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More scrutiny for Colorado Springs tourism dollars

By: Monica mendoza
June 9, 2014 Updated: June 9, 2014 at 4:38 am
Caption +
Thousands of people crowd Tejon Street to admire race cars and bikes at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Fan Fest Friday, June 28, 2013. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Each year, organizers of the Rocky Mountain State Games know exactly how many athletes participate in the events and have a pretty good estimate of the number of spectators.

But the event organizers couldn't tell you how much money those athletes and their families spend while they're in town, said Mike Moran, spokesman for the Sports Corp., the organization that hosts the games in Colorado Springs every summer.

"I know of no system where we can track the spending and personal use of funds for people who come here for our events," he said. "It's not that we don't want to - it's virtually impossible."

But that is the kind of data the Colorado Springs City Council has started requiring from event organizers who want the city to pony up tax money to support their events. Each year, the council has about $4 million to spend on tourism and events, with the goal of increasing tourist spending in the city.

Part of the concern is that collections from the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax - levied on people who stay in the city's hotels or rent automobiles - have remained flat in recent years, raising questions over whether such events are a good investment for the city.

The council's LART committee has developed a "special event impact model" application that asks event organizers to project the number of spectators, an estimate on how many spectators stay for the day and how many stay overnight in area hotels, how many visitors are from out of town and how many are locals.

The new LART applications for 2015 events are due by June 30.

"It is a fair requirement," said Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has traditionally received the lion's share - two-thirds - of the LART funds. "Part of any business plan has to include measurement and impact of some sort. That needs to be part of the budget someone puts together for an event."

In recent years, the council has approved the LART funds for such events as the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and the Festival of Lights Parade with little scrutiny, council member Jan Martin said. The LART budget was on autopilot, she said. Martin and council member Helen Collins worked with the LART committee to develop the new application.

In October, the LART budget was one of two funds that became a focal point during the 2014 city budget and Colorado Springs Utilities budget hearings. Council members, who double as the Colorado Springs Utilities Board, also scrutinized Utilities' Community Investment Fund, which gives grants to nonprofit organizations and economic development groups. In that case, the council wrestled with whether Utilities should be in the economic development business. The council is set to finalize that issue at its meeting Tuesday.

Council President Keith King said the council wants to see measured success in the city's investment into tourism and economic development. He said the council never knew the outcomes of events or programs sponsored by the city.

"As council, if we are going to invest in your organization, we want to see you moving the bar," King said. "We want more than just giving away the money. We want action plans. If you want money from City Council, you need to perform and accomplish good things for the city or you won't get the money."

Patsy Buchwald, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Balloon Classic, said she is happy that the council has updated its application and made it more uniform but worries that coming up with a dollar figure for the events' economic impact is unrealistic.

"Any numbers will be fabricated," she said. "I see no way an event organizer can justify those numbers. We've tried every way possible."

Buchwald's Balloon Classic is Labor Day weekend, the same weekend as the Air Force Academy's Parents Weekend and during the same time as the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. How would anyone know how many hotel rooms were occupied by visitors of the Balloon Classic or Parents Weekend, she asked.

Price said event organizers will have to work closely with hoteliers to get room night stays - information, he said, that some hoteliers are reluctant to give.

"Any local event organizer will have to say, 'I'm being held responsible and I need you to help me for the future to be able to talk about what this event means to your facility,'?" Price said.

Martin said event organizers will need to project the economic impact of their event and then will need to report the real numbers after the event.

She said that the council will scrutinize the numbers to determine if changes are warranted.

Martin added that this is the first year of the new application, and it could be modified.

"We are taking some time to take a close look at LART and how best to use the funds," she said. "It will be more work, but I think it will be worth the effort."

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