A tale of two stadiums: Success in Springs, strikeout in Pueblo

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In the past two weeks, two stunning announcements about sports stadium development have been made in southern Colorado.

Visions for the projects in Colorado Springs and Pueblo were much the same: stimulate economic development by bringing sports teams downtown to play in multipurpose venues. Both plans featured public-private partnerships, and both had lodging properties as components (a multi-use apartment building in Colorado Springs, three hotels in Pueblo).

But while Colorado Springs’ plan appears poised for success, Pueblo’s stadium proposal imploded in a hail of criticism about funding and lack of transparency.

Both projects were announced to great fanfare and crowds of dignitaries.

Mayor John Suthers said July 25 that Colorado Springs was ready to move forward with the fourth City for Champions project: the Sports and Event Center.

The project consists of a multipurpose, outdoor stadium that would become the home of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks soccer team, and a new indoor events center on the Colorado College campus that would host Tiger hockey games and other sports and entertainment events.

The 10,000-seat outdoor stadium would be built on a vacant lot at Cimarron and Sahwatch streets known as CityGate.

The city lined up several private partners for the project, including Ed Ragain, owner of the Switchbacks, and Ragain Sports, a separate company that would operate the stadium.

Another partner is Weidner Apartment Homes, developer and owner of some 258 properties throughout the United States and Canada, including 11 in Colorado Springs. Weidner pledged to construct a seven-story, mixed-use residential and commercial development adjacent to the stadium that some say could become a catalyst for a vibrant streetscape and entertainment district in southwest downtown.

Weidner has signed an agreement with the Switchbacks for a minority interest in the team and would have naming rights to the stadium.

“We have no doubt that the stadium will cement Colorado Springs as one of the top sports cities in the country,” said Josh Keller, senior vice president, corporate development and partnerships at United Soccer Leagues LLC, organizer of the league in which the Switchbacks play.

The 3,000-seat Colorado College-owned and operated event center would be named Robson Arena after a 1954 graduate who has contributed some $10 million to the college’s hockey program, said Sean Pieri, CC vice president for advancement.

Bob Cope, Colorado Springs economic development manager, said the two stadiums are projected to have an annual economic impact of $32 million and $1 billion over 30 years, attract about 1.2 million visitors a year, increase retail sales by $140 million a year and add some 665 direct, indirect and induced jobs.

“I expect $2 billion in new investment in just southwest downtown,” Cope said. “There is less available real estate around the indoor arena, but I expect to see reinvestment in that area become commonplace.”

The other components of the C4C initiative include the U.S. Olympic Museum, under construction a few blocks away from the CityGate site; a sports medicine center at UCCS; and a visitor center at the Air Force Academy.

The city won a $120.5 million award from the state Economic Development Commission in 2013 for the C4C projects. The money comes from state sales taxes administered through the Regional Tourism Act.

The $20 million outdoor stadium would be financed with $18.5 million in state RTA funds, which would support a bond of about $10 million, plus a $10 million contribution from the Switchbacks. Weidner Apartment Homes would invest $40 million to construct the adjacent mixed-use development.

The Robson arena would cost about $39 million — $9.2 million from C4C bond proceeds and $30 million provided by Colorado College.

City officials have heard little opposition to the financing plan for the stadiums, since no local tax funds would be used to build them.

But some concerns have been raised about whether the stadium is the right size for Colorado Springs and how the projects would affect downtown traffic and parking.

“I would disagree that the city is not big enough for 10,000 seats,” Switchbacks President Nick Ragain said. “The proper size for our league is 8,000 to 10,000 seats. That’s important to generate revenue from ticket sales in order to compete and have a quality model.”

A “rigorous” traffic and parking analysis has been done for the CC arena, Cope said.

“The city is going to collaborate in having more parking in city parking garages and will establish a shuttle service through downtown,” he said. “The college will open up existing parking lots to make more parking available on game nights.”

A previous parking analysis indicated there are about 8,000 available parking spaces within ¾ mile of the stadium, he said, which should be “more than adequate.”

As part of the land use approval process for the stadium, further parking and traffic analysis will be conducted, but “there is going to be heavier traffic on game nights,” Cope said. “That’s one of the trade-offs when you have a vibrant, active downtown.”

The city must present its plans to the commission this fall and prove that substantial work has begun on each project, or risk losing the state funding. Suthers has said he believes the agreements that are in place, design plans and construction timetable will meet that standard.

BASEBALL IN PUEBLO

On June 20, Jeff Katofsky, owner of the Orem (Utah) Owlz, announced that he would move the Pioneer League team to Pueblo by 2020.

