Since early summer, a development group headed by downtown hotelier Perry Sanders, Colorado Springs Switchbacks owner Ed Ragain and businessman Charles Ochs has been crafting a plan to build a downtown stadium and events center that would qualify for state support under the 2013 City for Champions proposal.
The Sanders/Ochs/Ragain plan calls for construction of a 10,000-seat multi-use stadium and events center on Antlers Park, an historic site given to the city by Colorado Springs founder William Palmer. The separate events center would be built around the historic Denver & Rio Grande Depot directly across Sahwatch Street from Antlers Park. The Ochs family has owned the old train depot, long the home of the now-closed Giuseppe’s restaurant, since the 1970s. Under the plan, the city would maintain ownership of the park, and the stadium and events center would be available for public use and general recreation of all kinds.
Formally approved by the Colorado Economic Development Commission in the fall of 2013, the City for Champions proposal included four projects: the Olympic Museum;o the Air Force Academy Visitor Center; the UCCS Sports Medicine and Performance Center; and a downtown stadium and events center.
Of the two downtown projects, the Olympic Museum is fully funded and under construction, while the stadium/events center has languished, despite the possible availability of as much as $27.7 million in state sales tax increment funding.
The Sanders group has not identified any other specific funding sources at this time. Significant cost savings will be realized through shared use of Antlers facilities, including a large commercial kitchen, a multi-million dollar loading dock, event sales staff and a 1,500-space parking garage.
“The most significant obstacle that stands in the way of this project is not cost,” according to the group’s business plan. “The relatively small footprint will not stop the project because of the combined uses of both Sanders and Ochs facilities. It is ironic that the only thing standing between saving Antlers Park and also getting $27.7 million of C4C money to assist in the project is the city attorney making the simple determination that the change to the current park will be ‘de minimis’ and at least as in keeping with General Palmer’s vision as the heroin and crime infested place it currently is.”
All of the stadium/events center will be on public land, which will remain in city ownership.
In a lengthy opinion dated Aug. 31, Wynetta Massey, Colorado Springs city attorney, argued that the proposal would violate one or more restrictions applicable to the park, and recommended that the city take no action to authorize the proposal.
The only feasible course of action, according into Massey, would be to authorize the proposal through a vote of the electorate, after first seeking a declaratory judgment “to determine the city’s rights, status and other legal relations pertaining to the Antlers Park restrictions and obligations.” In other words, so strong are the legal protections around Palmer-dedicated parkland that even city voters might not be able to modify them. Massey also stressed that Antlers Park was dedicated to the city by plat by the Colorado Springs Company 135 years ago, subject to certain restrictions that the city has complied with ever since.
Yet, as Sanders notes, Antlers Park was originally conceived as a landscaped public space that served as the west entrance to Palmer’s Antlers Hotel. It was then a functional space that connected the city’s principal transportation hub with downtown, one that was effectively controlled by Palmer’s hotel.
That changed in the 1970s, when the demolition of the historic Antlers and the construction of what is how the Palmer Center isolated the park from the city. Since then, the park has been in visible decline, despite sporadic efforts by the city in the past four decades to make it safer and more welcoming. The group’s business plan characterizes it as “a doormat used by vagrants.”
Massey’s opinion appears to create a substantial roadblock, especially since funding from the Regional Tourism Act requires that construction begin on the stadium/events center by fall of 2018. Unless council and the mayor’s office give formal approval to the project by early next year, it seems unlikely that the fall deadline could be met.
Sanders stressed that the project would not only revitalize the Antlers Park area, but serve as an economic engine for all of central downtown.
“It’s not just for the Antlers,” he said, “but for the Olympic Museum and every downtown business. Do we really want to miss out on $27.7 million in state funding?”
Sanders was even more vocal about the park’s present condition.
“We have to have three additional security guards [to protect the Palmer Center],” he said. “Antlers Park drags down the entire neighborhood.”
Switchbacks Manager Nick Ragain, Ed’s son, said, “We didn’t come to this with a bat to beat people into submission. We wanted to start the discussion, and present a proposal to move the park from passive to active use.”
Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler confirmed her conceptual support for the project.
“We’ve been in touch with Perry and his partners for several months,” she said. “We’d like to see that area of the city activated, and of course we support getting the C4C funds. And we want to support downtown developers, especially Perry, who has done so much. But with the city attorney’s opinion, the proposal doesn’t seem viable at this time. I trust the city attorney — she knows more about Colorado Springs law than anyone else in the city. I wouldn’t support getting a second opinion. But I hear rumblings of other potential opportunities — so maybe something will materialize and we won’t lose those funds.”
Council President Richard Skorman said, “Even after the opinion, Perry may have away forward, by asking for a declaratory judgment from the district court.”
Sanders plans to make a formal presentation to the city on Jan. 8.