A local nonprofit plans to renovate part of the Norris-Penrose Events Center, but its past as a city landfill and proximity to a former gold mill could be a costly problem for El Paso County if construction crews start digging.
When the county sold the property to the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation for $10 in 2005, it entered into an agreement with the foundation that could hold the county liable for environmental contamination, including the tons of rubbish buried underground and the mine tailings left over from the Portland Mill's early 20th century operations.
Now, the foundation wants to transform the center's indoor arena into an exhibition hall, complete with a chuckwagon-style restaurant.
"The challenge and the issue is when people start moving dirt on it, what happens?" said county Commissioner Mark Waller. "Our community would certainly be benefited from having an upgraded facility for the rodeo - it's the potential cost related to the environmental issues that make that a more difficult proposition."
In the 1940s and '50s, the northern part of the property was a landfill for trash and building debris, including the remains of one of the old Antlers hotels.
The event center's general manager told consultants in 2014 that landfill trash could be found a few inches beneath the surface of the main arena, according to a site assessment released later that year. The manager noted that his staff had unearthed trash while grading the arena for events.
The assessment concluded the solid wastes landfilled at the site might be a source of asbestos, methane gas and groundwater contamination. Mine tailings found spread across the property - vestiges of the mill, which was located just northwest of the center - could also lead to high levels of metals in groundwater and soils.
The county is working through the environmental liability issues with the foundation. So far, there are "a limited number of solutions," Waller said.
The foundation intends to spend $4 million remodeling the 54,000-square-foot indoor facility, one of more than two dozen buildings on the roughly 60-acre property on Lower Gold Camp Road. The project would entail paving over the arena's dirt floor with concrete, constructing the restaurant and revamping the building's plain exterior to resemble a rustic Western structure. The renovated building would be able to host a wider variety of events, such as trade shows, sports and receptions.
But the foundation is facing another hitch in its plan. It intends to get a loan for up to $2 million to pay for the project, which would require the county waive a contractual right that allows the county to recover the property if the organization ever wanted to sell to a third party, said Scott Bryan, chairman of the nonprofit's board.
The so-called "right of first refusal," along with a deed restriction from when the city conveyed the land to the county in 1999, were intended as safeguards for the county and its taxpayers, said former Commissioner Sallie Clark.
"That was the protection to the taxpayers that it would remain in public use, and, secondly, that the county would have the ability to buy the property back at a reasonable price should something happen," said Clark, whose district covered the event center when she served as a commissioner from 2005 to earlier this year.
Under the right of first refusal, if the county were to buy back the property, it would only have to pay for improvements made during the past five years.
The deed restriction stipulates that the property "shall be owned and used in perpetuity as open space, (for) recreational and equestrian activities and for no other purpose." But commissioners have yet to reach a consensus about whether the provision would be enough to prevent the foundation from selling the property to a third party for other uses down the road. "We just want to make sure we keep the property in use for public benefit - the deed restriction on the property helps us get there, and it may be sufficient by itself," said Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, the current representative of the center's district.
Modifying the county's agreement with the foundation would require a public hearing and a vote by commissioners.
The county is "more than willing" to continue its discussions with the foundation, but the issue of environmental liability will have to be addressed, VanderWerf added. The foundation's current renovation plans don't appear to require an extensive amount of digging, but, if the organization were to plan more extensive construction in the future, it could be risky for the county - potentially resulting in "millions and millions of dollars" in cleanup, he said.
Bryan, the foundation's board chairman, could not be reached on Thursday for comment.
An October 1997 report found "elevated concentrations" of arsenic, barium and lead in stream sediment on the property, according to the assessment, which was prepared by CTL/Thompson, Inc., for The Broadmoor.
The Broadmoor considered buying the event center from the foundation but withdrew from the deal in August 2014. Steve Bartolin, then president and CEO of The Broadmoor, declined to say why the deal was nixed.
The assessment commissioned by The Broadmoor also cited in a 1997 letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said that levels of contaminants in water and sediment samples from the site weren't high enough to threaten horses on the property or wetlands downstream. The letter noted the mine tailings were unlikely to be a public health risk.
In 2002, the county applied for an EPA grant to clean up the site, but later withdrew its application when it learned it would need matching funds, said county spokesman Dave Rose. Since then, the county has not discussed other cleanup efforts, he said in an email.
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108