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Time is running out for the proposed sports and event center in downtown Colorado Springs

February 10, 2018 Updated: February 12, 2018 at 9:59 am
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Colorado Springs leaders are considering two sites as alternatives for the downtown sports and event center earlier proposed at Antlers Park. CityGate, a vacant block southwest of Cimarron and Sahwatch streets, could accommodate the center as shown on Friday February 2, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

Colorado Springs officials have a date circled on their December calendar, but it's not Christmas.

By Dec. 16, the city must begin work on a downtown sports and event center or risk losing nearly $28 million in funding that's been set aside by the state for the project.

"Time's running out," said City Council President Richard Skorman.

In spite of that deadline, and even though the project has been on the drawing board for more than four years, the sports and event center remains highly problematic, city officials concede. Among its unknowns: location and cost; who'd use, own and operate the facility; and whether its traffic, parking and noise might pose problems for businesses and neighborhoods.

"It's not just location," Mayor John Suthers said. "It's where the money comes from. And what the stadium looks like and what it costs to build. It's very complicated."

With just 10 months to go, can the city meet its deadline?

"I don't know," Suthers said.

A few years ago, Skorman rated the sports and event center's chances no better than 50-50. Asked to rate its chances today, he stuck with his prediction.

"I haven't seen the business plan, the investors, the challenges with each location," Skorman said. "I haven't seen any of these issues get resolved yet. So I wouldn't say it's a sure bet."

That doesn't mean the city shouldn't keep trying, he added.

"It's going to be a challenge," Skorman said. "But the other side of that is, do you say no, and that it's too much trouble? I'm not willing to do that. And I think other people in the community want to at least give it our best shot."

City officials have said they hope to announce a sports and event center site within the next few weeks. For now, here's an update on questions that are dogging the project:

- Why does the city face a December deadline?

The sports and event center is one of four City for Champions projects that area business and civic leaders proposed in 2013. On Dec. 16 of that year, the Colorado Economic Development Commission authorized up to $120.5 million over 30 years in state sales tax rebates to help fund the projects. The commission required that "substantial work" begin on each project within five years or the money might have to be forfeited. The definition of "substantial work" includes - but isn't limited to - construction, excavation and grading.

Of the projects, a U.S. Olympic Museum is under construction downtown, while an Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs appear on target to meet the state's "substantial work" requirement.

But the sports and event center - slated to receive $27.7 million of state money - remains iffy, and that's why the city faces the Dec. 16 deadline. City officials say there could be flexibility in achieving "substantial work" on the facility, such as completing a portion of its design or acquiring a site. State officials will have final say on whether that requirement is met.

- Will the city seek more time?

The Economic Development Commission could grant another year to meet the deadline, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade has said.

"If we have to, we may," Suthers said of seeking an extension.

But the city is working toward meeting the Dec. 16 deadline, said Bob Cope, the Springs' economic development officer.

"There's a sense of urgency," he said. "We're all aware of it. All parties are trying to put the deal together as soon as possible."

- Where would the sports and event center be built?

It's among the project's biggest question marks.

City officials have envisioned a downtown location for an outdoor sports stadium for soccer, lacrosse and even baseball, as well as an indoor event center for volleyball, basketball and other activities. Those venues were part of the City for Champions proposal presented to the Economic Development Commission in 2013. While the outdoor and indoor venues always are talked about in tandem, Cope said they don't necessarily have to be built on the same site.

Local attorney and businessman Perry Sanders Jr. and owners of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks soccer team proposed putting the complex in city-owned Antlers Park, a 3.3-acre site west of The Antlers hotel. The City Attorney's Office, however, said the project would violate deed restrictions designed to protect public use of the park. The idea also was panned by opponents, who worried Antlers Park would be too small. As a result, city officials have shelved - but not scrapped - the proposal.

Skorman says city officials now are eying two sites: The CityGate property southwest of Sahwatch and Cimarron streets on downtown's south edge and a mystery location they won't identify.

In 2007, the City Council declared the 16-acre CityGate area as an urban renewal site. At the time, developers proposed a residential and commercial project that would help drive redevelopment of southwest downtown.

But CityGate fell victim to the Great Recession and went nowhere. In August 2016, a limited liability company controlled by the Lane family of Colorado Springs - former owners of a Pepsi distributorship - bought about 6 acres of CityGate, including a 4-acre vacant lot, land records show.

Phil Lane, who's also board chairman of the Colorado Springs Forward civic group, won't talk about whether his property could become home to the sports and event center.

Nor'wood Development Group, the Springs real estate giant that's the master developer for southwest downtown's redevelopment and who donated a site for the Olympic Museum, also declined to comment.

Even if city officials settle on CityGate as a site, it comes with questions.

CityGate is north of the Mill Street neighborhood, where residents already put up with transients and whistle-blaring freight trains from nearby railroad tracks. An outdoor stadium probably would host concerts along with sports, creating another potential headache for Mill Street residents, Skorman said.

