|By Rich Laden, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 29, 2005 - A downtown Colorado Springs convention center is dead for now, and it's uncertain when -- or if -- it will be revived.
Three weeks after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure restricting the city's ability to pay for and build a convention center, project backers notified the SpringsCity Council in a letter Thursday that it's "unrealistic" to pursue the project in the short term.
Beyond the new restrictions placed on the city's involvement, some backers acknowledge that passage of this month's ballot measure also could signal voter opposition to a convention center tax increase at a future election.
In their letter to the council, project backers also acknowledge that a tax increase could be tough to pass in November. Such a proposal would share space -- and conflict with -- a statewide ballot measure that would temporarily relax Colorado's 13-year-old revenue and spending limits. That proposal is sure to be controversial.
"Therefore, we will give the convention center project 'some rest' for the time being, at least in terms of a specific proposal to be presented for a public vote (in November)," Springs attorney Tom James, a member of a convention center coalition of business people and civic leaders, wrote to the council.
Other convention center backers were more blunt.
Chuck Miller, a consultant to the city's Urban Renewal Authority and a retired city government planning executive, told his board Thursday that, "it's (the convention center) all in the past, folks. It's history."
He said the project will come back at some point.
"I don't know when," Miller said.
In his letter, James urged the City Council to continue studying issues such as cost and funding for a convention center -- work already begun by city staffers.
Whether the council continues that work isn't known.
New Vice Mayor Larry Small and Councilman Scott Hente said they aren't interested for now; Small said other issues are more pressing, and Hente said this month's ballot measure might make it illegal for the city to even study a convention center.
Shelving of the convention center shouldn't be a surprise. The proposal has gone back and forth for five years as supporters struggled with funding.
Meanwhile, the project drew increasing criticism from The Broadmoor hotel and other lodging industry members who questioned its viability. The Broadmoor is building its own convention center on the Springs' southwest side.
Putting the proposal on hiatus, however, raises new questions about redevelopment of southwest downtown -- where the center would have been built -- and the future of the Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee, which expressed interest in being a part of the project.
A 100-acre downtown area, mostly southwest of Colorado and Cascade avenues, was designated by the City Council in 2001 as an urban renewal -- or redevelopment -- site.
Two Springs real estate giants, Classic Cos. and Nor'wood Development Group, have proposed revitalizing the area with housing, stores, entertainment and other uses.
They've spent millions buying land in the area but have said they need an anchor to enhance the project's success.
Without a convention center, the two firms must look elsewhere.
Classic Chairman Jeff Smith said Thursday that a large retail project could be one alternative, and Classic Chief Executive Officer Doug Stimple said all ideas will be studied. Both agree that a baseball stadium for the minor league Sky Sox is out; the team's owner won't sell and has pumped millions into his existing stadium on the Springs' east side.
Smith added he was disappointed in shelving the convention center, criticizing the City Council for failing to provide enough support and leadership on the project. Without that support, it's doubtful voters would have approved a lodging tax increase in the fall for a convention center, Smith added.
Small, however, said approval by voters of the measure restricting the city's convention center role, along with a new city government poll released this week on public attitudes, demonstrates voters consider issues such as jobs and the economy as more pressing than a convention center.
Meanwhile, convention center supporters expressed concern about the fate of the USOC, which has had its headquarters in central Colorado Springs since 1978.
Center backers supported construction of an Olympic Hall of Fame as part of a convention center, while also offering free office space to the USOC in the newly redeveloped southwest downtown.
For years, community leaders have worried the USOC would bolt for a media giant such as New York City, or Indianapolis, which has strong ties to amateur athletics.
Smith said the offer of free office space to the USOC has been withdrawn but added that an incentive will be pitched to Olympic officials this weekend during the organization's meetings in Phoenix. He declined to elaborate, and USOC officials couldn't be reached.
In any case, Miller of the Urban Renewal Authority, and Downtown Partnership executive director Beth Kosley said Thursday community leaders must continue efforts to keep the USOC in the Springs, and will seek to come up with an incentives package for the organization.
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Copyright (c) 2005, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.
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