The City for Champions tourism initiative will boost the area's economy, inject life into downtown Colorado Springs and generate sorely needed jobs, supporters said Thursday night during a forum on the proposal and local economic development efforts.

But if criticism voiced by several forum attendees is any indication of community sentiment, City for Champions supporters have their work cut out for them to convince the public their proposal will be the economic engine they claim.

Click here for video of the event.

About 150 people attended a "Community Conversation on Economic Development the 21st Century and City for Champions" that took place at Colorado College's Armstrong Hall. The event was the fourth such conversation designed to examine topics of interest to the Pikes Peak region; it was co-sponsored by The Gazette, Colorado College, UMB Bank and the non-profit Food for Thought, a program of the Colorado Springs Diversity Forum.

The event featured a panel discussion with six community leaders, who shared ideas about economic development and City for Champions - a $250 million package of four tourism venues. They include a downtown U.S. Olympic museum, a 10,000-seat downtown stadium and 3,000-seat arena, a new Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

When it comes to economic development, several panel members agreed Colorado Springs should look to capitalize on its existing assets, which include its tourism industry and its reputation as the center of the nation's Olympic movement. The U.S. Olympic Committee has its headquarters downtown and the Springs is home to one of the country's three Olympic Training Centers.

"Build on your own strengths" is what community leaders have heard during visits to cities to learn about their economic development efforts, said Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, said successful communities have vibrant downtowns and have developed strategies to keep and attract young people and talent.

Linda Weise, founder of the Colorado Springs Conservatory, said economic development efforts should include championing opportunity, vitality, diversity and collaboration.

Those broad economic development goals aside, however, much of the evening was spent discussing City for Champions.

Joey Cheek, a former Olympic medalist, said the proposed museum gives the city an opportunity to cement its ties to the Olympic movement - which he called an underutilized asset - and help make the Springs a destination location. UCCS' sports medicine center would attract athletes and help make the Springs a "world-class city."

Price, meanwhile, touted jobs that would be created and tourism dollars that would flow to the Springs as a result of the City for Champions venues.

But City Councilman Andy Pico, another panelist, raised several concerns. He warned of other communities around the country that spent public money on projects, only to see economic projections fall far short. Based on what he's heard in the community, members of the public aren't sold on the proposal because they haven't seen detailed financial information.

Eventually, Pico said, the public should be given the chance to vote on City for Champions, since public money will be spent on the projects. Last month, the Colorado Economic Development Commission awarded $120.5 million in state sales tax revenue over 30 years to help finance the four projects, although the rest of the money must be raised from private and public sources.

Panelist Jim Stewart, former Ent Federal Credit Union board chairman, president of Technology Vectors Inc. and an Air Force veteran, said he's not certain the Air Force Academy is on board with the visitors center. All of the projects, he added, "still need a lot of vetting."

Stewart and Pico were echoed my audience members who complained the public has been shut out of City for Champions discussions up to now.

John Edward Hawk, who described himself as a semiretired Colorado Springs School District 11 teacher, said discussions should take place in every City Council district.

"What I see is not participatory democracy," Hawk said.

Gregory Olinyk, a venture management consultant, said he loves the City for Champions concept, but feared it would result in creation of low-wage positions.

"I see a lot of 'peanuts and popcorn' jobs," Olinyk said. "I don't see a lot of real jobs."


Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228

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