"This would be another impact to them," he said. A bigger issue might be CityGate's location just east of the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant, Skorman said. While the city plans to decommission the plant at some point, it will be around for a few more years and could pose environmental concerns for an outdoor stadium, he said.

"It's a big, emitting factory and it has pollution that we're able to contain and some of it we may not be able to for people that are right next to it," Skorman said. "Then, we haven't done a Phase Two environmental study (including land and groundwater tests). ... We don't know how contaminated the land is, or if there's any risk in that as well."

Of the mystery site, neither Cope, Skorman nor Suthers will comment. The mayor did say "public and private locations" are being considered. Asked if there's a public site other than Antlers Park, he wouldn't elaborate.

- What's the price tag?

Another unknown. The cost was pegged at nearly $93 million in 2013. Cope, however, said that estimate was based on conceptual designs and there's no current figure. A new price tag won't be available until there's a final design, he said.

HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment Facilities, a consultant hired by Colorado Springs Forward and other local groups, said last year that a facility with 4,500 indoor seats and 8,500 seats for a Triple A baseball stadium could cost $74 million. HVS also said a 6,000-seat stadium would run $59 million.

Both stadiums, however, would require an infusion of $28 million beyond the state's $27.7 million, HVS said. That funding shortfall prompted Suthers and other officials to suggest last year the project was all but dead because they wouldn't seek to use public money to close the gap.

- What are the expectations of the sports and event center's design?

The proposal OK'd by the state Economic Development Commission included a minimum 8,000-seat, multiuse, outdoor facility that could host Olympic sports, soccer, baseball, rugby, lacrosse and other sports. It also would have concessions, restrooms and team and media facilities.

An indoor venue, also a multiuse facility, is supposed to have at least 2,000 seats and accommodate volleyball, wrestling, boxing and other events hosted by Olympic-themed, amateur sports groups. About two dozen national governing bodies, as the amateur groups are known, are headquartered in the Springs. The indoor facility also would have concessions, restrooms, lockers and training facilities.

The outdoor and indoor venues are supposed to have a combined minimum of 13,000 seats, although Cope said the state has agreed to allow that number to increase or decrease by 20 percent.

- Who will use the sports and event center?

Nothing has been decided, Cope said. Suthers has mentioned the Colorado Springs Sky Sox baseball team and Colorado Springs Switchbacks soccer team as users. The Switchbacks have said they're open to being a co-tenant, but want the facility designed with soccer in mind and baseball as a secondary use. The Switchbacks' president recently accused Suthers of wanting the soccer team to take a back seat to the Sky Sox, who haven't commented.

Cope said the city has talked with possible users, including sports groups; he declined to identify them. Even if there's a primary tenant, he added, the facility must be able to house multiple users.

- Back to the price tag; how would it funded?

Not surprisingly, city officials say they're working on it. A financing plan "is in development," although it's expected to have at least two components - state and private funding, Cope said.

To receive state funding for the sports and event center or before bonds might be issued to help finance it, a business plan is supposed to be developed that spells out the facility's use for Olympic and other sporting events. The business plan also has yet to be developed, Cope said.

Springs officials repeatedly have said the city's general fund is off limits for the sports and event center.

"To think that general taxpayer money should go into a facility like this and that the taxpayers should be liable for its success or failure is not really going to be on the table," Skorman said.

Other revenue sources could be available, however.

A location in an urban renewal district means increased tax revenue generated by new restaurants, stores and the like could fund road, utility and other public improvements near the sports and event center.

A public improvement fee - known as a PIF and a popular tool used by real estate developers - also is possible, Skorman said. Developers use public improvement fees - paid by consumers and tacked onto store or restaurant bills like a sales tax - to help fund landscaping, parking lot work and the like at retail projects or business parks. A PIF could be applied on businesses that operate within a special district that includes the sports and event center.

Cope, however, said no decisions have been made about whether a special district could be a funding option.

- Will the city own the sports and event center?

No. Each City for Champions component must have a "project element sponsor" - an entity that acts as owner and operator. The Olympic Museum is spearheaded by a nonprofit board, while the Air Force Academy and UCCS are sponsors of their projects.

The city is a temporary project sponsor - a placeholder - for the sports and event center, Cope said. Eventually, another entity will become owner and operator, he said.

The Broadmoor World Arena could serve as an example; a nonprofit group with a board of business and civic leaders has owned and operated the arena since its 1998 opening. Another example: a quasi-governmental stadium district manages Coors Field in Denver.

Cope said it's too early to say who might run the sports and event center.

- Will the public have a say on the location, cost, funding plan and other details?

Absolutely, city officials say.

"Nothing is going to be presented except as a possibility, and then there's a lot of details that will be available to the public, especially how it impacts the public in the other areas around it, and traffic and noise and all the different issues that are out there," Skorman said. "The public needs to be assured very early on that this is not going to be their liability."

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