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How to build a convention center



Let's see -- just when did the business community begin to push for a publicly financed downtown convention center? Maybe in the late '50s, early '60s -- whatever. It scarcely matters. What's interesting about this year's attempt to get the taxpayers to cough up cash is how closely it parallels half a dozen similar efforts since the early '70s.

In 30 years, the story has never changed. A convention center is:

absolutely essential for continued economic growth and prosperity;

key to downtown revival;

a sine qua non for the visitor industry;

a powerful economic generator that will create hundreds, even thousands of jobs;

and a necessity for every city in today's hyper-competitive environment.

And, thanks to creative financing, it really won't cost local taxpayers a dime! In fact ... it'll make money!

For a third of a century, Colorado Springs voters -- those tightfisted, shortsighted, self-interested troglodytes! -- have resisted the blandishments of the power players. When it comes to spending public dollars on a convention center, we've been agin' it, by a margin of 3 to 1 or so.

Summarizing the arguments against:

Why bother? We've been one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous cities in the country without a convention center.

And if the visitor industry is in such trouble, why have we built thousands of hotel rooms over the years?

Downtown revival? Looks like downtown done got revived all by itself -- lofts, clubs, restaurants, office buildings. And besides, what's so great about a convention center in the middle of downtown, anyway? It'll just be a big, windowless hulk of a building, surrounded by loading docks and flat parking -- not exactly a cozy, picturesque addition to downtown.

And just what kind of jobs are going to be created, anyway? Aren't we talking low-wage, low-skill service jobs? Doesn't McDonald's generate of lot of those without a nickel in city subsidies?

It'll pay for itself? It won't cost us taxpayers a dime? It'll even make money? Hey, I was born in the morning, but it wasn't yesterday morning. Besides, if it's such a good deal, why doesn't the private sector build it?

Given the strength of the arguments against building a convention center with public funds, will we ever do so? I'll make you a little bet: Although the voters will never approve public funding for such a venture, it'll be built anyway. And moreover, most of the dollars will come from the public sector. Here's one scenario.

According to the ever-enterprising Doug Stimple of Classic Homes, it will cost $130 million to build a convention center and an adjacent 400-room hotel. Private developers will cough up some of it, but the city'll need a few million annually to finance the rest. Root through the city budget, and here's where you can scam off the bucks:

The parking system generates $2.8 million annually. It only costs about $1.8 million to operate; the rest gets spent on downtown improvements. Forget that stuff! Scam subtotal: $1 million a year!

Utilities generates hundreds of millions in annual revenues. Council can just tell them to build the water/gas/electric/wastewater infrastructure for free. The citizens'll never notice -- the next rate increase will just be a few pennies higher, that's all. Scam subtotal: $5 million!

And while we're at it, the city can pay for the rest of the infrastructure -- roads, streetlights, access ramps -- by simply diverting a few dollars from public works/capital improvements budgets. Scam subtotal: $3 million!

Finally, the big kahuna -- the bed and car tax! You may not know that the city collects a nifty $3.2 million annually from taxing auto rentals and hotel rooms. And you also may not know that the city only keeps a million bucks, handing over the rest to the visitor industry's trade association -- the so-called Convention & Visitor's Bureau. Looks as if we've hit the jackpot! Scam subtotal: $2 million annually!

Friends, we're over the top! That $3 million annually from the city, plus $8 million in one-time infrastructure payments, combined with a few hundred grand annually from downtown merchants will just about do the deal. Lock it down by pledging any tax revenues we might get from the center to help pay off that multimillion dollar bond issue, and we'll be about ready to break ground.

And suppose the citizens don't want to borrow $100 million or so, and tie up millions in city revenues for a couple of decades? Too bad -- the city will just issue Certificates of Participation, just as the county did to finance the jail/courthouse. Technically, it's not long-term debt, so quit yer whinin'!

Growth, progress, prosperity -- far too important to be left to the voters!!!


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