Denver • In what amounted to an 11th-hour sales pitch, Colorado Springs officials Thursday detailed their revised plan for a downtown sports and event center to the state Economic Development Commission — hoping to claim $28 million in state subsidies for the final piece of the City for Champions tourism initiative.
The city has until Dec. 16 to begin “substantial work” on the sports and event center to retain $28 million for the venue, part of the $120.5 million in state money promised to the city over 30 years for City for Champions — four projects designed to boost tourism.
Of the City for Champions projects, the sports and event center has been problematic from the start — lacking a site and an owner, among other issues. When a funding gap totaling millions of dollars was identified last year, city officials declared the sports and event center all but dead.
In July, however, city officials revealed a proposal to save the sports and event center, partnering with Colorado College and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks minor league soccer team. On Thursday, Mayor John Suthers and Bob Cope, the city’s economic development officer, led a nearly two-hour presentation before the Economic Development Commission that spelled out the new plan — focusing on five areas that must be satisfied for Colorado Springs to qualify for the $28 million.
The sports and event center — once envisioned on a single site — now is a pair of separate venues. One is a 3,000-seat, indoor arena at Colorado College, north of downtown’s core, to be named after major benefactor and alumnus Edward J. Robson. The second is a 10,000-seat, outdoor stadium about 1½ miles away on downtown’s south side to be named for Weidner Apartment Homes, the Seattle company investing $40 million for apartments and mixed-use space on the property. The Robson Arena will become the permanent home of the college’s hockey team; the Weidner stadium will host the Switchbacks.
Thursday’s presentation included a discussion of a business plan for the two venues, a sports authority commission approved by the Colorado Springs City Council last month, the size of the proposed venues, how many new, out-of-state visitors would attend events at the facilities and whether the city has done enough to satisfy the “substantial work” requirement for the tax-increment financing.
The Weidner and Robson facilities “are ready to go,” Cope told the commission.
A decision by the commission on whether the city’s plan meets the “substantial work” mandate isn’t expected for several weeks. “Substantial work,” the commission said when it promised funding in 2013, meant things such as construction, excavation and grading. But, the commission also has discretion to decide if other actions — such as acquiring land and drawing up architectural plans — meet its test.
On Thursday, commissioners’ questions focused primarily on the Colorado College arena and whether its proposed attendance figures were included to boost the estimated new out-of-state visitor numbers, estimated at 130,000.
Cope and other presenters pointed to the 23 national governing bodies for Olympic sports based in Colorado Springs, and how having two sports venues means that multiple events could take place simultaneously. Suthers noted that Colorado Springs has been licensed as “Olympic City USA” by the Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee, the only city so designated in the country.
For its part, Colorado College said it’s ready to go on its arena, to be built on a site bordered by Nevada Avenue on the east, Cache La Poudre Street on the north, Tejon Street on the west and Dale street on the south.
“We have the cash on hand to build, we own the land and we have a business plan to operate it,” Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler told the commission. She noted the original plans for Robson were more modest; initially it was going to be just a practice arena.
But once the college learned about City of Champions, it decided on a larger facility. The college has now raised all of the money needed to build the $39 million facility, which includes $18 million in bond-financed debt. The arena also will be a “net zero energy” facility, meaning its energy use will be offset by renewable energy generation.
The $20 million soccer stadium is planned for what’s known as the CityGate property southwest of Cimarron and Sahwatch streets, which the City Council declared an urban renewal site in 2006. Nick Ragain of the Switchbacks said Weidner Apartment Homes plans to build apartments and mixed-use retail next to the stadium. That price tag of the apartments and retail is estimated at $40 million for a total $60 million investment at the site.
The arena and stadium meet or exceed the seating requirements set forth by the commission, Cope said. Ragain added that Weidner could accommodate up to 20,000 for outdoor concerts.
Colorado College’s commitment to the project would allow Robson Arena to be used for noncollege events for up to 150 days per year, when the college is out of session for holidays and the summer, Tiefenthaler said. That would allow for events to be held at Weidner and Robson at the same time, or when an event needs multiple venues, already an issue for some of the Olympic governing bodies in the city that would like to hold those kinds of events.
For a handful of residents from the neighborhoods around Colorado College, the issue wasn’t money or scheduling — it’s parking. The residents at the hearing pleaded with the commission to deal with the potential impact of vehicles that have nowhere to park on campus.
Mark Huismann, who lives in the historic Old North End near the college, estimated the Robson Arena would need an additional 700 parking spaces, yet the college has eliminated at least 100 spaces in recent years. The city also allowed the college to build apartments for students rather than a parking garage that would resolve some congestion issues, he said. Even the site for the arena was once proposed as a parking garage, he added.
“This is going to decimate the downtown area,” Huismann said, noting that the Weidner stadium also has no parking plan. “This is great for the city, but don’t dog the neighborhood. Where are you going to put 700 parking spaces within two blocks? You can’t do it.”
Jane Morgan, another Old North End resident, said she’s asked the college four times for parking plans without a response.
“We’ve watched as the parking has come into our neighborhoods,” Morgan told the commission. “They’re dropping a 3,000-capacity arena into the neighborhood” without a parking plan, she said. Morgan also warned that traffic congestion actually will discourage people from coming to the arena.
Other residents pointed out that the college has made repeated promises to deal with the parking situation, including an underground parking garage. But that’s yet to happen, they said.
“I’m sensing a trend here,” said commission Chairwoman Carrie Schiff.
Jill Gaebler, Colorado Springs City Council’s president pro tem, told the commission the council will look at zoning and parking issues. Robert Moore, the college’s chief financial officer, said the school is considering asking faculty and staff to be off campus by 4 p.m. on arena event days, which could free up 800 parking spaces. The college also is looking into agreements with Palmer High School and a nearby Methodist church for use of their parking lots.
“There’s a lot more to be done on parking,” Moore said.
Colorado College has expressed a desire to work with city officials to provide parking options downtown and a shuttle or bus service, so those that attend games and events will head downtown rather than residential neighborhoods. Not only would such a partnership alleviate parking concerns, but it should stimulate downtown businesses as well, Sean Pieri, CC’s vice president for advancement has said.
Most Economic Development Commission members didn’t indicate which way they’re thinking on the project.
Of the other City for Champions projects that also must meet the Dec. 16 “substantial work” requirement, a downtown U.S. Olympic Museum is under construction and expected to open in 2019. The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs expects to break ground in the fall on a sports medicine and performance center, while the Air Force Academy is working with developers on plans for its new visitors center.
The Gazette’s Rich Laden and Conrad Swanson contributed to this report.