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Gazette Premium Content City for Champions proposal fuels talk of Colorado Springs' future

By Rich Laden Updated: August 11, 2013 at 7:08 am

Colorado Springs' City for Champions proposal is as ambitious as it is costly: A package of four tourism-related projects - including a downtown baseball stadium and U.S. Olympic museum - with a price tag of more than $200 million.

So it should be no surprise that the proposal is fueling talk about its potential for success and possible effects on the community - in particular, on downtown business and property owners, according to interviews with more than two dozen civic and business leaders, political observers, commercial real estate experts and downtown land owners.

City for Champions proponents say the Pikes Peak region would see more tourists, local government coffers would reap increased tax revenue and area cash registers would ring up additional sales if the stadium and other projects become a reality.

"This is a case of a rising tide, raising all ships," said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership advocacy group. "This entire proposal is about tourism. And those are the kinds of dollars that are great for the economy. It's people who come here, spend lots of money and then go back home."

Others, however, question if City for Champions is the right idea for Colorado Springs at this time and whether the public and other leaders have had enough input.

Former City Councilman Scott Hente said he's all for making the community a better place, and he's been a longtime downtown supporter.

But the region has too many crucial needs that should be addressed first - including $700 million worth of stormwater improvements, he said. Roads and bridges also are in sorry shape, Hente said, and the city needs more police.

"It's great to have a grand vision and it's great to talk about the future of the city," Hente said. "But I think we need to focus on the essentials, first."

Yet, City for Champions' economic impact could eventually generate increased tax revenue for those needs identified by Hente, said Bob Cope, a principal analyst with the city's Economic Vitality Division. Besides, Cope said, some funding sources being sought for the proposal couldn't be used to address other needs.

City for Champions proponents - including Springs Mayor Steve Bach - applied last month to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade for $82.1 million in state tourism money to pay for a little more than one-third of their proposal's $218.6 million cost. The city's application is being reviewed by a state-hired independent economic analyst, and the Colorado Economic Development Commission will decide in December whether to grant the city's funding request.

The rest of the funding would come from public and private sources, but city officials say the state piece is critical.

The stadium and museum would be constructed in southwest downtown, a mostly light industrial area the City Council declared an urban renewal site in 2001, but where redevelopment has largely flopped. The minor league Colorado Springs Sky Sox would move to the stadium from Security Service Field on the northeast side, according to the City for Champions plan; the downtown stadium also would host concerts, cultural events and other activities.

In addition, a 1,500-space parking garage, a pedestrian bridge and other improvements would be part of the downtown projects.

City for Champions also includes a sports medicine and performance center on the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and a new Air Force Academy visitors center.

The proposal envisions all the projects as tourist attractions that would attract about 1 million new visitors to the state each year. Over 30 years, Colorado would see an additional $173.2 million in sales tax revenue as a result of those four projects - money generated when visitors eat at restaurants, stay at hotels, shop at stores and the like, according to the proposal.

By investing in downtown, leveraging the popularity of an existing attraction such as the Air Force Academy and enhancing the growth that's taken place at UCCS, the city is taking a bold step forward that would benefit the entire community, supporters say.

"This is very simple," said Bach. "I've lived here how long, and how many visioning projects have there been? I am so proud we are at a point where we at least have something on the table."

More downtown development

While the academy and UCCS projects are key elements of City for Champions, it's the downtown stadium and Olympic museum that arguably are receiving the most attention.

In May, Bach launched an online survey to gauge community interest in a downtown stadium. Last month, his office rejected The Gazette's request under the state's open records law to see the results, saying they are "a privileged attorney work product" that can be withheld from public view.

For more than two decades, downtown supporters have sought to bring more stores, restaurants, housing, entertainment venues and employers to the area. They've made some inroads, including landscaping improvements, restaurants in the heart of downtown, loft projects, a new office tower and construction of America the Beautiful Park.

But several studies - from the Downtown Action Plan in 1992 to a report last year by a national Urban Land Institute planning panel - recommended development of anchors to attract shoppers, residents and visitors. The ULI report suggested a stadium be built in southwest downtown and that the city strengthen its ties with the Olympic movement. The U.S. Olympic Committee, headquartered in Colorado Springs since 1978, has offices on Tejon Street.

Chris Jenkins, a Downtown Partnership board member and president of Nor'wood Development Group, a major downtown landowner, said the addition of the stadium and museum would boost all of downtown, not just the southwest area.

Retailers, restaurants and bars would see increased sales; new businesses would fill empty storefronts and offices; employers would be attracted to downtown; hotels would see increased occupancies; and developers would have an incentive to turn vacant land into residential and commercial uses, Jenkins said.

"Downtown as a whole is going to benefit from the added tourism, the added energy, the added excitement," he said.

Landowners could benefit

As a result, landowners also could benefit from rising property values, some experts say.

"If you look at who owns all that land, those are the winners," said Dale Stamp, president of Quantum Commercial Group, a Springs brokerage.

According to the City for Champions proposal, the stadium would be built on a two-block area bounded by Colorado Avenue and Sierra Madre, Sahwatch and Costilla streets, while the museum would be developed southwest of the stadium and east of America the Beautiful Park. Cope said venue locations are subject to change.

David Supperstein and two sisters own a little more than half of a block where the stadium would go. The land has been for sale, but Supperstein said he didn't actively market the property the last few years because of the poor economy.

Now, he's open to selling, and said he has a price in mind, although nobody has approached him. There would be a touch of irony if Supperstein's land becomes more desirable because of the proposed improvements: He questions how many tourists a downtown stadium would draw.

Olson Plumbing & Heating Co., one of the city's oldest businesses, occupies one-half of the block just south of Supperstein's land, and a limited liability company controlled by Olson owner Mike Trapp owns the rest of the block. The stadium also would be built on his land, according to the City for Champions for proposal.

Relocating his 96-year-old business would be a chore, but Trapp said he's open to selling his property; the urban renewal designation covering the area has meant that he always knew he'd likely move some day, he said.

"I've lived in Colorado Springs all my life," Trapp said. "I believe in the city. I think it's one of the best places in the world to live. If they come up with something that's really going to help the downtown and make it better and do all that, I'm in."

Of other downtown property owners, limited liability companies controlled by Nor'wood own nearly 15 acres in southwest downtown, El Paso County land records show. The museum would be developed on Nor'wood's land.

Jenkins conceded that properties closer to the new venues, including those owned by Nor'wood, would benefit.

"But how much," he said, "is speculation."

The City for Champions proposal says southwest downtown improvements would spur development of CityGate, a 19-acre urban renewal site southeast of Sierra Madre and Cimarron streets, just outside the southwest downtown urban renewal zone. CityGate is owned by Springs real estate company Griffis/Blessing Inc. and a Texas partner.

Southwest downtown's revival "absolutely" would benefit CityGate, said Steve Engel, Griffis/Blessing's president of investment services and a board member of the Downtown Partnership and Downtown Development Authority. Yet, City for Champions isn't intended to help individual landowners, he said.

"It's the city taking the lead and looking for an opportunity to get $80 million from the state and redeploy those dollars for the good of the entire community and to jumpstart the (southwest downtown) redevelopment," Engel said.

Colorado Springs developer Chuck Murphy has tried for years to develop an arts district north of Colorado Avenue and east of I-25, which is part of the 2001 southwest downtown urban renewal area. As a self-described economic development cheerleader, Murphy praised City for Champions as an "absolutely fantastic" idea and acknowledged it could give his arts district a boost.

"I think it's going to make everything in Colorado Springs more valuable if it happens," he said. "Not just my land, but land everywhere."

Murphy was appointed this year to the Colorado Economic Development Commission that will decide if City for Champions receives state funds. He said he'll consider abstaining from the commission's decision because of a possible conflict of interest.

Some other City for Champions supporters bristled at the suggestion that the proposal contains a hidden agenda to benefit downtown landowners or friends and supporters of Bach.

