Bonds issued for new Air Force Academy visitors center
The Gazette February 1, 2022
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Bonds to finance construction of a new Air Force Academy Visitor Center and an adjacent hotel were sold Monday, allowing construction to begin on the 57-acre project within two months, city officials said.
The $325 million sale by RBC Capital Markets is a key milestone in the final and most expensive of five City for Champions projects funded, in part, by state sales tax rebates and intended to boost tourism. The others — the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Weidner Field and Ed Robson Arena — opened in the past 1 1/2 years.
"If you look back, we have been working on this (initiative) for more than eight years. The RTA (Regional Tourism Act) funds were awarded in 2013," said Bob Cope, who as Colorado Springs economic development officer has been involved with all five projects since the City for Champions initiative began. "You could say that the city has run the table on the City for Champions initiative."
Colorado Springs-based Blue & Silver Development Partners issued $90 million in bonds for construction of the visitors center, roads and utility lines and Baton Rouge, La.-based Provident Resources Group issued $235 million for the 375-room hotel, roads and utility lines. Construction on roads and utilities is expected to start by April and work on buildings within five months. Both projects will be built on a site just outside of the academy's north gate and are expected to open in early 2024.
"With the sale of these bonds and the money in the bank, the vision of City for Champions, which I inherited when I was elected in 2015, has been completely realized," Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said Monday. "This one (the visitors center and the hotel) was the toughest, but they are going happen. I wanted to make it come about and it is something I feel good about."
The sale had been delayed by nearly two years by the COVID-19 pandemic — the bonds were scheduled to be sold in March 2020, but the nation's bond markets collapsed after officials across the nation declared a state of emergency and imposed stay-at-home orders. While the bond markets quickly recovered, investors' appetite for hotel- and tourism-related projects took much longer to bounce back. Those delays increased the cost of the project by $40 million.
The bonds for the visitors center had to be sold by Feb. 28 under a deadline extension approved in January by the Colorado Economic Development Commission. The project must be completed by Feb. 16, 2024, more than a decade after the commission approved $120.5 million in state sales tax rebates for the five City for Champions projects sought by former Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach.
"That $120.5 million has been leveraged into investments that total multiple times that amount — more than $500 million — that people will enjoy for decades," Cope said.
The new visitor center, designed to look like a wing in flight, will replace the current center just west of the academy's iconic chapel. That center attracted more visitors than any other man-made tourist venue in Colorado, but visitor numbers declined when new rules to enter the academy were adopted after 9/11. Cope estimates the new center could attract up to 1 million visitors annually.
The bonds will be repaid from state sales tax rebates, as well as rebates of city and county sales and property taxes, as well as property taxes from Academy School District 20 and the Pikes Peak Library District collected from businesses on the visitor center site. The city annexed the 57-acre site to enable the rebates, which are based on revenue generated by the center, hotel, an office complex and restaurants planned there.
Blue & Silver, headed by Dan Schnepf, a founder partner of Matrix Design Group of Colorado Springs, will develop the visitor center. Provident, a nonprofit that specializes in housing, health care and education facilities, will develop the hotel, conference center and other projects on the rest of the site, which will be called True North Commons. The entire campus is expected to provide jobs for about 900 people.
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