City for Champions has potential to change Colorado Springs' reputation, some say

By Rob Larimer, rob.larimer@gazette.com - Updated: January 20, 2014 at 7:39 am • Published: January 19, 2014 | 12:00 am 0

The proposed City for Champions projects have the potential to change Colorado Springs' reputation and how residents view their city, some experts say.

"Colorado Springs can be a tough place," said Jariah Walker, a 36-year-old Springs resident and co-owner of Walker Asset Management Realty. "We've always been that 'almost city,' We think we're not as good as Denver. We think we're not going anywhere. We've just needed a win for a long time."

Walker said that win came last month when the Colorado Economic Development Commission awarded an estimated $120.5 million to help finance the City for Champions projects.

They include four tourism-related projects: a 10,000-seat stadium and 3,000-seat indoor sports center, an Olympic museum, a new Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Before any City for Champions project can proceed, supporters must find sources of financing to complement state funds. And money awarded by the state comes with some stipulations. Among them, the projects must be started within five years and completed within a decade.

Walker was among several residents who traveled to Denver last month to speak in support of the proposal before the commission.

"In the back of my head, I was thinking 'Are they going to believe us? Do they think that we believe in ourselves? We've just got to stay positive and look positive to them," Walker said. "Sometimes it seems like we can't work together, and when we do have a success, we beat ourselves up over it."

He said he was preparing for the commission to say no.

"But when they gave us the full amount of funding, I knew anything was possible," he said. "I know our identity was going to change."

At that moment, when the Colorado Springs crowd celebrated together, Walker said something remarkable happened.

"We had worked together to accomplish something incredible," he said. "We had rallied together, and now we were all on the same page, and to me that's just as important as more jobs and more visitors. It was a huge turning point."

It's the kind of turning point Oklahoma City sought in the early 1990s when it embarked on a $350 million capital improvement project called MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects), which added sporting venues and renovated the city's downtown area.

Before that, Oklahoma City had a dying economy that was bleeding younger workers.

Former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick, who helped propose the MAPS plan, spoke about it in a recent video celebrating the project's 20-year anniversary.

"Any time you'd travel, people would ask where you're from, and I'd get this blank stare," he said. "They just had no concept to what Oklahoma was. It's not the bricks and mortar that MAPS did. It's the change of attitude of our community. Our kids and our grandkids are going to want to stay here. They're going to find employment and raise their families here."

Now, the city is celebrated as a hub for young professionals.

During 2013, American City Business Journals ranked it No. 7 on its "Best Places for Young Adults" list. It came in at No. 7 on Apartment.com's "Best Cities for Recent College Gratuates" list.

The Atlantic named it as one of the 15 most popular cities for millennials.

In Colorado Springs, the City for Champions proposal seems to have caught the attention of more than a few young professionals.

When the plan was introduced, the Colorado Springs Rising Professionals, a group of young professionals offering opportunities for young, career-minded individuals, polled 100 of its members about support for the proposal.

Ron Stauffer, chairman of the group's marketing committee, said 64 percent responded saying they supported the plan.

"Response has been a little bit mixed, but for the most part there's been a lot of buzz about the possibilities surrounding City for Champions," said former Rising Professionals president Shawn Gullixson. "Mostly, everyone's happy that something positive is happening in our community."

Gullixson said there's been a lot of talk, too, about how the project will open doors for young entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Gullixson, like Walker, is hoping the message about a hipper, happier Colorado Springs spreads around the country to grow the local economy.

The city's social and political reputation differs across the country.

David White, who left his job as chief business development officer for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance last month, said the city's conservative reputation often comes up when he talks to a business about moving to Colorado Springs.

"I get a lot of pushback from places like the Silicon Valley or New York," he said. "But there have been plenty of other places in California that have been concerned that Colorado is becoming too liberal. They say you're becoming too much like California."

White said large companies tend to care more about things like the conservative nature of the city and a lack of diversity. Small and medium-sized companies are just concerned about the bottom line.

That resonates at the state level, too.

Ken Lund, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, believes a city's social reputation matters little when appealing to large companies.

"By and large, corporate prospects think very little about what a city's social reputation is, whether it's conservative or whether they support homosexual relationships," he said. "All those things are a distant secondary to what bearing the city can have on the balance sheet. 'Is this a place where we can make money?' is what they want to know. They have responsibilities to shareholders."

Lund said business owners want to know about the regulatory environment for businesses and what type of skills the local workforce has to offer.

Lund said that Colorado lawmakers recently approached him with questions about whether the state's legalization of recreational marijuana would have bearing on economic development efforts.

"I told them that I just don't think so," he said. "I honestly don't see marijuana being a factor. It comes down to talent and talent acquisition in many cases."

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