Air Force Academy Visitors Center - City for Champions

A rendering of the proposed Air Force Academy visitors center, a part of Colorado Springs’ City for Champions initiative, which would be part of a 57-acre development including hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Undeveloped green space on Colorado Springs’ northwest side was declared blighted Tuesday in a controversial City Council move that will help fund a proposed visitors center for the Air Force Academy.

With the declaration, approved on a 5-3 vote, the council created an urban renewal area of recently annexed land west of Interstate 25 along North Gate Boulevard and adjacent to the Santa Fe Trail. That URA’s new sales and property taxes will be spent on the visitors center and infrastructure for surrounding commercial development.

The area, dubbed the True North Commons Urban Renewal Area, is expected to generate about $16 million in tax revenue over the next 25 years.

The center is expected to draw 158,000 new visitors to the academy each year, said Bob Cope, the city’s economic officer. It’s also expected to add $67 million in annual tax revenue, boost the city’s economy by more than $2 billion over the next 25 years and create about 650 permanent jobs, Cope said.

But the conversation wasn’t all about job creation and economic development. Council members and residents spoke out against using an urban renewal area to spur development on a plot that is decidedly not urban.

Land eligible for the URA designation must impair city growth, inhibit housing, constitute an economic or social liability and act as a menace to public health and safety, among other things, according to state law.

Many argued that the undeveloped land in question doesn’t fit the bill. Councilman Don Knight honed in on the “menace” portion of the law.

“Without that part … you could declare the most pristine part of the national forest, including the top of America’s Mountain, to be blighted,” Knight said.

Councilman Bill Murray said he wanted to ask Attorney General Phil Weiser whether the land meets the definition of blight, though city staff assured the council this project fits with standards set by other Colorado cities.

Without the urban renewal designation, the project would fail, said Jariah Walker, executive director of the Urban Renewal Authority.

“It dies on the vine, it doesn’t go forward.”

Council President Richard Skorman said he views the move as a token of gratitude to the academy.

“It’s a gift, and this is an appreciation,” he said. “This is what they want. And I think we need to give back.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, former superintendent of the academy, called the council’s decision an act of service to the country. The academy expansion will play an important part in encouraging young men and women to join the Air Force, he said.

But Murray called the work a “vanity project.”

Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, the third and final dissenting vote, noted that her district in southeast Colorado Springs hasn’t ever received an urban renewal area.

“It would be subsidizing. Developers don’t want to come there,” Avila said, repeating comments she’s heard about economic development in her district.

Economic benefits elsewhere in the city haven’t trickled down to the southeast, Avila said. She said she wouldn’t vote for the urban renewal area over much needed projects downtown, in the southeast or in city parks.

Despite disagreements, Councilman Wayne Williams noted that the law says vacant land can qualify as blighted. The move, like it or not, is legal, he said.

The council’s vote comes a week after El Paso County commissioners approved their portion of the revenue-sharing agreement with the Urban Renewal Authority.

The new visitor center is one fourth of the City for Champions initiative, which has been in the works since 2013. The state pledged $120.5 million in state sales tax rebates over 30 years for the work. The other projects are the U.S. Olympic Museum, a downtown stadium and hockey arena and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

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