September 10, 2013 Updated: September 10, 2013 at 10:15 am
For economic development to work, the public investment must result in a rising tide that lifts all boats.
That's why as a legislator I voted in 2009 for the Regional Tourism Act. I believed - and continue to believe - that Colorado should make targeted, thoughtful investments in our tourism infrastructure to attract new tourism visitors, strengthen local economies and promote the entire state.
And not only did I vote for the RTA, but when I served as the director of the state's economic development office, I worked with Aurora on their early effort to attract the interest of the Gaylord hotel organization.
But now, as a private citizen, and with the benefit of information that has come to light about the proposal, I have serious concerns the 1,500-room Gaylord hotel and convention facility has taken our RTA strategy way off course.
The General Assembly's intent in passing the RTA bill was to accelerate unique projects that attract new out-of-state tourists. Our intent was not to subsidize projects that only benefit the host community.
Concepts for RTA-funding included a NASCAR-type racing facility that would be unique in the Rocky Mountain time zone, or potentially rebuilding the National Western Complex for a reimagined, year-round facility to host the Stock Show.
The Pueblo region applied for and won RTA funding for their Riverwalk Entertainment District, and rightfully so. It includes an expansion of the Pueblo Convention Center, a Professional Bull Riding University, a gateway boathouse and a regional aquatic center. Visitors to those attractions will stay in Pueblo's hotels, eat and shop in local establishments and generate state and local taxes.
Colorado Springs has proposed a combination of four new and unique projects for RTA funding: a downtown baseball stadium and event center, an Olympic museum, a sports medicine and rehabilitation facility at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and a visitor center for the Air Force Academy. Whether the Economic Development Commission will award RTA incentives to those projects remains to be seen, but the mix appears to fill missing gaps in our tourism landscape and aligns with goals of the tourism act. The Gaylord project would be unique in Colorado, but for all the wrong reasons.
The 1,500-room hotel has materially changed from the original Gaylord proposal, but would still be the largest in Colorado and among the largest convention hotels outside of Las Vegas. Certainly, new visitors and conventioneers will come.
But Gaylord's on-site shops, restaurants and entertainment options will give visitors little reason to leave, and the hotel will not make it easy for them to take their dollars elsewhere. It is $50-plus in cab fares from the Gaylord site just to get to shopping districts in Aurora, and even more to far-flung attractions in downtown Denver, Boulder or the south metro area.
Gaylord's isolated location makes it the wrong project for spinoff economic development in Aurora or the region. Ironically, that isolation is exactly what makes it a perfect location for Gaylord.
Take a moment to search the Internet for Gaylord-style resorts and you'll quickly detect a pattern. Phrases like "held hostage," "felt captive," and "barely knew what town I was in" are the norm.
Really, what are the chances that Gaylord visitors will actually see any of Aurora, or spend money in the host community?
I support the right of communities to provide incentives to businesses that fit their goals. Those decisions take many shapes and sizes - IKEA and Cabela's stores, revitalizing outdated shopping malls,and incentivizing employers to re-locate to communities. Aurora officials have agreed to rebate their sales and lodger's taxes back to the hotel developer for 30 years.
But when it comes to handing out state tax incentives to developments, the bar must be set higher.
I believe that the incentives must be applied to projects that have a truly regional impact without doing harm to existing tourism businesses. The net new visitor spending in local economies must "lift the economic boats" in the host region. And the economic benefits must make a substantial difference in all corners of the state, from Durango to Dacono, Grand Junction to Lamar.
Aurora's project is likely only to promote Gaylord, and siphon revenues from regional communities and the state of Colorado. That violates the spirit of the RTA that the General Assembly approved in 2009, and I am disappointed that the Economic Development Commission won't take a second look at the $80 million in handouts they awarded to a project with such limited benefits to Colorado.
Don Marostica is a former state legislator and former executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade