A $500 million project to build what developer Dan Schnepf calls a “new front door” for the Air Force Academy is underway after more than a decade of planning.

TrueNorth Commons, spread over 32 acres just outside the security checkpoint of the academy’s north gate, is planned to include a new, larger visitors center, a 375-room hotel and conference center, an office complex focused on cybersecurity, space and aerospace, and a retail area with a gas station, restaurants and shops. The development is expected take up to five years to complete.

“Eight (academy) superintendents tried to get a new visitors center included in the federal budget, but funding always was cut somewhere along the way,” Schnepf said. Plans for the project began, he said, when he, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, who was then superintendent of the academy, and Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck had a discussion during a Broncos game in 2012 about the Regional Tourism Act and plans for a group of projects called City for Champions — and how the new visitors center could be part of that.

“This project was the first to be included but the last to be built,” he said.

The other projects — the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Weidner Field in downtown Colorado Springs, the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Robson Arena at Colorado College — have opened. Site work on TrueNorth Commons began this year and construction began last month on the hotel’s foundation. A groundbreaking ceremony is planned July 25.

“The United States Air Force Academy Visitor Center and the TrueNorth Commons mixed-use development represent the capstone of the transformational City for Champions initiative,” Bob Cope, the city’s economic development officer, said via email.

“The Visitor Center, with its truly spectacular architecture, will become one of our city’s defining assets as it tells the story of the academy and its critical mission. TrueNorth Commons, along with the other City for Champions project elements, have sparked catalytic change in Colorado Springs that began in 2013. C4C (City for Champions) has instilled a sense of pride and optimism in our citizens and business leaders that has led to a tidal wave of private sector investment, thereby increasing economic opportunity and quality of life for all.”

Local and Air Force Academy officials have wanted to build a visitors center for more than 20 years, after security restrictions at military bases following the Sept. 11 attacks dramatically reduced the number of visitors venturing to the 40-year-old current center west of the cadet area of the academy campus. Schnepf said the new center won’t face those restrictions and he hopes the $35 million facility will attract the 1 million visitors a year the current center attracted before 9/11.

Bonds to finance the visitors center and hotel were sold in January, about a month before a deadline extension set by the Colorado Economic Development Commission to qualify for sales tax rebates under the state’s Regional Tourism Act, which was designed to help finance projects to draw new visitors. The bonds were to be sold in March 2020, but the nation’s bond markets collapsed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schnepf, a 1983 academy graduate and CEO of Blue & Silver Development Partners, put together a complex web of local and state tax breaks to make the project feasible. The visitors center likely will be the first element of TrueNorth Commons to open in late 2023 or early 2024, though a convenience store and gas station could open earlier. The hotel would follow in late 2024 or early 2025 and the office complex in 2026.

“I’m not doing this to make money. I am near the end of my career and I consider this my capstone project, the culmination of my education, experience and background in one project that will give back to my alma mater and community,” Schnepf said.

The academy, he said, needs a visitors center complex “to be inspiring to teenagers in order to attract the best and the brightest. This center will be important to attracting and retaining potential cadets.”

The new visitors center, designed with a roof that looks like a wing in flight, will be named for an academy graduate who will be announced soon. The center will include exhibits using technology and “experiential storytelling” to show visitors a day in the life of a cadet and trace their journey from arrival to graduation and commissioning as an officer in either the Air Force or Space Force, said Lisa Neener, chief of visitor experience and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach.

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The center’s exhibits are still being planned and designed, with details scheduled for completion by the end of summer, she said. Exhibits should “capture the full experience of cadet life — service, building character, academics, military training, athletics and research,” according to a design document for a recent workshop that developed exhibit concepts.

“The current center is outdated and not particularly accessible, while the new facility will be right outside the north gate and will be more inviting,” Neener said. “We have to get this right. Not only is this at the (public) entrance to the academy, it will also be the gateway to Colorado Springs.”

