With $120 million pledged, 'real work' awaits City for Champions fans 

Let the games begin

So the state defied its own staff and financial analysts, and gave Colorado Springs its full request of $120.5 million in sales tax money for City for Champions.

What now? Well, plenty.

Indeed, the Economic Development Commission's decision marks just the beginning of a trek over numerous bureaucratic hills for the city. Among them: frequent audits; creation of a Regional Tourism Advisory Board; establishment of various nonprofits to build and run the attractions; and lining up 20 Olympic events a year to be hosted by a downtown stadium and events center.

To date, Mayor Steve Bach has consorted on the project with like-minded movers and shakers such as El Pomar Foundation and the Convention and Tourism Bureau. But now he must seek approval of Colorado Springs City Council — left out of much of the process — to get some of the work done.

And Councilor Joel Miller, the $250 million proposal's biggest critic, is vowing to fight.

"I'm just sick about it," Miller said in an interview just minutes after the EDC's 7-2 Monday vote on funding. "I'm giving [proponents] a firm warning: I will fight any use of [tax-increment financing]."

Not that supporters seemed worried at a news conference where they basked in the state's approval.

"We're so thrilled and on Cloud Nine," said developer Chris Jenkins, whose family controls a significant chunk of downtown land in the path of the projects. "It's a new beginning for tourists and for ourselves."

Pulling it together

All four City for Champions attractions — the stadium, a downtown Olympic museum, a sports medicine center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and a new Air Force Academy visitors center — must show substantial progress within five years and be built within 10, or the city must forfeit all or part of the money.

To further guard the state against something going awry, the EDC adopted guidelines that specify square footages for every attraction and mandate that the city track every cash register that collects taxes in the tourism zone, which covers about 85 percent of the city. That's to assure that the "eligible tax increment [state rebate] is only what is generated by the increase in tourism activity from the Project itself," and not normal growth.

Moreover, before any state money can be used, the city must create a Regional Tourism Advisory Board or Commission that includes representatives from city government, community members and people from each of the attraction's partners. That board then must sign agreements specifying the relationships and decision-making authority between the financing agency, the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, and the partners: the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame nonprofit, a stadium authority (also to be created), UCCS or an affiliated nonprofit, and the academy.

At the news conference, nothing was said about how backers intend to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for the projects in donations and public money. "People need to get comfortable for how these will be financed," Bach acknowledged, "and I am looking forward for all of us to work together as elected officials."

Said Dick Celeste, former Ohio governor and past Colorado College president who's in charge of the Olympic museum project, "The real work begins today."

Indeed, some funding must come from local tax money, and two sources are likely. Bach says he might ask voters to issue bonds and repay them using existing revenue — avoiding new taxes. To get to the ballot, supporters could either gather signatures or ask Council to refer a measure.

Another financing method to be used is the tax-increment financing to which Miller referred, which doesn't require voter approval. The Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority plans to borrow $100 million against future city sales and/or property tax revenue collected in the 100-acre Southwest Urban Renewal Area, where the museum and stadium are to be built. Another $42 million is to come from El Paso County's sales and/or property taxes in that same area.

TIF is only that portion of tax revenues attributed to growth caused by the new development. The money would be used for public infrastructure, venue construction and related structures, such as a pedestrian bridge, a 1,500-vehicle parking garage and streetscape improvements.

Urban Renewal Authority official Jim Rees says that boundaries need to be changed for the urban renewal area, because it was formed in 2001, and TIF eligibility lasts only 25 years. "So we've burned through half the time period," Rees says. In other words, "If you wanted to sell bonds, you've lost half the time" to repay them.

According to the city's application, the stadium and events center would be built last, opening in 2017. The others would open in 2016. To maximize on TIF collections, Rees says, the city might adopt a smaller urban renewal area for the museum alone and another one later for the events center. He adds he can't say for sure because it's unclear where the museum and sports facility are going, exactly.

A fractured Council

Urban renewal boundaries and TIF financing both require Council approval. And when it comes to C4C, councilors show up all over the spectrum.

Jill Gaebler calls the project "transformational," and was joined by Val Snider in endorsing it to the EDC. Jan Martin says she's a supporter, too, but notes Council's coming role as "important ... in the decision making going forward." Merv Bennett says via email he's "excited about the potential" of the project, though he wants to make sure it "moves forward in a manner that is financially viable and sustainable."

Council President Keith King says via email that the first step is for Council to hold public meetings, after which it would create the financing and governance structures. "Once the plan has been completed," he says, "the City must allow the citizens to vote on the various aspects of the proposal that will use tax dollars to finance it."

Don Knight, meanwhile, says he doesn't support the downtown events center and worries that if voters don't approve a borrowing measure, "the event stadium becomes a boat anchor that sinks the other three projects." He also worries the city faces other basic needs such as flood control; if that's not funded adequately to appease Pueblo residents, it could undermine the Southern Delivery System, the city's $1 billion water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir.

Helen Collins adamantly opposes City for Champions, noting that no residents who attended town halls and other forums she's attended lately support the project. Likewise, Andy Pico says public sentiment is against the venture and that TIF isn't popular among councilors. Moreover, Pico fears that while project advocates say they won't move the Triple A Sky Sox baseball team from Security Service Field (in his northeast district) to the downtown stadium, it still could be part of the unspoken long-range plan. He's also skeptical of how the entire package will be financed in years to come.

As for Miller, who says hundreds of residents told him they oppose City for Champions, he was stunned by the EDC's decision. He notes the total cost, including financing, is $635 million, meaning the state's portion comprises only 19 percent, leaving the rest for donors and taxpayers.


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