A proposed Air Force Academy visitor center advanced on Tuesday when El Paso County pledged millions of dollars in future tax revenue to help foot the bill for the facility and infrastructure for surrounding commercial development.
County commissioners approved a revenue sharing-agreement with the city’s Urban Renewal Authority, paving the way for the county to contribute about $10 million in sales and property tax revenue to the project over 25 years.
The approval comes just a week before the Colorado Springs City Council is slated to vote on whether to declare the project site an urban renewal area, a designation that officials say is critical to finance the project.
The urban renewal status is one of several clearances needed before construction can begin on the center, which would be part of a development with hotels, offices and other businesses west of Interstate 25 along North Gate Boulevard.
Commissioners agreed to allot the project all of the property tax collected by the county on that development in the next 25 years, plus .875% of the county’s 1.23% sales tax.
In addition to the tax revenue that will go to the project, the county is expected to collect about $2 million in sales tax in the project area in the 25-year term if the project goes forward.
“I see an enormous amount of value with regard to this project,” Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said before voting. “Jobs and tourism are two examples of that with regard to economic development. The fact that we have an opportunity here to create a nationally recognized and iconic structure, I think, is of value to our community.”
City officials have touted the project's potential economic benefits: 1,200 permanent jobs, 1,700 construction jobs, and $2.6 billion in economic growth over 25 years, they have said.
A part of the City for Champions initiative, designed to increase tourism and spur economic growth in Colorado Springs, the center is eligible for $13 million in state sales tax rebates available through the Regional Tourism Act.
But, to get that funding, bonds must be issued to finance the project by a December deadline, imposed by the state.
“We’re on a very thin schedule now,” said Dan Schnepf, president and CEO of project consultant Matrix Design Group. “If any more delays happen, if we have any more issues that extend this process, we might have to go to the state and get an extension of that period."
The developer, Blue & Silver Development Partners, and the URA are asking Colorado Springs to allot 1.75 percent of the city’s 2 percent sales tax to the project. They're also requesting revenue from what the city’s use tax generates from building materials for the development.
Academy School District 20 and a local water conservancy district also have agreed to contribute property taxes that would be collected on the new development; the URA is working to make final another money-sharing agreement with the Pikes Peak Library District, said Jariah Walker, the authority's executive director.
The Air Force has not signed off on a lease that would allow Blue & Silver to develop the land, but that agreement is expected to be final “in the next month or so,” said Dan Schnepf, president and CEO of project consultant Matrix Design Group.
Officials are also awaiting federally required environmental clearance to develop the site, which includes habitat for the threatened Preble's meadow jumping mouse.
The funding plan remains about $5 million short of the $58 million needed to build the center and pay for sidewalk, streetlights and other infrastructure improvements; however, Schnepf said he’s seeking money to close that gap, including a grant from the city’s Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax.
The rest of the development would be privately funded, he has said.
The county has asked the city to annex a segment of North Gate Boulevard amid concerns that the road would need multi-million dollar upgrades as the visitors center attracted more people to the Air Force Academy. City Chief of Staff Jeff Greene said in a recent letter to the county that the city would “work in good faith” with the county to annex the stretch of highway.
County Commissioner Holly Williams was absent and excused from Tuesday’s meeting. All other commissioners voted in favor of the revenue-sharing agreement.
Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. said the deal “makes sense for our county residents from a financial perspective."
Still, Gonzalez expressed concern that the developer is seeking an urban renewal area designation -- a financing mechanism that’s traditionally used to breathe economic life into run-down areas of the city -- for a plot of vacant, pristine land.
“Use of urban renewal is a valuable tool for our communities," Gonzalez said. But, residents could lose faith in that tool "if it only promotes growth in areas where the need is low and excludes communities where its use is most valid and needed,” he said.
Others, including City Councilman Bill Murray, have pushed back on the URA's assertion that the land meets the state’s legal requirements to be declared “blighted.”
Murray predicted a debate over the issue Tuesday and said he will contact state departments for clarification on the definition of “blighted” and to see how much the project will pay in state taxes.
Already, the project has expanded beyond Murray’s level of comfort, he said.
“We went from a 2.5-acre project to an 88-acres bulldozed and building commercial buildings,” he said. “Anybody who comes into Colorado Springs and approaches the Colorado Springs sign and sees that monstrosity is going to shake their head and say ‘What were they thinking? They blighted a beautiful area.”
City Council Richard Skorman, however, is comfortable moving forward with the designation, especially considering the economic boon the project would offer the community, he said.
“This certainly fits with what has been done across the state for well over a decade. There’s nothing illegal about it, it’s just how you interpret it,” Skorman said. “If we approve this, it doesn’t mean we’re opening a floodgate for other green field development. It doesn’t preclude us from having URAs in other blighted areas as well.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misquoted Commissioner Gonzalez. The story has been revised to correct the quote.