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AFA picks visitor center site



The new Air Force Academy visitors center will sit outside the north gate west of Interstate 25, atop a hill overlooking the campus, and will be built by a private partner, academy officials told the Independent on Monday.

While the land is owned by the academy, the building will serve as a gateway to the city, too, says Carlos Cruz-Gonzalez, deputy director for installations. He notes that Academy and Air Force officials have signed off on the site.

The project is one of four in the City for Champions tourism initiative, the others being a downtown stadium and Olympic museum and a sports medicine complex at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

A study started in November led to the choice, based on a financial analysis and intangible benefits such as security, access, visibility and opportunity for expansion. Cruz-Gonzalez says that if something causes the academy to close, the visitors center could stay open because it will lie outside the gate.

As academy director of communications Dave Cannon (pictured right) says, "We hope to draw in pre-9/11 attendance." Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the academy drew more than 800,000 people a year. Due to tightened security, that number has fallen. In 2013, 440,000 visited, he says.

All displays in the current center, located south of the Academy Chapel deep into school grounds, will be updated and moved to the new facility, Cannon says. Features will include flight simulators, a 250-seat theater, a conference room, a mock-up of a cadet's room, displays for cadet sports, and an outdoor viewing area.

That viewing platform will afford views of Falcon Stadium's press box (though not the stadium itself), as well as the chapel and academic buildings, and will lie beneath the air field's flight path.

The first step is an environmental study that will take six months, Cruz-Gonzalez says. Then the academy will draft a request for proposals to build the facility — meaning the Air Force will not fund the project.

Cannon and Cruz-Gonzalez say the vendor might propose additional revenue-generating features, such as shuttle tours, a food operation, or even accompanying office space to be rented. "It comes down to how creative these private parties are," Cruz-Gonzalez says.

Cannon says the center could be open for business in about five years. The current center eventually will be used as a museum for academy artifacts.

On a related note, Olympic museum backers announced last week they have reached a deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee for housing memorabilia and building a Hall of Fame, clearing the way to begin raising $70 million in donations.

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