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World Arena eyes Center takeover

El Pomar deal draws criticism, praise


The El Pomar Foundation-controlled World Arena is hoping to take over the Pikes Peak Center.
  • The El Pomar Foundation-controlled World Arena is hoping to take over the Pikes Peak Center.

Twenty-three years ago this summer, Colorado Springs and El Paso County celebrated the long-anticipated opening of the Pikes Peak Center, a then-breathtakingly modern theater/performing arts facility.

The facility, downtown on Cascade Avenue, had cost $13 million to erect. At the time, backers of the project noted with pride the cost was a fraction compared to similar buildings in other cities.

The community leaders who first imagined the Center had a single primary goal: a new home for the long-established Colorado Springs Symphony. To make their dream a reality, they devised an ingenious financing scheme, an unprecedented private/public partnership.

The building was funded by a multimillion-dollar federal grant, by private donations and by contributions from the city and county. It was a complex deal, calling for voter approval as well as an extensive fund-raising campaign.

It succeeded, thanks primarily to a $4 million grant from the El Pomar Foundation.

Since opening, the Pikes Peak Center has been owned and operated by El Paso County. All of the Center's 10 permanent workers are county employees, with an average tenure of 15 years.

Apparently, they've done a pretty good job, but as of Sept. 1, all of them will lose their jobs.

That's because, after 24 years as a county enterprise, the Pikes Peak Center is being transferred to the Colorado Springs World Arena, via a long-term lease at $1 a year.

'We're in a drastic situation'

County Administrator Terry Harris says the county can't afford to keep the building. "We're in a drastic situation regarding county buildings," he said. "We have deferred maintenance. ... There won't be any maintenance dollars for the Pikes Peak Center for the next 10 to 20 years."

Enter the World Arena, built in 1997 thanks to a financing plan similar to that conceived for the Pikes Peak Center. But at the time the Arena was built, there were no federal dollars available. And so, of the Arena's $54 million cost, the city and county contributed $9 million in infrastructure improvements, Arena backers raised $16 million in private donations and El Pomar kicked in the rest -- $29 million, by far the biggest single gift in its philanthropic history.

Unlike the Pikes Peak Center, the World Arena is not a publicly owned facility. It is a nonprofit corporation, controlled by a self-perpetuating board of directors.

Included on the 20-member board, as of Dec. 31, 2002, were one city staff member (Parks Director Paul Butcher) and one county commissioner (Chuck Brown). Of the remaining 18 individuals on the board, eight were El Pomar employees or trustees and four others had strong ties to El Pomar -- including longtime ally and local attorney Peter Susemihl and others who head organizations that have received El Pomar grants, including Jim Warsinske, Barbara Yalich and Dave Ogrean.

Susemihl, who is the chairman of the Arena, says that a year ago, the El Pomar Foundation, concerned about the Pikes Peak Center's precarious financial position, asked the World Arena to investigate taking over the Center a year ago. The question: Can the World Arena achieve significant operational savings by taking over the Pikes Peak Center? The answer: yes, by "eliminating duplicate staffing, by consolidating ticket sales, and by bringing in more bookings."

Finalized next week

On July 1, representatives from El Pomar and the World Arena approached the five-member Board of County Commissioners and offered to take over the Pikes Peak Center in exchange for $1 a year and $500,000 toward deferred maintenance. In exchange El Pomar offered to contribute $2 million for necessary improvements.

The arrangement is expected to be formalized next week, however the four commissioners present all expressed support. However, Susan Greene, manager of the Pikes Peak Philharmonic -- successor to the Colorado Springs Symphony -- warned that escalating rents at the Center would doom the Philharmonic. She expressed concern that the orchestra would no longer be able to afford to rent the hall for rehearsals, and noted there is no other stage in the city large enough to accommodate a full symphony orchestra.

At the meeting, Mary Mashburn, director of the local Imagination Celebration, expressed similar concerns, and expressed dismay at the fact that the Center experienced staff would lose their jobs under the arrangement.

"The staff is very, very important," Mashburn said. "This is a bit of a shock."

Susemihl, however, noted that "our goal here is to meet the expectations of the nonprofit community."

For the employees who stand to lose their jobs, those words rang hollow. Several employees, who refused to have their names used out of fear of retribution, expressed concern over how, under the proposed arrangement, the Center would operate.

"There's a big difference between hockey games and monster trucks and putting on plays and symphony concerts," one employee said.

Administrator Harris noted that the fired employees would receive accumulated sick time and vacation pay, but, other than the possibility of being rehired by the World Arena, that's it. "We can't tell a private company who to hire," Harris said.

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