Television evangelist Andrew Wommack is realizing the dream of his life as his $52 million Charis Bible College comes to fruition on the western edge of Woodland Park. And he intends to spread the wealth.
At a private open house Monday at the new complex called The Sanctuary, Wommack told several hundred city officials, business owners and others that students will be encouraged to spend money, volunteer and live in the area.
"We want to be a blessing. My desire is to help the community," he said. "Rather than taking it to Colorado Springs, let's keep the business in Woodland Park."
An analysis by Summit Economics of Colorado Springs estimates an economic impact of $4.2 million in 2014, the college's first full year of operation.
That news sounded like a dream come true for many proprietors who have been struggling through the recession.
"I think it's going to bring people and money and revenue. I can see right now that we're going to need more hotels," said Lydia Eells, who owns a personal chef service.
Staff will begin moving Dec. 18 into the first building - a 76,321-square-foot structure with classrooms and a banquet hall. Classes will start Jan. 6 with 636 students, who will come from the college's current campus in Colorado Springs.
Wommack started Colorado Bible College in 1994 in Colorado Springs at the headquarters of his Andrew Wommack Ministries. He renamed it Charis, the Greek word for "grace," after adding locations outside the state.
Enrollment has been heavenly in recent years. In 2007, Charis had 686 students on campus and taking online, correspondence and extension programs. This year, Charis has 4,336 students. Staff has expanded from seven employees in 2007 to 33 today.
Students are non-traditional, and their average age is 44. Most come to Colorado from elsewhere. The two- to three-year program awards associate, bachelor's and master's degrees, although it is not accredited by a higher educational governing body. Wommack said the college meets some of the requirements of the Colorado Board of Education. Training in worship, preaching, media, business and other elements of Christian ministry is offered.
Wommack said he considered building in Colorado Springs, where he plans to keep the headquarters for his multimedia evangelical Christian ministry that is broadcast on some 800 television stations worldwide, but Woodland Park was cheaper.
"We looked at 90 acres on the eastern part of Colorado Springs for $90 million. We bought this for $4 million," he said in an interview.
He and his wife, Jamie, who also works for the organization, have lived in Teller County for nearly three decades, first in Woodland Park, and now in Florissant.
Wommack purchased 157 acres off Trout Creek Road from Sturman Industries in September 2009 and started construction 14 months ago. With a pledge to build the complex debt-free, he has raised all but $1 million of the $32 million cost of the first building. Next up: a 141,000-square-foot building with a 2,500-seat auditorium, a call center for 100 prayer ministers, offices and a break area for 2,000 students.
Religious organizations tend to be recession-proof, Wommack said, because "in times of crisis, people look to God." So he's confident his organization will be able to raise not only the $1 million to finish the first phase, but also another $20 million to build the second building, and possibly start on that next spring. Revenue increased by 25 percent last year to bump the nonprofit organization to a $40 million-a-year ministry.
A nearly mile-long driveway on Gospel Truth Way winds around the picturesque land to the building site, which will accommodate up to 3,000 students and up to 2,200 people who will attend conferences - quite an addition to a town with a population of about 7,200.
Woodland Park Planning Director Sally Riley said initial traffic concerns from residents have been addressed. Additional turn lanes from Trout Creek Road onto U.S. 24 and into the complex were created. Complete annexation into the city will provide municipal water, which City Manager David Buttery said is adequate to serve the growing needs.
The college is one springboard of economic activity in Woodland Park. Ground recently was broken on a 168-unit apartment building, several stores are under construction and plans are progressing for a downtown revitalization.
"Woodland Park is coming out of this economic downturn very strongly," Buttery said, "and we're very excited. Andrew Wommack is a huge benefit."
Some, though, including former Mayor Steve Randolph, have wondered what the conservative Christian ideology of Wommack's teachings will mean for the town. Among his beliefs are that human beings can miraculously heal and raise people from the dead, which Wommack claims happened to his son, Peter, in 2001. Wommack also preaches against homosexuality and sends students on mission trips to do street evangelization and gain Christian converts.
Randolph has said publicly that the college's presence would have the potential to change the character of the town and be detrimental to the community's lifestyle.
A public grand opening of The Sanctuary will be held March 22.