Courtesy Air Force Academy
A rendering of the visitor center project and accompanying buildings.
True North Commons Urban Renewal Area, some 88 acres surrounding the entrance to the Air Force Academy, promises to trigger billions of dollars in economic development as well as millions in tax dollars.
But one City Councilor asserted the area is far from blighted as required by the state's urban renewal statute.
The economic predictions came from city economic development officer Bob Cope during his pitch at City Council's June 24 work session where he outlined why the city should allow the developer to use city tax money to develop the project under urban renewal status.
The plan, by Blue and Silver Development Partners
, calls for building a new visitors center, hotel, retail and office space as part of the city's City for Champions tourism venture being partially funded with state sales tax rebates. Other projects include a sports medicine venue at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, a downtown soccer stadium, a hockey arena on the Colorado College Campus and the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame under construction in the downtown area.
Cope said the city would contribute $23.5 million in tax money to the project but would reap $49.7 million in taxes over a 25-year period. Calling it a "legacy anchor tourism project," Cope said it would add $2.6 billion in economic activity locally over 25 years, and bring more than 1,000 construction jobs and a like number of permanent jobs.
But Councilor Don Knight shot down the idea, saying the land fails to meet the definition of blighted, as required by statute. He added it's not honest to pretend that it does.
Noting his 26 years in the Air Force, Knight said the service follows three core values: "Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do."
Noting the first tenet, he said, "I just don’t see how with any integrity we can stand up and say this is a menace. I just can’t do that. This does not constitute the definition of a blighted area."
Moreover, Knight noted that "new revenue" for the city has appeared as a "tagline" in Cope's presentations for "at least a half dozen projects" in the last year. He also said the city's gaining an average of $1 million a year from the project doesn't warrant allowing it to be called an urban renewal area so developers can seize tax money to fund development costs.
"The loss of this doesn't mean the city is going to be going hungry," he said. "We have a lot of other projects. There's so many things about this that bother me."
Courtesy Blue and Silver Development Partners
A concept development plan for the project.
The state statute at issue says this in defining what constitutes a candidate property for urban renewal:
(1) "Agricultural land" means any one parcel of land or any two or more contiguous parcels of land that, regardless of the uses for which the land has been zoned, has been classified by the county assessor as agricultural land for purposes of the levying and collection of property tax pursuant to sections 39-1-102 (1.6) (a) and 39-1-103 (5) (a), C.R.S., at any time during the five-year period prior to the date of adoption of an urban renewal plan or any modification of such a plan.
(2) "Blighted area" means an area that, in its present condition and use and, by reason of the presence of at least four of the following factors, substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the municipality, retards the provision of housing accommodations, or constitutes an economic or social liability, and is a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare:
(a) Slum, deteriorated, or deteriorating structures;
(b) Predominance of defective or inadequate street layout;
(c) Faulty lot layout in relation to size, adequacy, accessibility, or usefulness;
(d) Unsanitary or unsafe conditions;
(e) Deterioration of site or other improvements;
(f) Unusual topography or inadequate public improvements or utilities;
(g) Defective or unusual conditions of title rendering the title nonmarketable;
(h) The existence of conditions that endanger life or property by fire or other causes;
(i) Buildings that are unsafe or unhealthy for persons to live or work in because of building code violations, dilapidation, deterioration, defective design, physical construction, or faulty or inadequate facilities;
(j) Environmental contamination of buildings or property.
The mayor's Chief of Staff Jeff Greene asked Knight if he would oppose the urban renewal designation based on whether the land is a menace or not, and Knight said, "yes," noting if that's allowed, "You can take the most pristine forest anywhere in the state and declare it an urban renewal area."
Council President Richard Skorman backed the developer, saying the land may not fit the normal description of blight, "But I feel like we need to do everything we can to make this happen, because the value is potentially tremendous."
Not only will the visitors center attract more tourists, Skorman said, but the hotels will draw meetings and conferences. "We’re talking about trying to make this the space capital of the United States. I think this is a piece of it, and I can tell you the people I’ve talked to, the professors at the Academy are excited to have their conferences next to the Academy."
He added, "I don’t want to be too negative. Let’s find out if urban renewal is possible.
I think we have to go into this with an open mind."
The developer Dan Schnepf, himself an Academy grad, took umbrage at Knight's remarks.
"I am modestly offended if you think this is not an honorable development," Schnepf said. "If this was a project by which we were going to define the statute, I’d be right there with you. I’m responding to a statute put in place in 1958 and used hundreds of times. I’ve looked at those blighted elements, and we meet at least four, maybe more. But I do respect your opinion. That’s an argument to have at the statute level, not here on this project."
Councilor Wayne Williams, who's a lawyer, also backed the developer. "Do I wish the Legislature had used a word other than blight? Sure. Within the wording of the law, this fits the requirement."
Greene then reminded Council of Mayor John Suthers' stance on the proposal. "The administration is very proud of this project," Greene said. "The mayor is very proud of this project. He has advocated for this project. The city needs all the revenue it can generate."
Councilor David Geislinger said he, too, struggles with the definition of urban renewal area, and asked Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Area director Jariah Walker, "Assuming we’re saying this is urban renewal to bulldoze these 88 acres, how is that going to change, if at all, the understanding of Colorado Springs of your group, as to what urban renewal is, going forward?
There are areas that would qualify for blight. I would be concerned if the URA said we’re now going to be focusing on these projects rather than those areas of town that are truly blighted."
Walker vowed the URA would "absolutely focus on those areas," and is "not just interested in pushing north or northeast."
Greene promised to obtain a legal analysis of the statute for Council, although Knight said he based his remarks on City Attorney Wynetta Massey's briefing to Council at a previous recent work session.