Unconventional wisdom 

Backing -- and butting -- the convention center gravy train

click to enlarge Council member Margaret Radford
  • Council member Margaret Radford

Hemmed in on both sides by a nasty feud between local developers and the local hotel industry, Colorado Springs' City Council may see its influence in the debate dramatically reduced after the April 5 municipal election.

That's when local voters will decide, through a hotel industry-sponsored city charter amendment, whether City Council can continue spending public money planning a convention center without voter approval.

Not everyone is on board. City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, who is seeking re-election to his District 3 council seat in the April election, calls the amendment an attempt to "kill the convention center forever."

"I will do everything I can to keep the city charter from being prostituted with this nonsense," Heimlicher said.

But the amendment's backers -- most prominently The Broadmoor hotel, which is currently planning its own convention center -- has apparently convinced many that the city is headed toward approving a publicly funded convention center without adequate input or a vote. Council members deny the charge.

Yet to reach consensus

For the past year, City Council has renewed a longtime debate over whether Colorado Springs should build a convention center to draw visitors and revenues to town. After funding two studies to determine the viability of such a convention center, City Council has yet to reach consensus on whether to even propose a plan to voters -- who already shot down three civic, community or convention center proposals in the 1970s and an arena in 1989.

click to enlarge Council member Darryl Glenn
  • Council member Darryl Glenn

The city's plan would likely support a convention center just southwest of downtown. Developers representing Classic Cos. and Nor'Wood Development, along with the nonprofit business advocacy group Downtown Partnership, maintain that a convention center would boost downtown business, create jobs and help retain the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs by providing it with office space and a hall of fame.

The hotel industry is leery over concerns that such a convention center with a large new hotel would dilute their market.

Margaret Radford, running for re-election in District 4, said her campaign platform on the convention center is simple. "I'm looking at what the people I represent think, and they don't want a city-built, city-owned convention center," she said. "Why would we throw public money at such a risky investment?"

Declining demand

As local interests continue to clash, a national study, released this month by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, specifically notes that a new publicly financed convention center in Colorado Springs might be more risky than previously thought. The study points to some alarming trends in the convention center industry across the country -- over the past decade, declining demand combined with a coast-to-coast boom in convention center construction has weakened the market.

Many cities, the report says, are experiencing up to 50 percent drops in attendance at shiny new convention centers from the peak of demand in the late 1990s.

In Colorado Springs, estimates presented to Council this month found that a convention center would be costly. For a $130 million convention center, the city would need to raise its lodgers and auto rental tax by 5 percent and increase public parking fees to pay for a new parking facility. Overall a $2.1 million annual subsidy would be needed from the city.

Several council members have expressed unease about pushing the project forward, particularly since The Broadmoor hotel is already building its own privately funded convention center.

click to enlarge Council member Jerry Heimlicher
  • Council member Jerry Heimlicher

The Brookings Institution study -- which specifically points to Colorado Springs as an example of a city that could be banking on an overly rosy picture of the benefits a convention center would bring -- may compound this uneasiness. The report indicates that much of the information provided to cities by the convention center industry is "fundamentally flawed and inaccurate."

Tying the city's hands

For members of City Council, many questions about the center remain. Heimlicher and Darryl Glenn, who is running for re-election in District 2, both said they do not know enough about the convention center's potential risks and benefits to support a construction proposal on the ballot. But both also said they oppose the hotel industry-backed charter amendment.

The amendment would require voter approval for any planning, building, funding or financing of a convention center.

Some members of City Council are focusing on the word "planning," saying the amendment would tie their hands, making further study of the controversial project illegal.

Radford said she would consider joining other members of City Council in adopting a competing ballot amendment that would use simpler, less-restrictive language, allowing further study while ensuring any project go-ahead will be put to a popular vote.

If the council were to approve a competing amendment on the ballot, they'd need to do so by Jan. 25. The hotel-backed amendment made the cut this month when a winter petition drive gathered 13,947 certified signatures, 1,581 more than the minimum needed to be placed on the ballot, City Clerk Kathryn Young said.

That forces a referendum on whether the council can continue paying to study the issue. That will be necessary, Heimlicher said, because "there's too many unanswered questions to make a decision by January 25."

-- Dan Wilcock


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