By: Rich Laden
January 8, 2018
Colorado Springs City Council members left the door open Monday to an ambitious proposal to build a roughly 10,000-seat downtown sports and event center in city-owned Antlers Park, saying they’ll explore legal ramifications of the plan as a prelude to perhaps studying it in greater detail.
Council members face a key deadline late this year. Unless the city launches work on a sports and event center by mid-December, it risks forfeiting nearly $28 million that the state had set aside for the project.
“Boy, I’d hate to lose this opportunity,” said Council President Richard Skorman, adding he still wants to know more about funding, parking and traffic concerns before he’d support the proposal.
The biggest question, however, might be whether Springs officials could legally allow the venue in Antlers Park. The City Attorney’s Office says a sports and event center would violate restrictions on public use of the park, which a company controlled by Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer dedicated to the city in 1882 – an opinion disputed by proponents of the Antlers Park proposal.
The City Council probably will hold a special, closed-door session within the next two weeks to hear more legal advice from the Attorney’s Office, Skorman said.
“Time is of the essence in this thing,” he said. “We don’t want to jeopardize the whole project because we are mired in too many delays. So, let’s get a decision.”
The sports and event center is one of four City for Champions projects proposed by city, business and civic leaders to attract tourists. The Colorado Economic Development Commission agreed in December 2013 to award up to $120.5 million in state money over 30 years to support City for Champions, including $27.7 million for the sports and event center. As a condition of receiving the money, the state gave the city five years to “commence substantial work” on each project.
A U.S. Olympic Museum, an Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine and performance center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs are moving forward.
But the sports and event center, with an original price tag of $92.7 million, is stalled. A consultant’s study last year said the venue had a $28 million funding shortfall; Mayor John Suthers and several council members opposed asking the public to make up the difference – leaving the project in doubt.
Months ago, Springs attorney and hotelier Perry Sanders Jr. and Ed and Nick Ragain, father-and-son owners of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks minor league soccer team, pitched their idea to save the sports and event center. They proposed building it in the 3.3-acre Antlers Park, northeast of Sierra Madre Street and Colorado Avenue and immediately west of The Antlers hotel, which Sanders and a partner own.
During a nearly two-hour City Council workshop session Monday, Sanders and the Ragains laid out details of their proposal.
Sanders, whose downtown holdings also include The Mining Exchange hotel and The Famous steakhouse, said Antlers Park has become a hangout for transients who’ve trashed the park and used it as a public outhouse. A sports and event center would clean up the park, create an amenity that would help attract tourists to the nearby Olympic Museum and allow the city to hold on to its state funding.
Sanders and the Ragains envision an 8,000- to 9,000-seat outdoor stadium for the Switchbacks – who’d lease the venue – along with other sports and concerts, among other activities. A 2,000-seat indoor event center, to be constructed as a separate building adjacent to the stadium’s west or south sides, could play host to sports such as basketball and volleyball.
The stadium might cost around $15 million, Sanders said, while the event center cost is to be determined. In addition to state funds, the city’s Lodging and Auto Rental Tax could be tapped to help fund the project, he said. Sanders also said he’d donate use of The Antlers hotel’s loading dock, which he estimates would be worth $5 million, and make parking available in the hotel garage.
“The City Council, as trustees for the citizens, should make a thumbs up or a thumbs down vote about whether Antlers Park should remain a place full of danger, used needles, feces and garbage or become something that the citizens can enjoy on a daily and nightly basis in a safe environment,” he said.
Even though the city attorney has said the park’s use is restricted, Sanders and Nick Ragain said the city in 1951 and 1964 sold portions for private use. Those sites are now home to the Wells Fargo Tower and a day care center.
Their sale shows the park’s use isn’t “sacrosanct,” Sanders said.
Unlike the city’s sale of those parcels for private use, their proposal calls for Antlers Park to remain city owned and available for the public in keeping with Palmer’s original intent, they said.
City Attorney Wynetta Massey told council members Monday they can decide whether to follow her opinion. At the same time, Jeff Greene, Suthers’ chief of staff, said the City Council – not the mayor – has the authority to determine if the park could be used for the sports and event center.
But does Suthers support Antlers Park as a home for the sports and event center? He hasn’t decided, and is waiting for a full project proposal, Greene said.
As the City Council explores legal questions, the sports and event center location in Antlers Park is being opposed by the Colorado Springs Company, a local nonprofit. The company says it’s the heir to Gen. Palmer’s original development company that donated the park to the city.
Matthew Driftmier, the organization’s executive director and one of its three board members, said the group doesn’t object to the sports and event center – only its location in Antlers Park, which would violate deed and plat restrictions on the property.
The Colorado Springs Company apparently didn’t object years ago to the city’s past sales of Antlers Park property.
“Just because there have been mistakes made in the past, that doesn’t justify any mistakes in the present,” Driftmier said. Today’s board would have rejected such sales, he added.