Well, this isn’t a good look...
Less than one year after opening its doors, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame, crown jewel of Olympic City USA, has ousted its CEO, appears to be on shaky financial ground and is expected to ask for a $3.5 million bailout — a portion of the roughly $76 million to be allocated to the city through the American Rescue Plan.
The museum and hall of fame, completed last year, opened at almost twice the cost of its initial $45 million estimate. And the timing, of course, couldn’t have been worse. Opening a public venue during the pandemic certainly impacted visitor numbers. But, COVID or not, the projected volume was always a fantasy.
When the city applied in 2013 for state money to help fund City for Champions projects, its application predicted the museum would draw 350,000 visitors a year — more than 900 per day — and 82 percent of them would be from out of state (Regional Tourism Act funds are used to attract new tourist dollars from outside Colorado). Economic & Planning Systems Inc., a consultant hired by the state to conduct an independent analysis, found “60 percent as a more reasonable, although still high target.” Projected visitor numbers were never realistic, yet the inflated figures were broadly touted by supporters prior to groundbreaking. The museum won’t release official visitor numbers, but word on the street is that it’s not anywhere close to 900 a day. The venue would be fortunate to draw a crowd that large even when the Olympic Games are occurring normally every two years — and this year’s belated Tokyo Summer Games appear on a crash course with disaster.
From the beginning, dealings surrounding the City for Champions projects were shrouded in secrecy, with extremely little public input sought. The thinking: No city tax dollars would be used on C4C projects, so no need to consult residents (although the city used Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority money for the pedestrian bridge from the museum to America the Beautiful Park). But federal ARP money is taxpayer money, so the lack of citizen involvement in early discussions of this potential bailout is all the more concerning.
If the museum receives bailout money, its fiscal operations going forward need to be far more transparent and receive much more public scrutiny. City Council President Tom Strand said, if the museum’s request is honored, he would want to see quarterly financial updates. Councilor Richard Skorman pointed out the museum presumably has an endowment, a luxury smaller nonprofits don’t have. Councilor Bill Murray said he’s flatly opposed to providing ARP money to nonprofits as it’s not up to the city to pick winners and losers.
There’s no question the Olympic Museum is a world-class facility, inspiring its visitors with history, athletes and memorabilia that appeal to every generation. It’s also true that the museum’s organizers have plenty of good excuses for the troubles that have plagued its first year.
If you haven’t had the chance to see it for yourself, it’s truly worth the time (at least several hours) and expense to experience the museum. But that doesn’t make it immune from questions and criticism. Bottom line, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the museum’s woes now, given how smug city officials and civic leaders were from the start.
Which brings us to the final point: Colorado Springs shouldn’t need the Olympics to thrive. The athletes must train somewhere, and it’s great so many are here. But it’s risky to be totally identified with an exclusive brand that has dealt with so much self-inflicted controversy in recent years.
Leave outside brands to cities that can’t sell themselves. That’s not Colorado Springs. And let’s not forget how the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2007 blackmailed the city into providing more than $50 million in incentives to keep the organization headquartered here.
No matter the museum’s fate, there are life lessons to be taken from the Olympics — such as, it’s always easier spending other people’s money.