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Colorado Springs officials scramble to save sports and events center

December 14, 2017 Updated: December 15, 2017 at 8:04 am
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Colorado Sports and Event Center. Courtesy of City for Champions

With a deadline one year away to start work on City for Champions' downtown sports and event center, Colorado Springs officials are engaged in last-ditch efforts to save the foundering project and avoid forfeiting nearly $28 million in funding earmarked by the state to help build it.

City officials are participating in what Mayor John Suthers is calling "sensitive discussions" with community members interested in resuscitating the sports and event center, which he declared all but dead in February because of a funding shortfall. He wouldn't identify participants in the talks.

Bob Cope, Economic Development Division manager, said the city is working with a "consortium of local developers and investors" - he declined to say who or how many - who approached the city about the project, but may or may not ultimately be involved in efforts to revive it.

When contacted by The Gazette, a few of the city's more recognizable civic and business leaders, including the El Pomar Foundation and Nor'wood Development Group, said they're not involved in the discussions at this time.

As behind-the-scenes talks take place, the city also is considering an ambitious proposal to transform city-owned Antlers Park into a home for the sports and event center.

The idea is being spearheaded by high-profile Springs attorney Perry Sanders Jr., owner of The Antlers and Mining Exchange hotels and The Famous steakhouse, and the Ragain family that owns the Colorado Springs Switchbacks soccer team.

Their plan, submitted to the city several months ago, calls for the 3.3-acre Antlers Park - immediately west of The Antlers hotel - to become home to an 8,000-seat outdoor venue for soccer and other events and a 2,000-seat indoor facility for sports such as volleyball and basketball.

The 10,000-seat complex would be similar to the original sports and events center vision, which initial City for Champions proposals showed being built a few blocks south of Antlers Park in southwest downtown. The Sanders-Ragain facility would cost "significantly less" than the $92.7 million price tag for the venue when it was proposed as part of City for Champions, said Nick Ragain of Switchbacks owner Ragain Sports.

Yet, questions remain about whether the sports and events center will ever be built. The City Attorney's Office objects to the Antlers Park plan, while city officials have major challenges if they want to retain state funding.

City for Champions, proposed in 2013 by then-Mayor Steve Bach and business and civic leaders, included four projects to boost local tourism: a downtown baseball stadium, which was converted into a multi-purpose sports and event center; a U.S. Olympic Museum; an Air Force Academy visitors center; and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Public improvements in southwest downtown also were part of the proposal.

The city sought funding available under Colorado's Regional Tourism Act, which lawmakers enacted as an incentive to encourage cities and towns to ramp up tourism.

On Dec. 16, 2013, the Colorado Economic Development Commission awarded Colorado Springs up to $120.5 million in state sales tax rebates over 30 years to help fund City for Champions. Each Champions project would receive a percentage of the funding; the sports and events center was to get 23 percent or $27.7 million.

But when it OK'd the money, the Economic Development Commission gave the city a deadline: "substantial work" must commence on each project no later than Dec. 16, 2018, five years from the date funding was approved. If the city misses the deadline, it would have to return each stalled project's unspent or unpledged money and forfeit future funds for that particular project.

Three projects are underway. The Olympic Museum is under construction in southwest downtown. UCCS and the Air Force Academy have gone through planning and design steps and say they're on target to break ground by the deadline.

The sports and event center, however, has been problematic from the start.

Area residents opposed abandoning Security Service Field on the northeast side - home to the Colorado Springs Sky Sox - in favor of a downtown baseball stadium, which led to it being converted into a multipurpose facility. No site has been purchased or donated for the venue, and some southwest downtown property owners remain leery of giving up their land.

The sports and event center reached a crossroads this year when a consultant said the venue needed another $28 million to go with the state's $27.7 million and other funding sources. Suthers rejected bridging that gap with local taxpayer dollars, which put the project on life support.

Some community members, fearful the city would lose the state money, have looked for ways to revive the project.

Enter Sanders and Ragain. Their proposal calls for Antlers Park to remain city owned, but with the addition of a city-owned sports and event center as a major recreational upgrade. Along with state money, the project could be funded with a bond issue backed by a portion of city lodging and auto rental taxes, Sanders said.

He and the Ragains also would contribute money, Sanders said. He'd also make The Antlers' west-facing loading dock area available for use by the sports and event center; that would be key, Sanders said, since trucks carrying sports teams and vendor merchandise need space to load and unload.

The project would address multiple needs, Sanders said. Not only would it prevent state funding from being "flushed down the commode," but the project would clean up underused Antlers Park, which is a haven for transients, he said.

The Switchbacks, who play in a 5,000-seat stadium next to Security Service Field, would lease the new facility that Nick Ragain says would appeal to younger fans and millennials who want an urban venue. Sanders, meanwhile, said the facility will help attract fans who will visit the nearby Olympic Museum - which will be crucial for the museum's success.

"This is the best thing that could happen for the city," Sanders said. "Take a park that is currently nonfunctional and turn it into a family facility."

City Attorney Wynetta Massey, however, issued a legal opinion to the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department in August, according to Sanders, that essentially said the sports and event center would restrict access to Antlers Park, among other violations of the public's use of the venue. She cited a 1972 lawsuit involving three other parks, the resolution of which, in her opinion, established a precedent to keep Antlers Park accessible to the public, she said.

Sanders and Ragain dispute Massey's opinion, arguing the sports and event center would be available for public use and could host numerous events that the public could attend. They plan to present their proposal to the City Council at its Jan. 8 workshop session, where questions about funding, parking and other issues likely will be broached.

Cope, of the Economic Development Division, said city staffers still are evaluating the Antlers Park proposal.

Beyond questions involving Antlers Park, city officials still must meet the state's requirement that it begin "substantial work" on the sports and event center by next year's deadline or risk losing state funding.

If the city fails to begin construction, could other key steps - such as buying land or drawing up architectural plans - meet the state's test for substantial work?

That determination would be left to the Economic Development Commission, which also could grant the city an extension of up to one year to meet state-mandated requirements, said Jeff Kraft, director of Business Funding and Incentives for the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Historically, the commission has wanted to see evidence of work beyond a ceremonial groundbreaking, he said.

City officials will sit down with Economic Development Office staffers next year to seek clarification on whether anything less than actual construction would meet the state's requirement, Suthers and Cope said.

But city officials also have another requirement; they must present the state with a business plan that spells out pre-Olympic and amateur sporting events that the sports and event center would host, Kraft said.

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