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Gazette Premium Content Time could be right for revitalization of downtown Colorado Springs

8 photos photo - Downtown Colorado Springs from the west on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) + caption
Downtown Colorado Springs from the west on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
By Rich Laden Updated: September 15, 2013 at 6:22 pm

It seems like you'd need a file cabinet to hold all the revitalization plans proposed for downtown Colorado Springs over the past 40 years.

There was an early redevelopment blueprint in 1971; at least five unsuccessful convention center and arena proposals; and several studies by citizen panels and national consultants along the way.

"If you ask me, the process is that we study until we're blue in the face," said Concept Restaurants co-owner Dave Lux, who opened Jose Muldoon's in 1974 as his company's first downtown restaurant. "We have 10 of them on the shelf."

That might be an exaggeration, but it underscores the frustration of Lux and others. Any progress made on downtown revitalization over the years has been overshadowed by the area's continued shortcomings, they say.

Downtown has seen new restaurants, office buildings, a hotel, a city park, street and sidewalk improvements and a performing arts center, among other enhancements.

Yet, it still needs more housing, major employers, traditional retailers and entertainment venues, some say. Those problems have been recurring themes in every revitalization plan or consultant's study over the years.

At a time when other cities - including Denver, Omaha, Neb., and Oklahoma City - enjoy the results of revitalization efforts that began years ago, Colorado Springs still wrestles with how to transform its downtown, according to interviews with more than a dozen businesspeople, civic leaders and current and former elected officials.

Overcoming obstacles that have prevented downtown from becoming the live-work-play environment that supporters envision still won't be easy, they say. A combination of factors stalled major downtown efforts in the past and no single strategy will solve the area's problems going forward, some supporters concede.

In any case, some say the time is right to focus again on downtown. The economy is better. Springs Mayor Steve Bach has made a downtown renaissance a theme of his administration. The Downtown Partnership, the area's principal advocacy group, has new leadership.

Downtown also is in the spotlight after Bach and other groups applied for state tourism money in July to help fund new attractions for the area - a U.S. Olympic museum and a multiuse baseball stadium that would be home to the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, concerts, trade shows and other events. They're part of a package of four tourism projects, called City for Champions; proponents will learn in December if the city will receive $82.1 million in state funding to help pay the proposal's $218.6 million cost.

City for Champions, or some other project, could be a tipping point to launch a broader downtown improvement effort, said Sam Eppley, the Downtown Partnership's board chairman and owner of Sparrow Hawk Cookware downtown.

"We were almost there, right before this past recession, in that there were a lot of things getting pretty far down the road to coming out of the ground," Eppley said. "And then the economy just tanked, and that put everything on hold."

Lux said he has heard that talk before. But after years of downtown investments - Concept Restaurants also owns the Ritz Grill and MacKenzie's Chop House - his company's last two restaurants were a second Jose Muldoon's on the Springs' northeast side and Flatirons on the south side.

"If you were to ask me right now would I do something else downtown, the answer would be 'no,'?" Lux said.

Recession dealt blow to efforts

Take your pick of the reasons downtown hasn't realized its potential, supporters say.

The area has lost major department stores, smaller retailers, restaurants and other businesses that closed up shop or fled to fast-growing suburban areas.

In recent years, the 2007 recession prompted some developers to walk away from big-ticket projects and discouraged others from beginning. Nor'wood Development Group, one of the Springs' biggest real estate companies, postponed a residential and commercial tower of at least 20 stories at Pikes Peak and Nevada avenues, for example.

The Downtown Development Authority, approved by area property owners and businesspeople in 2006, was created to encourage development in the area.

Using revenue from a property tax within its boundaries, the authority so far has issued $1.3 million in grants for projects and activities, such as helping businesses upgrade building facades and funding costs associated with events like USA Pro Challenge cycling race stages that were held in the city in recent years.

But another DDA funding initiative that was counted on to be a catalyst for downtown projects - such as new housing, attractions and public space upgrades - hasn't taken off.

As land values increased within the authority's boundaries and redevelopment projects were launched, the DDA expected to collect millions in additional property taxes over many years.

Land values have risen in recent years, but most of the additional money the DDA expected to capture would have come from redevelopment - projects delayed when the economy nose-dived, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, which oversees the DDA's operation.

"It's delayed what we hoped would happen," she said.

