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Showtime at the City Auditorium


Let's talk, once more, about the City Auditorium, but in a slightly different way than in weeks past.

Instead of painting the usual dispiriting picture -- the white hats, who want to preserve that noble old structure, vs. the black hats, who want to convert it to private use -- let's see whether we can figure out a way to solve the problem so that both sides get what they want.

Here's what public advocates want: a preserved and hopefully renovated city auditorium, which will continue to host hundreds of events a years, ranging cheerfully from antique shows to Willie Nelson, from the Metaphysical Fair to 50 Cent and Snoop Dog, from the Body Packaging show to the Rocky Mountain Cat Fanciers show.

In the last 12 months, the City Auditorium was in use more than 320 days, with more than 130,000 people attending events there. That's a lot of folks -- over twice as many as those who visited the Pioneers Museum, for example. Clearly, it's a popular, vibrant and successful venue.

And here's what adjacent property owners, led by developer Chris Jenkins, presumably want: a redeveloped city block, featuring apartments, lofts, street-level retail, maybe even a multi-screen cinema, and whatever else might make commercial sense. They see a block characterized by parking lots and a superannuated, essentially useless former bus station.

If all of the property owners would agree to pursue a so-called "urban blight" designation, then, by using tax-increment financing, it'd be both feasible and desirable to redevelop the block.

There's nothing wrong with Jenkins' vision. After all, it can be argued, the state created the blight designation mechanism specifically to deal with just such problems, realizing that it just isn't that easy to redevelop underused urban environments.

And if the deal didn't include transferring the City Auditorium to private use, we wouldn't be writing about it, since no one, other than the principal players, would much care one way or the other.

So is there a solution to the problem? After talking to scores of people over the last few weeks, I think that there is.

Let's assemble a group of suitably distinguished citizens to serve as the board of a new nonprofit, whose only purpose will be to acquire and operate the City Auditorium.

Under city management, the Auditorium currently barely breaks even. With a few changes, I'd bet that a private operator could move the facility into the black on short order. The board would be charged with negotiating an appropriate deal with the city, which would thereby be relieved of all responsibility for the building, its maintenance and its persistent deficits.

As part of the deal, the new owners of the Auditorium would join with Jenkins in redeveloping the block. The so-called "tax increment financing," which would be available to qualified projects/properties in the "blighted" area could be used to renovate and modernize the building, which has been sadly neglected over the years.

It may be mischievous to point this out, but, in its role as owner and steward of the City Auditorium, the city is right up there with Douglas Bruce in the Landlord's Hall of Shame.

As a senior city official pointed out to me, this would be the best possible solution. It's not enough just to prevent the sale of the Auditorium to private interests; we can probably do that, but then what? The city'll just let it molder for another five or 10 years, and then we'll just go through it all over again.

You can't blame Jenkins for wanting to buy the facility; the value and feasibility of his project is compromised by a deteriorating building that can be neither sold nor fixed up. And let's be realistic: Politically and fiscally, it's highly unlikely that fixing the Auditorium will ever be a municipal priority.

But if a nonprofit entity buys it, with appropriate safeguards all of these problems become soluble. Instead of a bitter, three-way standoff between the city, Jenkins, and preservationists, you'd have partners with mutual interests.

We'd see a scruffy block transformed, a municipal treasure revived, and a much-improved downtown.

And what's the alternative? Either the status quo, or an unconscionable transfer of a major civic building to private use. The former simply puts a lousy situation on hold indefinitely; the latter is shortsighted, politically perilous and simply wrong.

The City Auditorium, the Pioneers Museum and City Hall are the three finest public historic structures in the Pikes Peak region. All have been threatened, and two have been preserved for posterity. It's our time to step up to the plate, and preserve the third.

It's the bottom of the ninth, game seven ... let's not blow it.


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