The Switchbacks are set to play their first game of the season at Weidner Field this coming week. Take a look inside the stadium that’s bringing more business and activity to downtown Colorado Springs. (Video by Skyler Ballard)

Weidner Field, Colorado Springs’ new multiuse stadium, debuts this week with expectations that it will help fuel a downtown development boom.

At one point, though, it was close to being a downtown bust.

In February 2017, Springs Mayor John Suthers declared a downtown sports and event center — an earlier version of Weidner Field — all but dead. Four years earlier, city officials and community leaders had proposed the venue as one of four City for Champions projects designed to promote state and local tourism.

Colorado economic development officials agreed to earmark tens of millions of dollars in state funding to help pay for City for Champions, whose projects still would require additional financing to become a reality.

But the sports and event center foundered. It lacked a convenient and accessible downtown site. More importantly, it needed millions more in funding and Suthers rejected the use of local taxpayer money to bridge that gap, which left the sports and event center’s future in doubt.

“This was the project that I was least optimistic about,” he said.

Fast forward to this week.

On Friday, city officials and community leaders will open Weidner Field, a $47 million multipurpose outdoor stadium that evolved from the sports and event center concept and was built on a vacant parcel at Sahwatch and Cimarron streets in southwest downtown.

The Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Weidner Field’s anchor tenant, will host their first regular-season game Friday as a member of the USL Championship professional men’s soccer league.

With 8,000 seats for soccer and professional, college, high school and Olympic sports, Weidner Field also will have room for roughly 15,000 people to attend concerts, graduations and other events.

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The funding shortfall that almost derailed the project was erased by the Ragain family that owns the Switchbacks and Weidner Apartment Homes of suburban Seattle, whose founder, Dean Weidner, grew up in Colorado Springs and heads one of the nation’s largest multifamily housing companies. Together, they partnered to pay roughly two-thirds of the cost for what would become Weidner Field.

Now, downtown backers expect Weidner Field to deliver a big return on that public-private investment.

They anticipate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic activity and new development in the area because of the stadium — from spending at restaurants and bars, to construction of apartments and hotels, to the makeover of aging buildings dotting southwest downtown’s landscape.

“I have long believed that a downtown stadium could introduce a whole new level of vibrancy to downtown and I have reason to believe that’s going to happen,” Suthers said of Weidner Field.

“It’s no Mile High Stadium, but it is a beautiful stadium that is going to be fantastic for not only professional soccer, but a lot of other sporting events,” he said. “We’re already going to have some professional lacrosse there this summer. Summer concerts. I just think that it’s going to bring people downtown. It’s going to be fantastic for the restaurant industry downtown. People are going to eat downtown, park in downtown garages and walk to the stadium.”

It’s a stadium that almost didn’t happen, however.

In 2013, city officials and community leaders proposed the City for Champions tourism projects — a downtown U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, an Air Force Academy visitors center and the sports and event center, which originally was envisioned as a minor league baseball stadium.

Later that year, the Colorado Economic Development Commission approved up to $120 million in state sales tax rebates over 30 years to help pay for the projects.

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The Olympic & Paralympic Museum and what is now the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center opened last year, while construction is targeted to begin this summer on the Air Force Academy visitors center.

But the initial idea of a downtown baseball stadium for the then-Colorado Springs Sky Sox was rejected by fans who preferred the team’s longtime northeast-side venue. City officials then revamped the facility into a multiuse sports and event center that could house the Switchbacks and other events.

Besides funding issues, its location also was problematic. At one point, the Switchbacks’ ownership and downtown hotelier Perry Sanders Jr. proposed putting it in Antlers Park, west of The Antlers’ hotel. Suthers and others opposed the idea, saying it would shoehorn the facility into a too-small city park that also had restrictions on its land use.

By early 2018, the vacant CityGate property on downtown’s south edge, which the city had declared blighted years earlier, emerged as a site for the sports and event center.