A lack of housing - especially affordable rental and sale units - has been a longtime downtown problem, and yet only a handful of residential projects have been added over the years, supporters say. Downtown real estate is pricey because of its limited supply, the high cost of upgrading utilities and the regulatory hurdles required to remodel older buildings.

Dan Robertson, who has remodeled portions of three buildings, constructed a fourth and developed three dozen lofts in downtown Colorado Springs since 2001, said land values in the area are at, or near, those in Denver. Yet he can't command the same sale prices or lease rates that developers get in Denver - a disincentive to residential projects, he said.

Profit margins, Robertson said, "are pretty skinny. I think it would be hard to get a large developer who has a lot of stockholders, or whoever in there, to look at these deals because they are so skinny and the margins are so much better in other areas."

'We've come a long ways'

Downtown's problems parallel those in other cities, and the concerns of downtown supporters in the Springs are the same: Any city that wants to attract employers, add jobs, hold on to its young people and provide a great quality of life needs a healthy and vibrant downtown.

"Show me any city that people talk about and are excited about and want to go to. It's got a great downtown," said Buck Blessing, CEO of downtown real estate company Griffis/Blessing Inc. and who has served as board president of the Downtown Partnership advocacy group.

How far downtown must go to become a live-work-play environment is a matter of debate.

Jerry Rutledge, whose Rutledge's men's clothing store is marking 47 years in the heart of downtown, is bullish on the area's fortunes.

Some empty downtown storefronts have been filled by restaurants and nightclubs, he said. Upper floors of a handful of buildings have been remodeled into stylish lofts. The Mining Exchange, A Wyndham Grand Hotel, opened in the remodeled Mining Exchange office building.

Rutledge said he doesn't know if downtown is where it should be. Still, "we've come a long ways," he said.

"Perhaps it (revitalization) hasn't been achieved to the nth degree to the way we want it," Rutledge said. "But the fact is we do have a performing arts center (the Pikes Peak Center), we have the (Colorado Springs) Fine Arts Center, which is greatly enhanced over what it was in 1967. We have residential downtown, of which we had zero.

"We're just on the edge," Rutledge added. "But we're certainly moving in the right direction."

Others, however, say downtown is heading in reverse.

"It's mediocre at best," said Warren Dean, a real estate developer who was board president in the 1980s of Downtown Colorado Springs Inc., the Downtown Partnership predecessor.

"It does nothing to really draw you down, that makes you want to stay there, that makes itself a destination," Dean said. "I'm talking in terms of offices, in terms of restaurants, in terms of retail, in terms of residential. It really doesn't draw you down in any of those 'sub-fields'. And I wish it would."

Proposal aims to transform area

Supporters expect an improving economy to position downtown for the future. But if downtown is to become the activity center supporters envision, the community must make changes, some say.

Lux disagrees with people who say there's nothing to do downtown; there are plenty of quality restaurants, museums and the like, he said.

But panhandlers, unsafe conditions and a lack of close-in parking, whether those problems are real or perceived, discourage people from coming, he said.

"Our downtown has an aura of too many homeless, too many beggars, too many people approaching you," Lux said.

Despite revitalization plans, downtown has failed to become a "craveable" place, he said, using a restaurant industry term. Just as diners can choose where to eat, local residents have options on where to go for entertainment.

Downtown needs to have activities and energy that set it apart, Lux said. That's what Denver did with the addition of Coors Field and the Pepsi Center, among other attractions, he said.

"Because of all the desirable activities, you force the undesirables out," Lux said.

Broadmoor hotel President and CEO Steve Bartolin said any changes for downtown must be made with families in mind - giving them an incentive to come to the area and make a day out of visiting entertainment venues, restaurants and the like. The Broadmoor, on the Springs' southwest side, is owned by the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose Clarity Media owns The Gazette.

Oklahoma City, where Bartolin traveled often while a board member of the company that previously owned the hotel, made hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to its downtown starting with a voter-approved sales tax increase in 1993, he said. Among improvements financed with that tax hike and subsequent voter-approved extensions: a minor-league baseball stadium, civic arena and convention center.

Bartolin said he doesn't know if a similar taxpayer-supported plan would be right for Colorado Springs. But the success of Oklahoma City's initial measure 20 years ago generated economic benefits and development that the public could see, which made future ballot measures easier to pass, he said.

