At a late July "visioning session" with the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR), locals considered some big ideas: redesigns of Acacia Park, the renovation of City Auditorium, creation of a true alleyway arts district off Bijou Street downtown.
But Julian Heron delivered the morning's most ambitious concept: Picture a miniature Red Rocks Amphitheatre with an on-site brewery, carved into 28 acres of mountain on Manitou Springs' far west end. This "cultural arts center," an indoor/outdoor venue, could hold up to 4,500 guests, but could also scale down to capacities of 2,200; 1,200; 500 or even smaller, without feeling empty or cavernous.
What Heron tentatively refers to as the Manitou Springs Amphitheater Project would provide a place for "up-and-coming bands" and those with the drawing potential of, say, the String Cheese Incident or Carrie Underwood. It would double as a community gathering point, with donations of beer and/or event space to nonprofits, as well as military appreciation and interactive family nights built into the programming.
"There's a really good chance this may never happen," Heron said then, and affirms today. "If we don't get local investors, it will never happen. We can get the major investors after that point."
If it still sounds like fantasy, consider that Heron has a good track record as Craft Lager Festival president. And that he's already working with an entrenched concert pro and a capital fund-raiser. And that his voluminous, $12,000, six-month-long feasibility study looks about as promising as his gorgeously detailed, full-color renderings of the project.
Heron's confidence in landing big money traces to his cousin and project partner Kurt Forstmann, who as a self-employed consultant specializing in de-risking and project finance, cites having raised more than $200 million in institutional capital over the past five years.
But they need someone locally to front $50,000 for the initial phase of de-risking, followed by another infusion of around $380,000, then a final investment of around $700,000 to cover financing. That's about $1.1 million before Forstmann can bring in the big guys — who must see local support first — to the total tune of $26 million.
Other challenges will come from the city side. While the team has secured development rights via a Letter of Intent and a tentative agreement with the landowner, David Walton, new zoning will be required. And that's just one element at play.
"We would like a venue, but we're going to have to see a development plan first, of course," says Manitou Springs city finance director Mike Leslie. "And we've got a lot of things to consider, like local impact on the neighborhoods, traffic and the whole biz."
Heron has thought about all this. His feasibility study says cooperating with the Colorado Department of Transportation on U.S. Highway 24 "will determine our ultimate size and success." He imagines reversing off-ramp traffic during major events to increase exiting on-ramp flow, and also a separate roundabout taking eastbound travelers directly onto Manitou Avenue.
Leslie already acknowledges that Manitou would benefit from having a rental facility of this size for special events, and from the addition of 750 or so parking spaces in front of the brewery and amphitheater that, during non-event hours, others could use.
Hypothetically, should capital be raised and the proper public process yield a yes vote from Manitou City Council, Heron says the project would take between 18 months and two years to build. Leslie says the city likely would be involved in the venue in some capacity, at least with a parking share.
As for Heron, Leslie notes, "He's been successful with the Craft Lager Festival, for sure — we don't doubt his abilities."
The Craft Lager Festival grew by an average of 40 percent annually in its first nine years according to Heron, who was disappointed to see 2011's numbers actually drop by 25 percent, the first-ever decline. For the last nine months, Heron has focused solely on the festival and the amphitheater project; prior to that, he did private consulting and worked as a sales manager for a copier company.
The festival's well-being doesn't necessarily compromise the amphitheater's potential, but it was responsible for the project's genesis, as CLF board members a few years ago looked to one day outgrowing Memorial Park's capacity. Heron says they initially envisioned buying land to create a private park, which quickly led to the question: "If we're going to go through that, why not make it a real venue?"
They learned that most event venues' primary income is through alcohol sales, inspiring the idea for an on-site brewery, called High Angle Brewing Co., that could be another revenue stream.
Recent Brewers Association data says Colorado currently has one brewery per 42,620 people. Heron personally believes there's viable market potential for one brewery per 30,000. Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, says an appropriate number for a certain population depends on numerous factors, such as brewery size; he points to rare markets such as Durango, a town of roughly 10,000 that supports four breweries.
Currently, the Pikes Peak region offers about one brewery per 50,000 people (counting distributed-to places like Il Vicino and BJ's). On the west side, Heron notes, there's only Trinity Brewing Co. on Garden of the Gods Road and Woodland Park's BierWerks Brewery.
Fox and sound
As for the music, Heron and Forstmann have brought Brian Carp on as a consultant. Carp has been the general manager of Boulder's Fox Theatre for the past five years and became the COO of Z2 Entertainment when the Fox merged with the Boulder Theater to form that entity in 2010.
The Fox has a capacity of 625; Boulder, 1,000. Between the two venues in the next several months, fans will see the likes of Bob Schneider, Cold War Kids, Ziggy Marley, DeVotchKa and They Might Be Giants.
Does that mean that a Manitou amphitheater would draw on that level of talent?
"Those are definitely possibilities," says Carp, adding, "You wouldn't be reaching for the bands that would be playing Red Rocks, [but] you'd be reaching for the level just below that."
In a section of the feasibility study contributed by Carp, he writes, "Through my experience, knowledge and research, I have concluded that the Manitou Springs/Colorado Springs area is an under-utilized market in the live music industry. I have discussed this with several promoters and talent buyers in the industry and they concur that this under-utilized market can support a project of the scope proposed."
Carp says Denver-Boulder is "actually one of the more competitive markets in the country for live music. But I feel that the Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs area is far enough away from Denver that it's really kinda its own market."
So rather than being viewed as a competitor, Manitou's venue could be more of an ally to promoters like AEG, Nobody in Particular Presents and Denver's Swallow Hill Music Association, because of route booking. Heron explains that venues can split the costs of bringing bands to the area by booking additional shows in the region. Essentially, that's what Soda Jerk Presents often does, sending bands between either the Marquis Theatre or Summit Music Hall and the Black Sheep.
Say Heron, "It's a win-win for everybody."
At least that's the idea, and not a crazy one for an event company that's pro-risk.
"Our point is, if nobody tries, we'll always fail," Heron says. "We're a group that's willing to try."