And in July of that year, city officials and community leaders announced they had a deal with the Switchbacks and Colorado College. The single sports and event center was split into two venues — the multiuse stadium on the CityGate site and the 3,500-seat indoor Robson Arena to be built on Colorado College’s campus just north of downtown, which would become home to the school’s hockey program.

Weidner Field was funded with about $13 million in state sales tax funds; the Switchbacks and Weidner Apartment Homes agreed to pay most of the remainder of the project’s cost, which was originally $20 million, then about $35 million and finally $47 million.

Colorado College’s arena price tag of about $50 million is being funded with $9.2 million in state money, private donations and a gift of $12 million by namesake Edward J. Robson, a 1954 graduate and former member of the school’s hockey team.

Both projects, downtown boosters say, will add to the area’s development renaissance over the last several years.

From 2013 to 2020, downtown investments — projects completed, under construction or announced — totaled an estimated $1.7 billion, according to the Downtown Partnership advocacy group.

Among those projects:

• Four hotels — the Hilton Garden Inn, Kinship Landing, Hyatt Place and a dual-branded Marriott — have opened or launched construction.

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• More than 400 apartments have been built, opened and rented at 333 ECO, The Mae on Cascade, Blue Dot Place and Casa Mundi, while Pikes Peak Plaza, Elan Pikes Peak and the 322 Vermijo Apartments are under construction and will add nearly 700 more units. Thousands of additional apartments are on the drawing board.

• Aging buildings along North and South Tejon Street, East Pikes Peak Avenue and Sierra Madre Street have been renovated or are poised to be transformed into restaurants, nightclubs, event centers and other gathering places.

Weidner Field, in particular, has the potential to help downtown build on that momentum, say area supporters. Some even liken it to Coors Field, which served as a redevelopment catalyst in Denver’s Lower Downtown, known as LoDo.

Coors Field, though, is much larger at more than 50,000 seats and was built for Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies, who play at least 81 home games every year.

Coors Field also was constructed in a densely packed urban area of Denver’s downtown, whose aging buildings and warehouses were ripe for redevelopment. Since Coors Field opened in 1995, many LoDo buildings were renovated into stores, restaurants, bars, lofts and apartments, while developers also brought new construction to the area.

Still, a people-generating stadium that’s introduced into a downtown setting — even if it’s a smaller venue — is likely to spur nearby development, said Brian Lewandowski, executive director of the Business Research Division at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.

“That cornerstone can lead to a lot of redevelopment,” said Lewandowski, who spoke in general terms because he lacked details about Weidner Field and downtown Colorado Springs redevelopment efforts. “And it’s part of the redevelopment. And it’s part of why people end up moving there. It’s part of why those bars and restaurants aren’t only filled because of the stadium, but they’re now filled because of the broader redevelopment around the stadium.

“The placemaking that a stadium can have is a really important component that can be a catalyst for a lot of economic growth,” Lewandowski said. “It’s not solely responsible for it, but it’s a reason for the new businesses, the new restaurants, the new bars, the new tenants, the new residents. There is a catalyzing piece there. I say that because we need to take a look beyond just what happens within the stadium and understand what’s happening around the stadium.”

Around Weidner Field, new construction and redevelopment projects already are being planned, including a massive investment by Weidner Apartment Homes.

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The privately held company, ranked by an apartment industry group last year as the nation’s 14th largest owner of multifamily units, has purchased nearly 11 acres on the stadium’s south, southwest and west sides. Over the next nine years, Weider officials say the company plans to develop almost 1,200 market-rate apartments at a price tag of more than $400 million.

Weidner expects to start construction in the summer on a 408-unit building on the stadium’s south side, which would open in 2024, according to plans the company recently presented to city officials.

Construction of a second, 360-unit building southwest of the venue would begin in 2023 and open four years later. A third, 413-unit building directly west of the stadium would launch in 2025 and open by 2030.

Combined, the buildings also would have 37,104 square feet of first-floor retail space and on-site parking to accommodate 2,222 vehicles.

Apartments developed around the stadium would be Weidner’s first investment in the Springs downtown; it has 18 projects and more than 2,900 units in suburban areas of the Springs.

