Colorado Springs downtown businesses are showing signs that 2014 could be their year to expand, relocate to larger spaces nearby or spruce up old storefronts.
More downtown businesses have inquired about the Downtown Development Authority's building enhancement grant program in recent months than they have in years past, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs.
It's a positive sign, she told the City Council on Tuesday during presentations of the DDA and Greater Downtown Business Improvement District budgets. Both districts are voter-approved taxing districts of downtown properties and are expected to generate about $1.3 million in 2014, slightly higher than 2013's $1 million in tax collections. That revenue, coupled with reserve funds and grant money, pushes the combined budgets to just more than $3 million. Both districts are governed by a board of directors; state law, however, requires the City Council to review annual budgets.
Financial incentives are one of the key goals of the DDA, which was approved in 2006 and began awarding building enhancement, special event and special project grants in 2008. Since then, the DDA has awarded $1.5 million in grants to about 100 downtown businesses and events, Edmondson said. But the DDA only covers a portion of the cost of the business improvement projects; businesses still pay the majority. In recent years, grant requests were down because businesses were simply trying to stay open, Edmondson said.
"We are working with several businesses - they are in the process - asking about what DDA could do to help," she said. "To me, it is encouraging."
The downtown BID, created in 1994, spends its money on marketing, transportation and safety, Edmondson said.
The combined 2014 budgets were approved by the City Council with three members - Don Knight, Helen Collins and Joel Miller - voting no.
Knight said some numbers in the 2013 budget, which was under consideration for an amendment, didn't add up and wanted to postpone the decision to discuss the numbers further. But council members Merv Bennett and Jill Gaebler, both past members of the DDA board of directors, urged their colleagues to pass the 2013 amended budget and the 2014 budgets.
"The members of this board are invested in downtown and much better equipped to make the decisions on the grants than we are," Gaebler said.
In 2013, the DDA spent most of its program money on events, such as sponsorship of the USA Pro Challenge cycling event and other downtown festivals. The city and the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau also invested in downtown by opening a tourism office in Acacia Park. Mayor Steve Bach has named downtown one of his economic vitality zones and a top priority for the city.
With the renewed interest in downtown, Edmondson said she and others are optimistic about the what's to come for the area.
"I do think people are excited about downtown's future, and I think people think it's been a little overdue taking downtown to the next level," Edmondson said. "I see a certain kind of excitement and it may have been there, but businesses didn't have the resources when the economy was down."
Edmondson noted business improvements at Phantom Canyon, which added a rooftop patio, and Poor Richard's, which remodeled its back patio. In addition, six businesses, including Tony's, Zeezo's and Meeker Music, are relocating to larger downtown locations.
"When you look at Phantom Canyon that has been downtown since 1994 making a significant investment in their property, that is a positive sign," Edmondson said.
Edmondson said the DDA won't abandon downtown events and festivals.
But she is hoping to spend more money on downtown business improvements.
"I want to see hammers and nails and cranes in the sky, and I want see the workforce, people out walking the streets of downtown going out to eat and shopping," she said. "The more we can bring the workforce downtown, the more we fill the vacancies and everything starts humming."