One of my stops along the way, from 2003 into 2005, was a place that most outsiders looked upon with something less than respect.
Sure, it was easy for people who didn't know better to snub Amarillo, the Texas Panhandle city regarded by travelers and truckers as a windy pit stop. If the breeze comes out of a certain direction, the aroma of cattle feed lots will severely test your gag reflex.
But when you live there, Amarillo and its people grab you. The nearby scenery, Palo Duro Canyon in particular, is a well-kept secret treasure. In many ways, the metro area (about 230,000 then, closer to 250,000 now) reminded us of Colorado Springs in the 1970s, back when there was only one mall and you could get anywhere in 10 or 15 minutes.
Something else about Amarillo stood out then, and still does. The thought came to mind as it struck me how negative we've become in recent years about Colorado Springs' future. We've had some dream-oriented efforts, but little constructive talk about what we realistically need to reach the next level. In other words, what's necessary to bolster a city moving toward 500,000 residents and a county of 800,000, with a market area closer to 1 million?
Granted, some shortcomings are tied up in government bumbling, like the Interstate 25 interchange at Cimarron Street (U.S. 24) that has been listed as a top priority for almost 40 years now. But we should discuss seriously about what else we lack — and Amarillo has had since 1964.
We're talking about a convention center. Or, as it's known in Amarillo, a civic center. That's appropriate because the facility there handles much more than conventions. It's a mecca for community events, large and small.
Colorado Springs has nothing like it. Nothing close. We're about to lose the Phil Long Expo Center out north, next to Chapel Hills Mall. It will become a church, taking away the Springs' largest multi-use venue — at 92,000 square feet.
By comparison, the Amarillo Civic Center (amarillociviccenter.com) offers exhibit halls and meeting rooms that can be partitioned, an auditorium, an indoor banquet-type plaza and even a small coliseum, adding up to, ahem, 340,000 square feet. Across the street, there's a performing-arts center comparable to our Pikes Peak Center. Parking is abundant (and free), allowing for up to a handful of events, and thousands of people, at any given time.
What kinds of events, you ask? Everything imaginable, from parties and receptions to art shows, political assemblies and religious gatherings — not to mention large-scale conventions and trade shows that Colorado Springs hasn't been capable of hosting.
Don't take my word for it. Nathan Newbrough, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, was executive director of the Amarillo Symphony from 2004 to 2008. He calls the Amarillo Civic Center "an immense resource for the city, built on a once-undesirable parcel of land at the edge of downtown.
"With a little support from City Hall, the Civic Center presents shows large and small: meetings and conferences, elegant fundraising dinners, symphony concerts, ballet productions, fully-staged opera, rodeos, hockey and even monster truck rallies. There's really nothing that compares with symphony musicians sharing dressing rooms with bodybuilders in costume — but hey, that's part of its charm."
Obviously, this subject has come up before in Colorado Springs. We have at least two potential sites, either a cleared-out renewal area south of downtown, or space adjacent to the Colorado Springs World Arena. If the location could be secured easily and cheaply, actual construction wouldn't have to be that daunting — you're basically creating large open spaces with convenient access, high ceilings, good lighting and technology.
Don't tell me it's impossible. It could happen, much faster than you might think, especially now as we change to a strong-mayor government. All we need is for that mayor to label it urgent, direct staff to pursue possible solutions such as a public-private partnership, push it through City Council and go from there. For that matter, it could become a campaign issue, as candidates talk about how to make Colorado Springs a better place.
There's no doubt, a civic/convention center would do just that.