The issue: City and county are pushing for the new AFA Visitors Center, but projections seem surprisingly high.

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What we think: Local governments should make sure the numbers are rock-solid before going forward.

In recent weeks, we’ve watched as our city and county governments have flexed their muscles and focused their resources to enhance an ambitious undertaking in northern El Paso County — the proposed new U.S. Air Force Academy Visitors Center.

The concept of building that center and, if all goes according to plan, creating a major tourist attraction near the AFA North Gate has been evolving for a handful of years. It began as part of the City for Champions package, possibly utilizing state tax revenues now estimated at $6.1 million via the Regional Tourism Act to aid in financing the new facility via bonds.

But then for a while we heard the Academy might have a fundraising campaign, conducted by its Association of Graduates, to cover most of the costs. Perhaps, it was said, no taxpayer money would go into the visitors center, and the Air Force would retain full control of it.

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Many people don’t realize the Academy for years has had the Barry Goldwater Visitor Center, a 35,000-square-foot building with theater, exhibit area, food service and store, along with ample parking, on the west edge of campus. However, its remote location so far inside the security perimeter made it an easy target for replacement.

Now, though, the project has turned into a $58 million deal, with a full mix of sources for footing the bill. Not surprisingly, the City for Champions vehicle is prominent, as well as the Colorado Springs City Council designating it as an Urban Renewal Authority project. (That includes annexing property into Colorado Springs.) Additionally, the city will give money from its “use tax” on building materials that go into construction. El Paso County also has jumped on the bandwagon, committing up to $5.1 million in tax revenue over 25 years.

As if all that weren’t enough, Academy School District 20 has agreed to provide a share of property tax revenues. And the organizers reportedly will ask for a grant from the city’s Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax.

Obviously, all that’s a clear indication our local governments have been moving at mach speed to do their part, including the city council declaring the site as “blighted”  to achieve the urban renewal status. As Council President Richard Skorman said during a recent meeting, “We need to do everything we can to make this happen.”

We have no problem with the idea of a new USAFA Visitors Center, which if done right should attract many more travelers to take that exit off Interstate 25 and check out the Academy. It could allow the Academy to stop all those thousands of visitors there, make most of them park outside the security perimeter and take tour buses (for a fee, of course) inside for guided tours to see the campus, cadet area and other facilities. That might mirror what the U.S. Military Academy already has at West Point, N.Y., with tours costing $13-$15 for children, $16-$19 for adults, plus food service and souvenirs.

But we have to cringe at moving so quickly (and quietly) with local government involvement and tax commitments, when the project still doesn’t have environmental approval and the site had to be labeled as blighted to proceed.

There’s also the matter of projections being used to justify all this effort. We’re hearing such numbers as 1,200 permanent jobs after completion, 1,700 jobs during construction alone and total economic impact of a whopping $2.6 billion over 25 years once the new visitors center is in operation. We’ve also seen a wide disparity in other media reports of how much of the project funding will come from different sources.

Those numbers might not be certain, as we saw just recently with the planned Scheels megastore just one I-25 exit away, in the InterQuest Marketplace area. After the city gave Scheels a $16 million sales tax incentive over 25 years to locate there, that business improvement district asked for Scheels to be excluded from the BID, thus freeing Scheels from paying some taxes. That proposal cited projected sales numbers that were far off, the city stood by its much higher projections, and the BID retracted its request.

As impressive as the new USAFA Visitors Center sounds, everyone needs to tread carefully in moving forward. Especially with projections that seem almost too good to be true.

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