The visitors center also will be a Colorado welcome center, providing visitors with local and statewide travel information, area-specific brochures, detailed maps and free travel consultation and advice. The center will be linked by a pedestrian walkway over North Gate Boulevard to the hotel, where potential cadets and other visitors can be screened and approved for entry to the academy before they board buses for tours.

The nine-story hotel, which will be the second largest in the Colorado Springs area after The Broadmoor in the number of rooms, will feature unobstructed views to the west of the academy campus, Pikes Peak and the Front Range. Schnepf said the hotel will not be a franchise of a major chain and will pay tribute to the academy and flight. A name is expected to be selected in the next six months to a year.

A centerpiece of the hotel will be two flight simulators that will include actual and reproduced elements of a Boeing 737 NG aircraft and feature a 220-degree wraparound screen.

Other amenities include a full-service restaurant, a diner-style eatery and a rooftop restaurant and bar; 24,000 square feet of meeting space that could accommodate up to 1,500 conference participants; a pantry/gift shop for hotel guests; and a pool, fitness center, steam room and related facilities.

Schnepf said the hotel is expected to draw guests from a 500-mile area, targeting aerospace, technology, space and cybersecurity companies as well as academy graduates for reunions and promotion ceremonies, parents of cadets, those attending academy athletic events and others. He is working to get guests access to the academy’s Eisenhower Golf Course; visitors also will be able to hike on the adjacent New Santa Fe Trail.

The hotel will be owned by a limited liability company created by Provident Resources Group, a Baton Rouge, La.-based nonprofit that specializes in helping government agencies complete large projects with public-private partnerships. After the bonds that financed the hotel are paid off in 30 to 35 years, Schnepf said the hotel will be transferred to the Air Force Academy Foundation, which helps the school complete projects for which federal funding isn’t available, such as an upcoming renovation of Falcon Stadium.

The hotel will be designed with the intent of winning a four-diamond rating from AAA. Matthews Southwest, based in the Dallas area, is developing the hotel for Provident. Greenwood Village-based CoralTree Hospitality, which operates the Magnolia chain among 27 hotels nationwide, will manage the hotel.

While the visitors center and hotel have gotten the most attention, Schnepf called the office complex the project’s “hidden gem.”

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Denver-based development giant Koelbel & Co. plans to begin construction next spring on the office complex, which will have up to 200,000 square feet of space. That will include what Schnepf said will be the area’s largest sensitive compartmentalized information facility, where classified and other national-security discussions can be held for up to 200 cadets with security clearances and personnel from Department of Defense, intelligence agencies and related organizations.

The complex will be designed to attract top technology, cybersecurity, space and aerospace giants as tenants to spur innovation by integrating with the academy’s curriculum in cybersecurity, space and aerospace. It will also provide incubator space for startups focused on those industries and attract “thought leaders” in those industries. Schnepf believes tenants will be attracted by the proximity of the complex to the $58 million Madera Cyber Innovation Center scheduled to open next year.

The 44,000-square-foot Madera center is designed to bolster cyber warfighting capabilities of the Air Force and Space Force and will house eight labs with cutting-edge capabilities ranging from cybersecurity to telecommunications to robotics.

Named for lead donor Paul Madera, an academy graduate and venture capital fund founder, the building will have the capacity to run up to eight projects simultaneously; the current cyber innovation center, located near the cadet library, only allows for a maximum of three projects at a time.

TrueNorth Commons also will include about 30,000 square feet of retail space that will include a convenience store-gas station, several restaurants ranging from quick-service chains to an upscale steakhouse, and a building for about a dozen shops that will sell everything from gifts to Air Force Academy-licensed merchandise.

The project, including visitors center, hotel, office complex and retail components, is forecast to generate 1,700 jobs during construction and 1,200 permanent jobs, generating economic activity totaling more than $100 million a year once all parts are completed, Schnepf said. TrueNorth Commons also includes 15 acres for future development that he wants to use for a solar array that would reduce the project’s carbon footprint.

“We are bringing the front door of the academy right out to Interstate 25,” Schnepf said.

About the writer: Wayne Heilman recently retired from The Gazette after four decades of covering business. He continues to write occasional stories for The Gazette.

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