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EDITORIAL: Council in a pickle (ball) over museum request

By: The Gazette editorial board
March 12, 2017 Updated: March 14, 2017 at 9:20 pm
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Preliminary concept renderings for the United States Olympic Museum were released at a press conference Thursday, May 14, 2015. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio and Renfro

The City Council might decide Tuesday whether to invest $500,000 from the city's Lodging and Automotive Rental Taxes (LART) to provide a sliver of support to the downtown U.S. Olympic Museum. We say "sliver," because more than $40 million in private donations have been raised or committed to the project.

If fundraisers don't round up another dime, which they certainly will, the LART money would represent only 1.25 percent of the museum's cost.

The LART funding application form says the tax revenues, levied mostly on tourists, are to "attract visitors to the City and to the Pikes Peak Region, provide economic and cultural benefit, enhance the quality of life in the City, engage the community and encourage tourist activity."

It's hard to imagine a project better suited for these funds. We are officially "Olympic City USA," as home to the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Olympic Training Center, dozens of Olympic team governing boards and Olympic athletes of past, present and future. The Olympic Museum will leverage this identity, while attracting and retaining countless tourists. Unlike so many of our community's tourist attractions, the museum will draw visitors to our downtown.

Councilwoman Jill Gaebler, as explained in a guest column she wrote on the opposite page, opposes the modest request for LART funds.

"The museum is a fabulous vision for our downtown and although I am one of its strong supporters, I cannot support the use of our very limited tax dollars to fund capital costs for a private project," Gaebler said.

In other words, Gaebler is fighting for re-election and feels the sudden need to appear as a fiscal conservative.

The nonprofit museum is a "private project" precisely because organizers wanted to minimize burden on taxpayers. The LART grant would involve money collected mostly from visitors from out of town and out of state.

Gaebler's newfound desire to protect LART from a public-private endeavor flies in direct conflict with another decision she made regarding the funds, at the insistence of fellow council member Don Knight.

Gaebler seconded a motion to give thousands in LART funds to Friends of Pikes Peak Pickle Ball. That's right, pickle ball. The club also asked for and received money from the parks budget, receiving more than $100,000 in local tax funding.

Friends of Pickle Ball is a private recreation club for a special interest game played by a tiny fraction of the population. Pickle ball may be a fine sport, but the game's contribution to our tourism economy is negligible at best. Gaebler funded a chosen few at the public's expense.

Most Colorado Springs residents cannot name a pickle ball player. They can name multiple Olympic athletes, who are televised and known internationally. The ability of an Olympic museum to attract tourists to downtown, from all over the world, is not in question. It will attract an estimated 350,000 annual visitors.

LART taxes were not intended for a special interest game, enjoyed by a fraction of a percent of the population, simply because a council member convinced his friends to spend the money. They are intended for legitimate tourism projects, such as the downtown Olympic Museum. Gaebler should approve this modest and appropriate request to match more than $40 million in private funds. So should all other council members who spent limited LART money on private Pickle Ball club.

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