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Urban jewel still awaits makeover

Friends group holds out hope for City Aud, but progress is slow

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You hear a lot these days about the need to fix roads and drainage systems, or to build City for Champions. There's less talk about caring for an investment the city made 90 years ago in the City Auditorium.

Once grand, the building has fallen on hard times. Wooden chairs from the 1920s are disintegrating (and too narrow for modern derrières). A cooling system that trapped night air indoors is unusable. The heating system is ancient. The ceiling in the main auditorium is a maze of patches and continues to crumble. The bathrooms are inadequate.

The aging Aud could use other help as well, but a group of concerned citizens says that if these major needs were addressed, the rest could wait.

Fixing those aforementioned basics would cost around $1.7 million. Some of that could even come from grants or private donations if the city were willing to pony up the rest and help draw attention to the issue, says Bob Jordan, president of the Friends of the Historic Colorado Springs City Auditorium.

The city has spent money on the Aud recently. In 2013, the Streetscapes program, funded by the city's parking meters and parking garages, spent about $500,000 improving the building's curb appeal. The city also recently spent $14,000 repaving its alleyway, and it spends about $7,000 a year on maintenance.

Additionally, Karen Palus, the city's director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, tells the Independent in an email, the city has approved $300,000 in general fund money to renovate the building's restrooms — a first step in the Friends' plan — and is seeking a contractor. The parks department has also applied for a State Historic Fund Grant to replace some of the seating, which would be a second step in the plan. However, the city has turned down similar grants in the past — once in 2003, because of the "restrictive nature of the covenants," and once in 2006 because the city was considering selling the Aud.

There were other plans for the Aud, too. In 2007, Compass Facility Management Inc., produced a restoration plan, commissioned by Council and the Downtown Partnership, that was estimated to cost $15 million. Council found the price too high.

In 2012, Mayor Steve Bach put out an RFP seeking private companies that would repair the facility in exchange for operating it. No attractive proposal emerged.

Despite the problems, the Aud hosted 419 events last year in its two theater spaces. Rental prices varied. The Paul Mitchell School graduation, hosted in the small Lon Chaney theater on July 11, cost $220. A quinceañera hosted July 5 in the main hall cost $2,800.

The Friends group recently toured city councilors Jan Martin, Jill Gaebler and Merv Bennett through the facility, leading them through dark passageways and sharing stories. There's the ghost of the former caretaker who is said to haunt his crumbling on-site apartment, for example, and the underground passageway that once connected the Aud to City Hall — supposedly used by politicians who wanted lunchtime drinks.

It was Bennett's first trip to the Aud, and the retired YMCA CEO wondered aloud if an upgraded HVAC system would pay for itself. Martin chimed in, saying simple moves, perhaps paid for over a period of years, could attract bigger acts that might help financially.

Gaebler, too, wanted to help. Standing in the main hall, listening to the historic organ, she said the city can't give up on the Aud: "There's just too much history."

stanley@csindy.com

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