Pueblo’s downtown power plant, adjacent to the Riverwalk, could become a catalyst for more preservation and development in the area, as has happened in other cities.
Pueblo’s downtown power plant, adjacent to the Riverwalk, could become a catalyst for more preservation and development in the area, as has happened in other cities.

The Pueblo City Council has a sizeable  — some might say super-sized —  dilemma on its hands, one that might finally be settled at its next meeting Monday.

The issue: What to do with the now-shuttered 1922 downtown power plant building, a significant and historically important structure that, absent decisive council action, will soon be demolished.

Losing the building would suggest that Pueblo lacks either the will or the financial capacity to preserve a major downtown landmark.

Black Hills Energy owns the facility and has been trying to get permission from the city to tear it down since 2014. The city would like to see it preserved and renovated, especially because of its location at the western edge of the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo.

Black Hills estimates that it will cost $5.1 million to demolish the iconic structure, a graceful symphony of brick and multistory casement glass windows. The investor-owned utility is perfectly willing to hand it over to the city — or to a qualified developer — but wants to be certain that it would not be left holding the bag for expensive remediation and other yet-to-be-determined liabilities associated with the century-old industrial site.

“We offered the building to the city of Pueblo,” said Black Hills spokesperson Julie Rodriguez, “but to date no one has shown any interest. If a developer willing to provide an appropriate surety bond had come forward, we would have been glad to cooperate.”

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Pueblo developer Ryan McWilliams has been trying to put together a deal acceptable to Black Hills and the city, so far without success.

“I think we may be getting a little closer,” he said earlier this week, “but it’s a struggle. I don’t think that they [the city and Black Hills] necessarily understand how these deals are put together. They want an unreasonable amount of money up front.”

McWilliams recently acquired another historic downtown industrial building, the ABC Meatpacking Company, which he’s renovating for office use.

Many cities in the United States and elsewhere have successfully repurposed 19th and early 20th century power plant buildings.

The Pratt Street Power Plant on Baltimore’s inner harbor now houses art galleries, restaurants, a fitness center and multiple office tenants. The 1915 Spokane Steam Plant is now a multi-use downtown anchor, with one of the enormous steam boilers converted into a restaurant.

The Pueblo building has a footprint of 18,000 square feet. It has a sub-basement, a basement, a main floor and an upper level. But redevelopment may be expensive.

“We’re estimating $31 million [in total renovation costs],” said McWilliams, who has been in sporadic negotiations with Black Hills and the city for a year.

“Have you seen the interior of the building?” asked Rodriguez. “Once the machinery is removed, it’s just a shell.”

Black Hills has already received permission from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to permanently shutter the downtown plant. On Monday, council will formally consider if it will designate the building as an historic landmark, thereby indefinitely staying its demolition.

Black Hills opposes any such designation.

“We have continuing costs for security and maintenance,” said Rodriguez. “We don’t think our ratepayers should be responsible for these and other costs.”

Will the company sue the city if the property is landmarked?

“That’s a strong possibility,” said Rodriguez. “We’d have to look at our options.”

“As far as landmarking is concerned,” said McWilliams, “I think that it’s unfortunate that council seems to be concerned mainly about the project, rather than whether the building is historic. I’ve been in contact with Dana Crawford, and I think that she’ll be at the meeting on Monday.”

Crawford, the famed Denver developer who most recently was a key player in the $1.5 billion renovation of Denver’s Union Station, recently addressed the Trinidad City Council, urging them to support downtown renovation. She’s expected to make a similar pitch to the Pueblo council, but isn’t expected to open her checkbook.

Council apparently has three options: to designate the structure as a historic building; to partner with McWilliams in the deal or to let the demolition go forward.

“We chose to stay out of this,” said Jerry Pacheco, who leads the Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority. “The discussion is between Black Hills and the city, and we’d have a part to play if a plan came forward that was a property tax generator. We think there may be a fourth option, though. Black Hills has received a lot of negative publicity in this community. It’s in their interest to do something to show that they’re being a good neighbor and come up with a plan to keep the building. Being a good corporate citizen is important — and remember, at some time in the future, the franchise agreement will come up for renewal. Pueblo is a big part of their rate base.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, much of Colorado Springs’ historic downtown fell to the wrecker’s ball. Grand buildings such as the second Antlers Hotel, the Burns Opera House and the First National Building were demolished, as were dozens of Victorian commercial buildings.

Colorado Springs architect Michael Collins believes that such buildings are unique and valuable assets for communities lucky enough to have them.

“Once gone, you lose them forever — that interior volume, that architecture, that history,” he said.

Collins has been the lead architect and often a participant in more than a dozen substantial historic preservation projects, including Pueblo’s Union Station. He’s intrigued by the power plant.

“I didn’t know about this project,” he said, “but it sounds like my kind of deal. With that location, you need to link it directly to the Riverwalk, maybe anchor it with restaurants and a shopping center, but that $31 million number is daunting. Tell you what — I’m going to make a few calls to Denver, a couple locally and then go take a look at the building next week.”