"This exercise started long ago and at the time of its initiation it did not involve private property owners," said developer Steve Schuck, a close Bach friend. "There is no direct connection. There is no payback.

"I don't have any real estate interests within many miles of any of these projects," Schuck added, "and I am as committed to them if they were on my own property."

For his part, Bach said his only agenda is to boost downtown and add jobs - themes he's talked about during his mayoral campaign and in the little more than two years since he was elected.

"If you take the two downtown projects, I'm hoping there will be a lot of jobs from those for people in southeast Colorado Springs where people are struggling to get back to work and have the highest unemployment."

Les Gruen, owner of the Urban Strategies planning firm and a former Downtown Partnership board member, said even if a stadium and museum are successful, there's no guarantee landowners who sell property will recover their investments.

"For them to have a windfall is not an automatic," Gruen said. "In fact, it's unlikely they can sell the land now for anywhere close to what they bought it for, plus their carrying costs."

Other area property owners have concerns over what the stadium and museum might mean for them.

Gary Hollenbeck, part of a limited liability company that owns the Sun Plaza office building at Colorado and Cascade avenues and who heads the Palmer McAllister commercial brokerage, said he has a contract with the owner of a surface parking lot to the west of the building to lease 80 to 100 spaces.

Those spaces are used by his Sun Plaza tenants, Hollenbeck said, and their leases obligate him to provide parking. But the City for Champions proposal envisions that entire block to be cleared to make way for the stadium.

"I'm not giving up that parking," Hollenbeck said. "I have to have the parking - and will have it. That's where I stand."

Brothers John and Robert Bernheim and two other family members own a small parcel on Sierra Madre Street, where they have a 6,000-square-foot warehouse that's leased to a tenant and produces income for the family.

The Bernheims' property is surrounded by parcels owned by Nor'wood; as a result, if Nor'wood or anybody else wants to assemble land for a downtown stadium or other use, the Bernheims' property - a hole in the donut, so to speak - stands to become more valuable, said El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman.

And since the Bernheims have an income-producing property, a starting point for any negotiations probably would include the revenue they'd be giving up because they no longer have the warehouse to rent out, as well as land and building, Lowderman said.

For their part, the Bernheims say they're open to selling, but want to be sure they're treated fairly.

"We would sell it if the price is right," Robert Bernheim said.

A condemnation proceeding - in which government can legally force a property owner to sell - would be tough in southwest downtown. The 2001 urban renewal plan requires City Council approval and a three-year wait before the legal action could take place. Then again, the City Council could amend that plan, said Jim Rees, a consultant to the city's Urban Renewal Authority.

Upcoming public meetings

City for Champions also carries a certain amount of political risk for its backers - chiefly Bach, some say.

Its funding plan "is vague at best," said former City Councilman Randy Purvis.

Purvis also criticized Bach for failing to seek public input on City for Champions. Other big-ticket public initiatives - such as a sales tax hike approved by voters in 2004 to pay for roads, bridges and other transportation needs - succeeded because supporters built a community consensus, Purvis said.

Bach has said City for Champions organizers - a consortium of civic leaders who brought the idea to the mayor - worked behind the scenes because they didn't want to alert other cities with whom they might compete for state tourism money. In the next several months, Bach says there will be public meetings to discuss the projects.

The grant application for City for Champions, according to Bach's office, was co-sponsored by the city, the Springs-based El Pomar Foundation, the Downtown Development Authority and the Anschutz Foundation. The Denver-based Anschutz Corp. owns Clarity Media Group, which purchased The Gazette last year.

But while Purvis was critical of Bach, some say he and others are demonstrating leadership - which could mean a big payoff for Colorado Springs.

"It's an example of our mayor and leaders trying to create some sort of a vision to make downtown more attractive, not only for downtown but for the entire community," Gruen said. "At the end of the day, whether something like this works or not, the mayor and leaders of downtown that are thinking about this deserve a lot of credit for just not doing nothing."

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Monica Mendoza contributed to this report.

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Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen

Facebook Rich Laden

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Monica Mendoza contributed to this report.

Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen

Facebook Rich Laden

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