Updated: February 27, 2014 at 10:29 pm
The majority of residents who spoke to City Council Thursday about the proposed City for Champions project delivered a clear message: let residents vote on it.
"If you think this is something residents want, put it on the ballot," said Liz Oldach.
She was among 27 people who signed up to speak against the proposed City for Champions project at the City Council's town hall meeting.
There were seven people signed up to speak in favor of the project and three who said they were undecided.
While some City Council members thought it was premature to host a town hall meeting about the proposed projects because the financing still is being developed, the majority said they felt strongly that residents should have a forum to ask questions and voice their support or opposition for the projects.
It was standing room only in City Hall chambers as residents, one-by-one, got their three to five minutes to weigh in on the proposed $250 million tourism project called the City for Champions. The council did not answer questions or speak about the projects, only listened.
The City Council is not required to put the issue to a vote because it would be planned and executed under the Urban Renewal Authority, a nine-member board appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council with the financing authority to issue bonds for redevelopment projects without a public vote.
However, some council members have said they believe the City for Champions project should be put on the ballot.
From the moment Mayor Steve Bach announced last summer that the city was applying to the state for sales tax revenue to help jump start four tourism projects, some residents said the community was left out of the planning.
The proposal began with a small circle of influential civic, academic and business leaders including Bill Hybl, El Pomar Foundation chairman and CEO; Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, outgoing U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent; Pam Shockley-Zalabak, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs chancellor; Dick Celeste, former Colorado College president; and Steve Bartolin, The Broadmoor hotel president and CEO.
The group met privately to develop the four projects, which are a downtown Olympic museum, a downtown sports and event center, a new Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Then they approached Bach about applying to the state's Regional Tourism Act, which makes state sales tax revenue available for tourism projects if communities demonstrate they'd attract new visitors to Colorado.
"It might have received more support if it had been introduced properly," said resident Charles Snow.
In December, the Colorado Economic Development Commission approved funding for City for Champions that equates to $120.5 million over 30 years; the rest of the money will come from private and public sources.
Earlier the month, supporters for the City for Champions announced that three of the four projects will not need one dime of public money. They believe, they said in a press release, that organizers of the Olympic museum, the UCCS sports medicine complex and the Air Force Academy visitors center could raise private money to complete the projects. However, organizers do not have a list of private donors they are ready to announce.
That has left resident Dennis Caruawa skeptical of the plan, he said.
"We don't know what the final bill will be," he said. "It is said there will be philanthropic money, but we don't know."
Bach is expected to sign a contract with the state by April 16 that outlines the project costs, financing terms, milestone dates and phasing of the project elements. Some residents warned that other cities, like Stockton Calif, have gone bankrupt after spending millions on downtown stadiums that did not meet financial expectations.
At a town hall meeting Feb. 19 hosted by City for Champions organizers, Bach said there would be no tax increase for the proposed projects. Bach also said that he supports the projects in concept but that the finances still need scrutiny. He invited the City Council to participate with El Paso County to hire an outside analyst to go through the projected costs and revenue of the four proposed projects.
But there are other concerns about whether the city can host enough events to fill a 10,000 seat event center. Some worry about the existing businesses in a southwest downtown that might be displaced to build the event center and Olympic museum. Resident Diane Webb questioned why the city would consider building an event center so close to Martin Drake power plant.
"You are going to ask people to sit in a stadium with a cloud of contaminants raining down on them," she said. "It doesn't make sense."
The proposal could be picked apart or it could be embraced, supporters said at the meeting.
"To the naysayers, I would say, what else do you have to offer," said resident Ed Bircham. "What have you got that is a bigger project for young people, for my grandchildren to stay here?"
Dave Van Ness, a board member of Pikes Peak Country Attractions, said small businesses that rely on tourists are hurting. He ticked off a number of businesses that have been shuttered in recent years.
"These new attractions would bring the kind of needed tourists and tourism dollars to Colorado Springs," he said.
Retired Air Force Gen. Mike Gould, who envisioned the Air Force Academy visitors center, said it is time for the community to get behind the proposed projects and "put on their CFC buttons."
"I am amazed and frankly disappointed that we are still having this discussion about whether to proceed," he said.
Former Colorado Springs City Manager George Fellows said he still is undecided on how he feels about the proposed projects. But, one thing he is certain of, he said, that all of the financial numbers need to be shared with the community.
"I believe in transparency," he said. "It's hard to get the trust factor. The only way to get it is give them all the information they need."