gateway to the market, says Renee Zentz, CEO of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs. Zentz is intimately familiar with Norris-Penrose Events Center, having run it for years for the county. She also knows the events business from overseeing the expo center, which has been operated by the HBA for six years.

The expo center closes July 1 to make room for the National Cybersecurity Center, leaving exhibitors and event promoters with few options for trade shows and exhibitions locally.

The Colorado Springs Expo Center, at the former Rustic Hills shopping center at Palmer Park and Academy boulevards, offers exhibit space, but it might not be suitable for all events looking for a new home, the foundation's business plan says. Another option is The Broadmoor, which hosts high-end events such as the National Space Symposium. But it commands higher prices than some exhibitors can afford. That said, the rodeo board might have its eye on some of The Broadmoor's nonprofit customers, because its business plan mentions several events now held there as possibilities for the indoor arena, such as the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC annual gala, the Goodwill Gala and the State of the City luncheon.

The Broadmoor's CEO Jack Damioli didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

Zentz says the HBA has committed to locating its home show, an extravaganza of booths and displays by 150 businesses, at the renovated indoor arena and will refer expo center clients as well. (It recently staged its final home show in the Mortgage Solutions Financial Expo Center.)

"We told them if you get this up and going, we're transitioning all our business over to you," she says in an interview. And that could give the indoor arena a big boost, because in the last 5.5 years, the expo center served 3,800 nonprofits and 10,000 businesses that drew attendance of more than 600,000 people to 239 events.

Says Markle, "So all that book of business there is looking for a home, and we're hoping this is attractive enough to bring those people over."

Zentz also notes the arena's locale — near Interstate 25 and downtown — could be a draw, as well as its status as the largest free-span space in the area. But, she adds, "a lot of dominoes" have to fall to make the project work. For one thing, there will be a lag time until the new center's renovation is completed, which will take six to eight months. For another, national promoters, like the Comic Con event recently held at the expo center, book two years in advance, Zentz notes, and already some events formerly held at the expo center are gravitating to the fairgrounds in Castle Rock.

That means the foundation needs to be prepared financially to span a gap until events find their way to the new facility, she says. The foundation's business plan speaks to that, saying the group will reserve six months of principle and interest payments to fund the loan after the center opens. Will it be enough? Via email, Markle assures the Indy it will be, saying, "There is sufficient fund[ing] on hand through the current operation and the forecasted incremental revenue growth to handle all requested payments."

The business plan also predicts the arena will bring in $575,000 in 2018 and $775,000 in 2019 via traditional trade shows as well as concerts, award ceremonies, weddings, private parties and formal dinners.

The foundation also hopes to tap new markets, such as Olympic National Governing Body meets for boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, volleyball and badminton, as well as high school sports competitions, such as cheerleading, and even beauty pageants.

Moreover, the business plan notes that Summit Catering, which operates on the grounds and is partially owned by the foundation, will grow its revenue as the "exclusive provider of food and beverage and related services for the center." And those dollars, the plan says, "fall straight to the bottom line of the Foundation."

Rodeo board members predict that within three years of opening the center, new events will buoy the entire event center's financial outlook by increasing revenue by 47 percent and producing a bottom line of nearly $400,000 in one year alone.

All of which makes for a lot of optimism.

"It would breathe new life into that facility," Zentz says. "If they do the renovation, it would be the best expo space in our community. There's a real need."

Actually, Markle says, the overhaul of the arena is the next logical step.

"It's just allowing us to take a very valuable property that could benefit the community, as well as military charities, and repurposing it," he says. "It's great for economic development, and it's great for the mission, so we think it's a win-win."

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