"Oklahoma City was revitalized and reinvented," said Bartolin, who supports City for Champions and believes baseball, car shows and other events at a multiuse stadium would attract families downtown. "Not only its downtown, but it's changed the entire image of the city. Their unemployment rate is low. Their economy is up. It's a city on the move."

Bach, who has emerged as the point man in support of City for Champions, said the proposal has the potential to do some of the same things for Colorado Springs' downtown. In addition to the city, the proposal is sponsored by the DDA, the Springs-based El Pomar Foundation and the Denver-based Anschutz Foundation.

"We have a plan on the table for the first time in my memory," Bach said of City for Champions. "We really have a concrete plan. It's not perfect, necessarily, but it certainly could propel us into the future in so many different ways."

Whether a stadium or other projects are the right initiatives for downtown, the city needs stronger leadership if the area is going to improve, some say.

Former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace was a councilwoman when the citizen-produced Downtown Action Plan was put in place in 1992. She said she remembers some public officials doubting the plan's objectives, while others didn't embrace it. The plan proposed a convention center that never happened and envisioned more housing that's still in short supply. But it served as impetus for street and sidewalk upgrades, a two-way Tejon Street and other changes.

"There were pooh-poohers (among city leadership) then," Makepeace said. "How are you going to leverage a good plan if you don't have support from your leaders?"

"We never really said as a community - our leaders and our community - that 'this (the plan) is important, this will make a difference, this will improve our downtown,'?" Makepeace said.

Community leaders also failed to promote downtown's value in relation to the rest of the community - touting it as a center for government offices, culture, business and entertainment, said Les Gruen, owner of the Urban Strategies planning firm and a Downtown Partnership board member.

"There was a lot of lip service paid to that, but the actions that were undertaken really didn't focus things on downtown over a long period of time," Gruen said.

A lack of leadership - a scenario that has changed now that Bach and other local businesspeople are involved - led to missed opportunities for downtown, Blessing said. The Colorado Springs World Arena? Built on the city's south side after voters rejected a downtown venue. A minor league baseball stadium for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox? Constructed on what was then city-owned land on the northeast side. A convention center? Never built at all because of community opposition.

"Those three venues would bring so much vibrancy and excitement and people to the core of the city," Blessing said.

Can-do attitude needed, mayor says

Stronger leadership is one thing, but the city also must develop a vision that includes all segments of the community, not just politicians and businesspeople, some say.

"Everybody should be at the table," said former City Councilwoman Mary Ellen McNally, a longtime downtown advocate. "The people who did those (past revitalization) plans and also elected officials. It's got to be a collaboration. That's why we don't get anything done here. There isn't a collaborative environment."

Getting some members of the public to buy into downtown revitalization, however, will be a challenge, several people said.

As in other cities, some Colorado Springs residents rarely, if ever, venture downtown - because of perceived crime or parking problems or because they have plenty of dining and shopping options in newer parts of town.

Then there are segments of the community who don't want leaders to lead, Lux said. Sometimes, he said, elected officials need to take action without a public vote.

"We don't need to ask for an ordinance to clean the homeless up out of downtown," Lux said. "We just need to make it happen. There are ways to do it without an ordinance. Go ask Denver. Go ask Chicago. Go ask New York City."

Others, like Bach, said he's weary of criticisms from so-called community naysayers. Up to now, "a lot of parochial interests in the community" and negativity have prevented Colorado Springs from a unified approach on downtown improvements, Bach said.

"Let me put this in general terms," Bach said. "We've allowed the naysayers to carry the day for far too long. And I really mean that."

Colorado Springs Together, the citywide effort that focused on rebuilding homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood after last year's Waldo Canyon fire, should serve as a model for a can-do attitude the public needs to adopt when it comes to improving downtown - whether it's through City for Champions or anything else up for consideration, Bach said.

Even so, don't expect that everybody will get on board, Makepeace said.

"Whatever the leadership proposes, someone will be against it," Makepeace said. "Probably lots of people will be against it. But people who are in leadership positions need to be convinced of their own vision, and then gather other people who believe in their vision or persuade people to believe in their vision, and move forward. We can't let the naysayers, and I think we do that a lot in this community, we let the naysayers take the lead."

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Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228

Twitter @richladen

Facebook Rich Laden

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