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RTA: Unique enough to compete?

In Pueblo, ‘RTA’ – the Regional Tourism Act, which aims to fund unique projects around Colorado that will draw a significant number of out-of-state visitors – has become synonymous with the Pueblo Convention Center expansion because of the number of tourists it is expected to draw in. But what sold the state on funding the project is not what the city believes will be the big tourism draw.

It was the Professional Bull Riders University that caught the state’s attention. But it often takes a conversational backseat. At city council meetings or in passing discussion with government officials RTA is almost always shorthand for the convention center expansion. An early email concerning the RTA project from former Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority Executive Director Michael Tedesco to city officials said the RTA was tailored to the “convention center expansion” project.

With other cities winning RTA funding for tourism projects – Pueblo was the first in 2012 – that have similar elements there is a question of what makes a project one-of-a-kind.

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PBR University and Pueblo Convention Center Expansion, Pueblo Dubbed the ‘convention center expansion’ the project will include a space for PBR to conduct trainings, a splash park and competitive-size pools for sporting events.

Each project must be “of an extraordinary and unique nature and is reasonably anticipated to contribute significantly to economic development  and tourism in the state and the communities where the project is located,” according to the act’s wording.

Pueblo’s RTA project will include a splash park and competitive-sized pools in addition to the PBR University and the expansion, which will increase the convention center’s size by 35,000 square-feet.

Two of the three features in Pueblo’s RTA project, will also be features of a Northern Colorado tourism project from a Larimer County-based organization called Go NoCo.

The Go NoCo project was approved $332 million from the state in November.

When completed, the Northern Colorado RTA project will include a hotel resort and attached conference center in Windsor, a film center in Estes Park and a water park in Loveland. Projections estimate the whole project will attract more than 8.5 million out-of-state visitors each year.

So what keeps projects that have similar components from competing against each other? Simply put, the discretion of the Colorado Economic Development Commission.

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Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Convention Center, Aurora The 1.9 million square-foot facility will be the state’s biggest hotel. The project has raised concerns from many Northern Colorado hotels that believe Gaylord will have an unfair advantage in attracting tourists. The project also includes an attached water park.

“Beyond (the) language in the statute there is no specific definition of what constitutes extraordinary and unique, but the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in its recommendations to the Economic Development Commission makes an assessment of how unique and extraordinary projects are by looking at competing facilities around the state of Colorado, the United States and to some degree around the world,” said OEDIT spokeswoman Holly Shrewsberry.

While there isn’t really any uniqueness in terms of the conference centers, Shrewsberry admitted, it is the other aspects of the projects such as the film center, or in Pueblo’s case the Professional Bull Riding University, that sets the tone for the extraordinary.

Pueblo government and tourism officials aren’t put off by the decision-making process and don’t see competition between the two venues.

“Price is what is going to keep people from going to straight to Denver,” said Rod Slyhoff, CEO and president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.

Windsor conference center
The PeliGrande Resort and Windsor Conference Center, Windsor This portion of the Go NoCo project will feature a white water park and conference center. The ‘unique and extraordinary’ portion of the project is the film center which will be built in Estes Park.

Slyhoff said Pueblo would also be competing for a different size conference. Pueblo’s expanded convention center hopes to cater more to ameteur athletic events with a bigger space and competitive-sized pools and smaller conventions that may not be able to afford a space in Denver, but require more than what Pueblo offers now.

“There’s no silver bullet in this and there wasn’t when we applied for it (the RTA grant). We think that in the southern part of the state, the size of our conference center and what we’re building into it will bring in people for something unique,” Slyhoff said.

Ironically, the element of the Pueblo project that landed the grant isn’t expected by the city to bring in the most visitors. The city estimates the PBR training facility will attract around 30,000 out-of-state visitors whereas the convention center will attract 40,000, and the aquatic venue will attract 60,000 visitors.

But those numbers are overly optimistic according to a third party analysis from Economics & Planning Systems, Inc. They predict the convention center will bring in 11,250 visitors a year, PBR University will attract 30,000 visitors a year and the aquatic part will only attract 7,500 visitors a year.

Slyhoff said he does have some reservations about what is considered unique — seeing as there isn’t a standard — about the Go NoCo project in terms of amenities in other parts of the state.

For example, the Go NoCo project may include a kayaking course as a part of their splash park. Pueblo already has that, Slyhoff said. Another feature of the Go NoCo project is attracting PGA tournaments. In the early 2000s, Pueblo was able to attract a major amateur women’s golf tournament, he added. Though, it was not the size of what Windsor is hoping to get.

“I guess in all fairness, to somebody who doesn’t live in those four cities that make up the Northern Colorado proposal, it doesn’t it seem like those things are unique, but for them there isn’t anything like that,” Slyhoff went on to say.

“It’s bothersome, but we’re approved and we’re moving through the process and we’ll be open and ready for business. I’m real optimistic.”

Pueblo’s RTA project was the first approved alongside the Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Convention Center in Aurora. The Gaylord project has met harsh criticism from Denver officials who believe it will compete with downtown Denver meeting venues.

Though the PBR University convinced the state, it was the city that had to convince PBR.

Originally, PBR was planning to build the training center on its own, adjacent to its building near Victoria Ave., according to a city official involved in the early planning stages of RTA who requested to be unnamed.

At the time the RTA application was being considered, management at PBR was in the midst of change and the plan was put on hold. The PBR training facility, which will be constructed in the first phase of the project, was absorbed into the RTA application.

A letter of support from PBR for the RTA project was required for the application, but the city official said PBR was unwilling to write the letter, though it isn’t clear why.

“We just knew we needed to get a letter of support into our application,” the official said. “I asked if I wrote the letter would they let us (the city) use it.”

PBR agreed and approved the letter the city official wrote. It landed the city funding for the three-phase project.

“Price is what is going to keep people from going to straight to Denver.” – Rod Slyhoff, CEO and president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.

“They were seen as the sexy part of this whole thing,” the official said, but added that it’s concerning how little has been heard from PBR about the project since 2012.

City Council member at-large Chris Nicoll and council president Steve Nawrocki said there should be no worry about the future of the convention center and its competitiveness with other cities or what is deemed unique and extraordinary.

“We heard from the opposition that convention centers weren’t profitable,” Nicoll said. “But other cities building them says otherwise.”

The Pueblo Convention Center loses around $400,000 annually and it’s unknown what the current economic impact is, though a study is due in February with those numbers.

“We’ve been working on this with the state, and it all seems to be fine,” Nawrocki said.

PURA is facilitating the project, which received $14.4 million from the half-cent sales tax earlier this year after the city could not find a developer for the project.

Jerry Pacheco, PURA’s new director and former city manager, could not be reached for comment on this story.

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Written by Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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