Rough road for Springs' RTA projects 

City Sage

I'm hiding in Honduras / I'm a desperate man / Send lawyers, guns and money / The shit has hit the fan

— Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns and Money," 1978

"My constituents want me to have another town meeting," said a recently elected City Councilmember, requesting anonymity. "They want to talk about the [downtown] baseball stadium. They hate it! They're coming with pitchforks and torches!"

The downtown stadium is one of four projects in the city's Regional Tourism Act package, submitted to the Colorado Economic Development Commission this summer. If the package is approved for as much as $82.5 million in sales-tax increment funding, we can break ground next year.

And if not? It's been fascinating to watch things unfold, and not in a good way. It's like watching a slow-motion video of a train wreck, without knowing whether the cars will derail, roll down the embankment and burst into flames ... or whether the engineers' skill and luck will save the day.

Let's go through the sequence of events.

According to Mayor Steve Bach, it all started last fall when Bill Hybl (El Pomar Foundation), Dick Celeste (retired Colorado College), Pam Shockley-Zalabak (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs), Steve Bartolin (Broadmoor) and Lt. Gen. Mike Gould (Air Force Academy) paid him a visit. They suggested that the city put together a Regional Tourism Act application to fund a few worthwhile projects.

That was the first inflection point. The administration, instead of initiating a public process to pull together a package that might have broad appeal, chose secrecy. Projects were identified and fleshed out by power players.

Not surprisingly, the four selected projects were closely associated with their proponents, particularly those who put up $75,000 apiece to prepare the funding application. Funds came from the Anschutz and El Pomar foundations, the Downtown Partnership and the city.

It was a low-stakes game. The $75,000 ante essentially bought the right to include a favorite project (or projects). Given El Pomar's long association with the Olympic movement — Hybl is USOC president emeritus — it would have been expected to support the Olympic museum. The Anschutz Foundation has generously funded the University of Colorado School of Medicine, so the inclusion of a related UCCS project was no surprise.

Civic leaders have long yearned for development to end blight in southwest downtown, hence the Olympic museum and baseball stadium. Including an Air Force Academy visitor center made political sense and provided a way to pad visitor estimates, a key metric for advancing the deal.

The Anschutz-owned Gazette, which you might expect to be suspicious of transferring public funds to private purposes, has been an unabashed promoter of this, the ultimate insider deal. Judging from comments on the Gazette site, the strategy isn't working. Despite the spiffy 80-page bound proposal submitted to the state, the deal may be fatally flawed.

In a July 26 letter to the city, state EDC executive director Ken Lund deemed the city's application worthy of further scrutiny — but with a caveat: "In my assessment, and while there are still open questions, the Application sufficiently addresses the statutory criteria that the Third Party Analyst will need to conduct a full evaluation and prepare a report. Although I will await the report from the Third Party Analyst, I would note that of the four components in your application, the Olympic Museum appears to most closely satisfy the statutory criteria for award of RTA support."

There are two ways to interpret Lund's statement. Optimists say that the museum is merely the brightest star in the constellation. Pessimists (should we call them realists?) see Lund's careful bureaucratese as a warning to prepare for the worst. Judging from off-the-record comments from several individuals involved in the process, the pessimists are in the majority.

So what happens if the EDC nixes three of the four projects? Will the Olympic museum rise, forlorn and alone, amid the blight? Project spokeswoman Chelsy Murphy laid down the official line in a recent email:

"The projects will remain together, and we request that messaging is conveyed to your audience when writing about them separately."

Good luck with that — but you'd better have a backup plan. Honduras?


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