January 16, 2014 Updated: January 17, 2014 at 8:08 am
As El Paso County government goes, $37,500 isn't much money - the county's total budget for 2014 is upward of $284 million.
So why did county commissioners spend three hours Thursday listening to comments and discussing among themselves whether to write a check for $37,500?
Because the money was earmarked for City for Champions, which has become a lightning rod for community debate over the proposed tourism projects, how they'll be financed and their potential for success.
Commissioners voted 3-2 Thursday to OK the second payment to help with costs associated with last year's City for Champions application. The commission had voted 4-0 in October to approve a similar amount.
City for Champions proponents submitted a proposal to Colorado economic development officials last year, seeking millions of dollars in state sales tax revenue to fund four tourism projects - a sports and event center, a U.S. Olympic museum, a new Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In December, the Colorado Economic Development Commission awarded an estimated $120.5 million in tax increment financing over 30 years to help pay for City for Champions. Supporters must find other financing to cover the projected $250 million cost of the four projects.
But it also cost money to assemble the state application, and that's why the county chipped in last year. When City for Champions supporters transformed a baseball stadium into a sports and event center that would focus more on Olympic-type sports, they incurred additional application costs and sought more money from the county.
The commissioners' vote, however, became a backdrop for a larger debate on the pros and cons of the project.
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, one of City for Champions' leading advocates, urged the county to match the $75,000 that other groups had contributed - the Springs-based El Pomar Foundation, the Downtown Development Authority and the Anschutz Foundation of Denver.
"We need a game-changing initiative to get this economy going, to get people back to work, to attract and retain young people that we must have for our future," Bach said.
Bach said there will be no city tax hike to support City for Champions "if I have anything to say about it." He also insisted there will be no condemnation of property in southwest downtown, where the sports venue and museum are envisioned.
While he supports City for Champions in concept, Bach said more due diligence is needed - such as scrutiny on costs. County officials should be part of that process, and Bach said he's asked Commission Chairman Dennis Hisey to help lead a local governance board that will be created to oversee City for Champions.
Other supporters who urged the commissioners to approve the expenditure included Linda Weise of the Colorado Springs Conservatory, the El Pomar Foundation's Kyle Hybl and Dick Celeste, former president of Colorado College and who had spearheaded the Olympic museum project for months before City for Champions was proposed.
"Build something unique" and "brand Colorado Springs as the Olympic city," Celeste told commissioners. "Lift this city to a new level."
But some citizens said payment now would amount to a commitment of future financial support.
Some commissioners responded Thursday that there will be no long-term county financial support until they dig into finances and an intergovernmental agreement is hammered out with the city, which submitted the City for Champions application to the state. Hisey said after Thursday's meeting the county plans to hire a consultant to analyze the proposal.
Kanda Calef, vice president of the Colorado Springs Republican Women, told commissioners that it's not government's job to build sports venues.
Amy Mitchell, who described herself as a small businesswoman, said economic development efforts should be left to the private sector.
"It's not the job of government to compete with private business like the World Arena and Sky Sox Stadium and determine the economic winners and losers," said Mitchell, who was one of about a half-dozen opponents.
Hisey, Vice Chairwoman Amy Lathen and Commissioner Sallie Clark supported the $37,500 payment; it was opposed by Commissioners Darryl Glenn and Peggy Littleton, both of whom had supported the first payment in October.
Glenn said he wants the Colorado Springs City Council to get behind the project and wasn't comfortable earmarking county money until the council showed its support, which it has declined to do so far.
"Just because you agree in principal at the beginning, if you're being told that your partner might have some cold feet, you don't make a financial investment like that when your other partner is showing a reluctance to do that," Glenn said after the meeting. "That's irresponsible."
Littleton said many of her constituents want more answers about the proposal.
But Hisey said committing the extra funding was akin to a "second date" - not a marriage. The county will conduct its due diligence before it makes a broader commitment, he said.
Lathen echoed Hisey, adding that the money came out of a special economic development fund from contributions to the county's enterprise zone, not general taxpayer dollars; the money's use was restricted to economic development efforts.
Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228
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