Katofsky outlined a plan to expand the number of fields at the Runyon Youth Sports Complex and sponsor youth baseball tournaments that would bring in hundreds of young players and their families.

Teams would be housed at three hotels, which Katofsky would build in areas that would be declared urban renewal zones. The county would use certificates of participation to finance a $25 million stadium for the Owlz; tax increment funding generated by the hotels and the stadium would be used to pay off the certificates of participation.

Katofsky said he planned to invest $55 million to build the three hotels. Funds for expansion of the youth sports complex would come from $66 million in expiring tax incentive agreements. Those funds became available in 2016, when Pueblo voters approved Ballot Question 1A, which allowed the county to retain the revenue and spend it for 20 specific projects.

County Commissioner Sal Pace, who took the lead on what was known as the Youth Entertainment and Sports project, said it would bring in at least 400 new jobs, more pedestrians downtown and more business for restaurants, shops and bars.

Katofsky and the county signed a memorandum of understanding approved by two of the three commissioners, and the initial response from Pueblo City Council members was positive.

But within a couple of weeks, opposition to the proposal began to surface, and a little more than a month after the announcement, Katofsky pulled out of the plan. On July 23, the commissioners officially terminated the project.

Pace put in countless hours on the project over two years and took the failure personally.

“There was nothing wrong with the project, but every step of the way, a small group of politicians wanted to try to derail this thing,” he said. “We’ve lost so much because of this. Minor League Baseball was going to bring a lot of people downtown, and what about all the other activities at that multiuse stadium — rock concerts to college baseball? We will never have an opportunity this good for a long time. It would have been fun and made Pueblo vibrant.”

Pace said “virtually all the opposition were people who wanted to see me personally fail.”

Katofsky said Tuesday, “All we wanted to do was something to completely revitalize Pueblo. It died because it looked to me like the necessary political and media support died. That’s an uphill battle no developer wants to fight.”

He added what drove him away “was that it was obvious nothing was going to get approved going forward. When you’re hearing things like, ‘we’re not going to issue a building permit,’ why proceed?”

LESSONS LEARNED

Initially, the stadium “sounded like an interesting project and looked like a neat thing,” Pueblo City Council President Chris Nicoll said Tuesday. “The problem was in the details, especially in the financing. The biggest issue I had was that it was done in the dark. They were saying it was two years in planning, but for most of that time, the public never knew about it.”

Also disturbing to Nicoll were calls he started getting “that [proponents] were moving toward 1A money. We authorized them to explore TIF funding, but the numbers just didn’t work — never came close.”

Commissioner Terry Hart supported the project, but Commissioner Garrison Ortiz thought the county was taking on too much debt.

“We worked with Ortiz to get internal county memorandums that showed 1A money was going to be used,” Nicoll said.

He said a memo dated May 30 indicated “the money was divided up between paying off the certificates of participation and property acquisition for the stadium. That money was promised for other projects. … People voted for improving things in their neighborhood, and suddenly, the baseball stadium was taking precedence.”

On July 23, members of the Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority testified before council that they were unable to complete a feasibility study because “the information coming from the proponents wasn’t enough to do the study.”

Chris Wiseman, a Democrat who is running for the Pueblo County Commission seat Pace, also a Democrat, will vacate in January, said there appeared to be quite a bit of public opposition to the stadium, “but just as many people who contacted me were disappointed in my position not in full support. I really would have loved to see more time to educate the public and get more facts.”

Zach Swearingen, Wiseman’s Republican challenger for the commission job, thought there were too many unanswered questions, especially surrounding the stadium’s financing.

“Although I’m a huge fan of private investment, the only thing they were investing private money in was the hotels, not the stadium itself,” Swearingen said.

“I think it’s a lesson in the need for transparency, cooperation and planning,” he said.

Nicoll said he spoke with Suthers about the Sports and Event Center project on July 25 at the annual Mayors Panel sponsored by the Business Journal.

“As far as generating activity in the city center, I think it’s a great plan,” Nicoll said.

He said the end of the YES project doesn’t necessarily signal the end of baseball in Pueblo.

“Runyon Field is a neat opportunity,” Nicoll said. “That’s where we ought to start — investing in that existing facility. The part the developer was proposing, expanding it to increase youth play, that’s still something we could do. We could use the $8 million (in 1A funds) set aside for the Youth Sports Complex to improve the stadium there and bring in a minor league team.”

Using TIF funding to pay for the Pueblo stadium “seems like a reasonable approach, similar to what other communities have done,” Cope said. “I’m not sure why that plan broke down. I’m disappointed it didn’t work.”