COLORADO SPRINGS – A process toward possible annexation of 183 acres of Air Force Academy property near the North Gate took a small step forward Tuesday. City Council approved a series of ordinances allowing for the possibility of annexation, with a first vote on actual annexation likely to occur in two weeks.
If the property is annexed into the city, 57 of the acres will be developed as a new Air Force Academy visitors center and surrounding amenities dubbed ‘True North Commons.’ But councilors say a lot of questions need to be answered before they sign off on annexation.
Much of the uncertainty revolves around whether Urban Renewal Area designation should be assigned to the area to be developed. “By no stretch of the imagination is this a blighted area,” said Fran Silva-Blaney of Fountain Creek Water Sentinels, an issue team of the Sierra Club. “This is just pristine open space.”
“It does fit the criteria of urban renewal, but it doesn’t necessarily fit what people’s thoughts should be for that kind of financing,” said City Council President Richard Skorman. The Air Force Academy’s Director of Logistics, Engineering, and Force Protection, Carlos Cruz-Gonzales, explained to councilors that developers Blue & Silver Development Partners would require the Urban Renewal Area designation to move forward with the project. “Without the annexation and the Urban Renewal Area designation, Blue & Silver will not be able to complete the financing package that they are proposing for the project,” Cruz-Gonzales said.
Council member Yolanda Avila, whose district includes Colorado Springs’ southeast side, bristled that her district has been clamoring for Urban Renewal Area funds for years and that this URA designation would be applied to an already-prosperous part of the city. “It seems like a bait-and-switch,” Avila said. “We’re going to have a visitors center, but in reality we’re going to have a bunch of hotels and conference rooms for the Academy.”
Indeed, plans for True North Commons include a 300+ room high-end hotel, 1,000-person conference center, an indoor skydiving venue, office and retail space, and other amenities. “Let’s just honor the commitment we made — no tax dollars, a visitors center, and not bulldoze the rest of the pristine property to make the end justify the means,” said council member Bill Murray, who along with Avila, were the two dissenting votes against the ordinances.
The city’s economic development officer, Bob Cope, touted the projected economic benefits of the entire project. 1,700 construction jobs, 1,200 full-time jobs, 160,000 out-of-state visitors annually, and $2.6 billion in economic growth over 25 years. Additionally, the visitors center’s stylized design would become an instantly recognizable symbol for the city and region, just as the Cadet Chapel has become. “The project will create an iconic gateway for Colorado Springs,” said Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber & Economic Development Corporation. I think it’s so vital that we are pursuing this annexation so that we can create the ‘front porch’ of the Air Force Academy to present to the nation,” said Chamber & EDC board member Andrea Barker.
Council members agreed on the importance of a new visitors center and the value of USAFA to Colorado Springs and the region. “It is a part of our community. It is the reason so many people live here,” said President Pro-Tem Jill Gaebler. “It is part and parcel of who we are and it is part and parcel of our DNA since the 1950s,” said council member David Geisingler.