In July 2013 the city of Colorado Springs submitted the official “City for Champions” proposal to the Colorado Economic Development Commission, requesting state tax increment financing for four ambitious projects. Two were to be located in the city’s long-derelict southwest downtown: the Downtown Stadium and Events Center and the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame.
Four years later, the stadium/events center has been abandoned, while the Olympic Museum will soon break ground.
The original funding request was supported by highly optimistic financial projections and accompanied by detailed renderings of a rebuilt southwest downtown.
In this halcyon imagined future, cracked sidewalks, potholed streets and vacant, tin-roofed warehouses were magically swept away and replaced by a gleaming new city. A super-sized illustration shows fireworks exploding in the night sky over the ballpark, illuminating the adjacent Olympic Museum. Twenty new buildings adorn the new “sports district,” home to thousands of residents and scores of businesses. Hotels, restaurants, bars, retail shops of all kinds — what a feast for the eye, what an economic boon for the city.
As the museum draws ever closer to reality, project boosters still radiate optimism. The gleaming new city is even shinier than before, the buildings taller, the streets pedestrian- and bike-friendly.
The Urban Renewal Authority has signed paperwork needed for infrastructure upgrades, but the sometimes-tightfisted lenders must leap aboard to support multistory residential/office/hotel towers.
In the best of possible worlds, the Olympic Museum will by itself trigger hundreds of millions in new investment, and the hopeful projections of 2013 will seem overly modest. Austin, Denver, Omaha — move over. Here comes the Southwest Downtown Express.
That’s an attractive scenario, just as winning the lottery is an attractive scenario.
Obstacles? There are a few.
With the ballpark out of the picture, the museum will be the area’s only anchor. Until other development is launched, the museum will stand in splendid isolation, perched at the western terminus of Vermijo Avenue, far from any downtown shops, bars or restaurants. In anything but perfect weather, visitors to the museum might not venture elsewhere.
And how many visitors can the museum expect? Project backers forecast a stabilized level of 350,000 annually, 82 percent from out-of-state. Those backers also expected that both the museum and the stadium/events center would open in 2016, and that the stadium/events center would attract 672,000 visitors annually, 92 percent in-state.
Those numbers may be optimistic. Similar sports-oriented facilities such as the National Football Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame draw around 200,000-250,000 annual visitors. Non-sports venues, such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (500,000 annual visitors) in Cleveland and the International Spy Museum (600,000) in Washington, D.C., seem to appeal to a wider public.
Olympic Museum backers argue that the three sports halls are located in small cities without other visitor attractions, while the other two benefit by being in Cleveland and Washington. They also point out that the Olympic movement features dozens of different sports and hundreds of great athletes, past and present.
Those are good points, and visitor numbers should spike if the 2024 Summer Olympics are awarded to Los Angeles. Still, as one skeptical friend said the other day, “If the Olympic Museum is such a great idea, why didn’t they build one 30 years ago?”
Of course, Dick Celeste was busy building the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 30 years ago as governor of Ohio, so we had to wait our turn. In any case, the museum will certainly be built, and will open debt-free and with an endowment that will allow it to weather any unforeseen visitor shortfalls.
And there’s always branding. Late last year, the NFL Hall of Fame made a $500 million, 20-year naming rights deal with Johnson Controls, vaulting it into the top ranks of such agreements. Dallas Cowboys owner/president Jerry Jones, no stranger to such deals, chaired the Hall of Fame Committee.
The Tesla Olympic Museum? The Olympic Museum, presented by Facebook? One way or another, the museum will survive.
Let’s hope that it becomes the centerpiece of a glittering new southwest downtown, not a forlorn architectural treasure whose infrequent visitors pause only to count the cars on the coal trains that chug slowly by.