Suthers wants to study whether a downtown Colorado Springs sports and event center could be privately funded

photo - Note: Come back to gazette.com later Tuesday to watch “City Chat,” which is our extended monthy interview with Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers. 

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said Monday he’s launching a feasibility study to determine if a downtown sports and event center could be funded with private money – an attempt to quell public concern over using local tax dollars for the project.

The sports and event center, controversial since it was proposed two years ago as one of four City for Champions projects, has been opposed by area residents who don’t want it financed with city or El Paso County funds.

But construction must begin on the venue by December 2018, a date put in place by the Colorado Economic Development Commission as part of its agreement to earmark $120.5 million in state sales tax revenue for City for Champions. As a result, Suthers said the city needs to know now if private funding is possible to go along with money committed by the state.

“It’s very clear, there’s a lot of resistance to any public financing of this,” said Suthers, elected earlier this year. “So we’ve got to figure out, can it be done privately or not?”

The other three City for Champions projects are moving ahead, and “they’re going to happen,” Suthers said of a downtown U.S. Olympic Museum, a new Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

But, he added, “there’s a big question mark whether this one’s (sports and event center) going to happen or not. What has to happen is we need to get further in the weeds and see if there’s the potential to have this wholly, privately financed.”

Last month, Suthers cited the need to explore private funding in an interview with The Gazette. During a meeting Monday of an advisory committee formed to oversee the City for Champions initiative, Suthers laid out more details.

The feasibility study will be funded by private contributions; Suthers said he doesn’t believe taxpayers should foot the bill. He declined to say who those donors might be, but already is pursuing contributions.

He hopes to have funding for the study in place by the fall, along with a consultant to do the work. Suthers wants the feasibility study underway in January, although he doesn’t know when it would be completed.

The study would identify potential private funding sources or entities that could own a downtown venue, Suthers said. The study also must determine its viability – what types of sports groups might use it, how many days and nights it might be used and parking and concession revenues it would generate, among other information.

“Can somebody make a living privately running a facility like this?” Suthers asked.

Nobody has been approached about their interest in owning such a venue, Suthers added.

“We need to see what the feasibility study says, what type of private financing it would take and what kind of return on investment there might be,” he said.

Suthers reiterated what he and several City Council members have said several times: Voters would have a say if local public funding is needed for the facility.

Bob Cope, of the city’s Economic Vitality Division and City for Champions project manager, said a feasibility study likely would recommend possible ownership entities for the facility and offer examples of privately owned and financed venues.

And while the original City for Champions proposal contained financial information and other details suggesting the sports and events center was a viable project, the feasibility study is expected to go further – providing a “very detailed, actionable business plan” when it comes to its funding and potential uses, Cope said.

In summer 2013, the city applied for funds under Colorado’s Regional Tourism Act to help finance City for Champions and several public improvements, which carried a combined price tag of $250 million. In December 2013, the state EDC awarded $120.5 million over 30 years – money from a portion of future sales tax revenue generated by the spending of tourists who come to visit the City for Champions venues.

But would an infusion of private money mean a reduction in the state’s commitment? Cope said no; private funding would reduce or eliminate the need for local public funding.