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Founder Dean Weidner, who graduated from Wasson High School and learned about the apartment industry by performing maintenance on family owned rentals as he grew up in the Springs, has had a “simmering interest” in downtown for more than 30 years, vice president Greg Cerbana recently told the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority.

Weidner’s interest was piqued in recent years by the City for Champions initiative and efforts to redevelop downtown’s blighted southwest side, Cerbana said. The company is seeking an urban renewal designation to cover its project, which would allow increased property and sales tax revenues generated by the new apartments to be used for on-site street, utility and other public improvements.

Nor’wood Development Group, one of the Springs’ largest real estate companies whose projects citywide include offices, shopping centers, apartments and residential subdivisions, has been interested in southwest downtown for roughly 20 years. Over that span, it has purchased multiple parcels in the area, including several directly across Cimarron Street from Weidner Field.

The company has proposed offices, a luxury hotel, retail and other projects on its property, where the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum — also a City for Champions project — opened last summer and is envisioned as another southwest downtown anchor that will spur new development.

Even before Weidner Field was completed, however, Nor’wood began to receive calls on the availability of its property across the street, said Jeff Finn, a company senior vice president.

“It’s absolutely a catalyst,” he said. “We have not really been in marketing mode on our properties across the street from the stadium because we’ve been working on our own stuff. But I’m consistently receiving unsolicited interest in those properties of ours that really line Cimarron.”

That interest has come from local restaurants and retailers, but also from some in Denver, Finn said. Several Denver-area restaurants have expanded to the Springs downtown in recent years, including the Denver Biscuit Co., Dos Santos Tacos, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar and the recently opened White Pie Pizzeria.

Restaurant locations near Weidner Field — similar to being around Coors Field in Denver’s Lower Downtown or people-generating venues in other cities — provide sports fans and concert goers with places to go before and after an event, Finn said.

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“Going to the game with food and beverage and a sporting or entertainment experience and then having the ability to then go out afterwards and really extend the evening, that really is going to be a game changer,” he said.

Once that game or concert finishes, downtown visitors who’ve come from outlying and suburban areas might drive back home, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership.

But for downtown residents, Weidner Field will provide another amenity to enhance their urban lifestyle, where they can stroll past bars, restaurants and other attractions before or after an event, she said.

“A downtown environment is different because it’s walkable,” Edmondson said. “Before or after the event, particularly think about after the event, you’re getting in your car. At that point you’re already almost, in your mind, headed home instead of to somewhere else. Whereas, when you’re in a walkable urban environment, it just makes it more of an experience to tack on that pre- or postgame activity. We always feel like, once someone steps back in their car, we’ve kind of lost them.”

Downtown residents and visitors increasingly eat and drink in the so-called New South End, a multiblock area southeast of Vermijo and Cascade avenues and a few blocks east of the Weidner Field site. Now, New South End businesses are gearing up for even more customers because of the stadium.

“We are all pretty busy already down here, but it will bring even more people and business to this area and not just on game nights, but also when there are concerts and other events,” said Drew Shader, owner of the Atomic Cowboy bar, Fat Sully’s Pizza and Denver Biscuit Co in the 500 block of South Tejon Street, known as the Trolley Block because it once housed a trolley car barn.

The Warehouse, a 24-year-old upscale restaurant across Sahwatch Street from the stadium, might be the best-positioned restaurant or bar that could benefit from Weidner Field.

Co-owner James Africano isn’t sure what to expect when the stadium opens. He’s both excited and a little apprehensive, in part, because he’s not sure where stadium-goers will park.

“It will change the neighborhood dramatically for 25 to 30 days a year, both good and bad,” Africano said “You’re bringing a few thousand people into a neighborhood with not a lot of parking. If we get 1% of the crowd, that would be a great night for us. The question I have is how many of those people are looking for an upper-end restaurant and where do they park?”

Still, Africano added, “the visibility for us will be huge. We are super excited to have the Switchbacks as our neighbors.”

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