In an attempt to make lemonade out of particularly sour lemons, Pueblo County Commissioners put an ambitious “De-Brucing” measure on the November ballot last week. If voters approve, the county will be able to retain revenue that would otherwise be refunded to voters, and use them to fund multiple transportation and civic improvement projects.
In the early years of the century, Pueblo’s elected officials granted tax abatements to several large corporations as part of incentive packages offered to encourage expansion or relocation.
During the Great Recession, Pueblo County tax receipts plunged, as did those of every county in Colorado. When the recession ended and tax collections improved, Pueblo began to bump up close to the so-called TABOR limit.
That’s a provision of the 1992 TABOR state constitutional amendment that limits the yearly increase in tax revenue to a predetermined percentage, based on various economic growth metrics. If revenue exceeds the limit, the surplus must be refunded to taxpayers unless voters decree otherwise.
Voters may also approve removing the revenue limits for more than a year. Such measures are called De-Brucing, so named thanks to TABOR author Douglas Bruce.
Tax holidays granted to several Pueblo companies (Vestas wind towers, Black Hills Energy, Xcel and Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua of America) will soon expire. Unless voters decide otherwise, that new tax revenue will have to be refunded to county residents.
The amount to be refunded in the first year is estimated at $15 per resident, but the Pueblo County Commissioners have prepared an extensive list of projects to be funded by retained revenue, which will amount to about $45 million in the next 10 years.
The list includes extending Joe Martinez Boulevard in Pueblo West to Pueblo Boulevard, thereby mitigating weekday commuter congestion on U.S. 50. Other projects include funding for the proposed Southwest Chief passenger rail connection to Pueblo, expanding the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo to Santa Fe and building a downtown sports complex that might include a baseball stadium.
The list was compiled with input from the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce and from the Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority.
“We’ve been working for some time trying to find ways to fund expansion of the riverwalk,” said HARP Executive Director Jim Munch. “We had hoped to use some of the [tax increment] funds that were authorized by the Regional Tourism Act, but that didn’t work out.”
The sports complex/baseball stadium could possibly be anchored by the vacant 1920s downtown power plant at the western end of the riverwalk, as the Business Journal reported in June.
Pueblo architect Gary Anzuini, who created the stadium plan, confirmed that it’s part of the discussion.
“Currently there are two groups looking at the old power plant site,” Anzuini said in an email. “There is an historic preservation group that would like to have the entire building preserved and a group I am working with that would like to utilize a portion of the original structure to fit the ballpark on the site.”
Pueblo developer Ryan McWilliams, who is now working with Denver preservationist Dana Crawford, may have the inside track on the deal. In late June, the Pueblo City Council gave McWilliams 12 weeks to work out a viable renovation deal with the building’s owner, Black Hills Energy. That window closes Sept. 26.
If neither McWilliams nor Anzuini can come up with a plan acceptable to both city council and BHE, it’s possible that the historic structure would be demolished. Council and BHE might also agree to delay such a step until after the Nov. 8 vote.
“Pueblo has a history with baseball,” said Jim Munch. “We had the Pueblo Dodgers back in the ’40s and ’50s, and other teams. Runyon Field [a multi-diamond baseball complex] is very popular, but we need more fields. We’re playing games there at 10 p.m.”
The Pueblo Dodgers were one of nine teams in the Class A Western League from 1950-58, along with Denver, Omaha, Albuquerque, Des Moines, Colorado Springs, Amarillo, Lincoln, Wichita and Sioux City. Omaha and Denver joined the Triple-A American Association in 1958, and the league folded that fall.
“About 20 years ago,” Munch continued, “Rod Slyhoff [now president of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce] tried to get the Sky Sox to move to Pueblo. Rod was working for the city then, but the Sky Sox weren’t interested. If we build a stadium downtown, it’ll be a great new activity center, but you have to figure out other events — it can’t be all baseball. You need to keep the lights on.”