Following 30 years of false starts and hopeful speculation, the United States Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame has a shovel-ready site and enough funding to start, finish, equip, open and operate the long-awaited facility.
But what impact will the museum have on surrounding businesses?
“I believe that it will be a catalytic project,” said Tom Binnings, a principal at Summit Economics. “The magnitude of the project, its location a few blocks from the U.S. Olympic Committee building — we’re already feeling economic impacts along the [Interstate]-25 corridor. If you look at the limited service hotel [Hilton Garden Inn] under construction at Bijou [Street] and Cascade [Avenue], at the large apartment building under construction [at Wahsatch and Colorado avenues], and even at the Great Wolf [Lodge] — those projects were likely influenced by the museum.”
Binnings also noted that the museum should stimulate off-season tourism and catalyze nearby development.
“We have robust visitor numbers, about 5.2 million annually, but we need things to do when it’s cold,” he said. “Small conferences are always looking for offsite locations, where they can have a little party, serve some drinks and appetizers and tour the museum. There’s potential for a new full-service hotel in southwest downtown.”
Over the threshold
Downtown hotelier and restaurateur Perry Sanders also sees the potential for positive impact.
“I think it’s public knowledge that John Goede and I have committed $100,000 to help fund the [Olympic Museum], although we have no vested interest it,” said Sanders, who owns the downtown Mining Exchange Hotel and, in partnership with Goede, The Antlers as well. “We helped fund the museum because Dick Celeste has worked tirelessly to get the funds raised, and we applaud his vision and wanted to supplement his efforts.”
The museum will be one of those rare projects that could change the face of the city, Binnings said.
“In the world of economic development, things happen incrementally,” said Binnings. “But every once in a while you cross a big threshold that creates momentum, and helps take a city to a new level. Big projects like the museum, or a stadium or -— am I allowed to say convention center? — can take you over that threshold.”
Sanders agrees that a convention center should be on the city’s wish list.
“A convention center must be the next project undertaken, or guaranteed, the city will bog down,” Sanders said. “Hotels and restaurants … will languish, and city sales tax receipts will decline. This is the next and most obvious step to help Colorado Springs move to the next level.”
A complex package
Earlier this week, the Urban Renewal Authority approved a complex financial package that will provide $39 million for southwest downtown and museum-related infrastructure via State Sales Tax Increment Funding receipts, a benefit for Colorado Springs since state TIF revenues would otherwise flow to Denver.
Will any local tax revenue be used for the project, as City Councilor Bill Murray has suggested? Yes, but the funds will be used for southwest downtown infrastructure, not directly for the museum.
According to URA member Toby Gannett, “$3.5 million will need to come from the PPRTA, which was budgeted years ago to connect downtown with America the Beautiful Park … $4.5 million is coming from the city for streetscape improvements, subject to appropriation and council approval. All records of the work of the URA are public documents and available on the URA website [csurbanrenewal.org]. We are working diligently to make this process transparent and beyond reproach. There is no developers’ conspiracy, just hard-working people who care deeply for our community’s future.”
The timeline for building the museum is as short as possible, said Dick Celeste, chairman of the Olympic Museum.
“Our aim is to get this completed in the next two years,” he said. “Weather permitting, we hope to open the museum in early 2019.”
Will other buildings begin construction in southwest downtown before the museum opens?
“I think so,” said Bob Cope, the city’s economic development manager who directed the city’s application for RTA funding. “We’ve seen that similar developments in other cities have brought new construction to the area, such as hotels and residential buildings, but I don’t know of anything definite yet.”
It will happen, Celeste says, as the museum starts to take shape.
“People want to see something,” he said. “Once we’re underway, there should be some [activity].”
A long, strange trip
The Olympic Museum has been in the city’s plans for decades. In 1986, Frank Aries, the flamboyant Arizona land developer who had acquired the 25,000-acre Banning-Lewis Ranch on the city’s eastern boundary, offered the U.S. Olympic Committee 150 acres of choice land in the nascent development at no cost.
The only condition: that an Olympic Hall of Fame be located there.
Credulous officials in the city and the USOC took Aries seriously — after all, he was the multimillionaire visionary who supposedly would transform the ranch into a vast suburban community, home to more than 100,000 residents.
But Aries defaulted on his loans. The ranch was eventually seized by the Resolution Trust, a federal agency created to dispose of hundreds of properties nationwide that belonged to bankrupt Savings and Loans.
As the Phoenix New Times reported in 1990, the USOC wasn’t the only nonprofit to fall for Aries’ siren song.
“The blueprints [for the deal] included a plush new headquarters for the U.S. Space Foundation, complete with a $3 million big-screen IMAX theater, and alongside it a high-tech Olympic Hall of Fame peopled with the talking ghosts of champions like track great Jesse Owens,” the paper wrote.
For the next 26 years, city leaders sought without success to resurrect the deal. The USOC was particularly gun-shy, having been very publicly scammed and deceived by Aries. It seemed unlikely that the museum/hall of fame would ever be built in Colorado Springs, until Celeste became interested.
The former Ohio governor, ambassador to India and Colorado College president had the credentials for the fundraising project. Unaware of the project’s early history, he revived it in 2012.
“If I’d known about the history, I might have thought twice,” he told the Business Journal in 2013.
During his term as Ohio’s governor, he was instrumental in the 1986 selection of Cleveland as the site of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He also helped raise $65 million to fund the Hall, a condition of the site choice. As Colorado College president, he launched a successful $300 million multi-year fundraising effort in 2003. The $33.4 million Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center, made possible in part by a $10 million grant from El Pomar Foundation, opened in 2008.
Celeste’s drive and credibility legitimized the project. City leaders, including Mayor Steve Bach, developer Chris Jenkins and El Pomar chair Bill Hybl, liked the idea and agreed that it should be the centerpiece of a multi-project application for state sales tax increment funding under the Regional Tourism Act.
The application was successful, Celeste raised the money and the project is officially underway.
“I expect that we’ll start digging by the beginning of next month,” he said.