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Jeff Katofsky, Owner of the Orem Owlz announces the minor league team will relocate to Pueblo, Colo on June 20, 2018. After difficulties working with the City of Pueblo, the owner pulled the deal in late July. (PULP Photo)

Reporter’s Notebook: When Pueblo Strikes Out

When I read the July 23 press release from Pueblo County, I thought of being at a baseball game where I imagined supporters of the team jeering and opponents of the team cheering.

The press release reads in part, “…we have come to the sad conclusion that we need to cease work on the YES project.”

Mighty Casey, or I should say the press release’s authors – YES backers, county Commissioners Sal Pace and Terry Hart – had struck out.

When I read the release, I was in midst of putting my finishing touches on a feature story I was writing about the YES project, which was to include a $25 million, 2,800-seat, multi-use baseball stadium that would also be home to minor league Owlz, which were to be relocated from Orem, Utah. And the project included using voter-approved 1A funding to expand the Runyon Field Sports Complex by adding six ballfields at a cost of $8 million.

By the way, the July 23 press release does say the county would still use voter-approved 1A funding for the Runyon complex expansion, along with expanding the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo at a cost of $3 million and Main Street improvements to cost $6 million – all were part of the YES project according to Commissioner Pace. The Runyon ballfields were critical to the plans of the Owlz owner and hotel developer, Jeff Katofsky, who had told me the Runyon complex expansion was a major reason for him relocating his team to Pueblo.

A tiff over TIF

Katofsky was also to spend $50 million to build three hotels, which through tax increment financing, or TIF, would help pay for the proposed stadium.

Now we all know that the YES project had its opponents from the start. Commissioner Garrison Ortiz didn’t think county money should be used to pay for the baseball stadium. He told me the county’s proposed TIF district, which, according to Commissioner Pace, was to include the baseball stadium and the three hotels, would only generate about $600,000 in tax revenue annually. (Figures I had heard from my other sources varied between $600,000 and $800,000 a year.) Ortiz projects the stadium would have cost the county $2.1 million yearly for 25 years to pay back the municipal bonds the county would have to take out to have the stadium built. With the TIF district revenue figured in, Ortiz believed the county would have to find a way to pay for the remaining $1.5 million each year.

Ortiz suggests that private money be used to build the baseball stadium like what was done in Colorado Springs for the Sky Sox stadium. “When you’re dealing with public money, that’s another story,” he says.

There was disagreement with that number, Pueblo City Councilman Dennis Flores, a proponent of the YES project, who told me the baseball stadium would have generated enough TIF revenue to pay for itself, never mind the hotels.

I also spoke to another Ortiz, who was also not a fan of the YES project. Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert Ortiz, an elected official, took it upon himself to speak on behalf of county employees telling me that they are underpaid compared with employees of other counties Pueblo’s size in Colorado. He also says Pueblo West residents have wanted a county clerk and recorder satellite office, which he says the county cannot afford.

The hotels

Yet bickering between the two sides aside, I had planned to write a story of hope and anticipation for the YES project.

Katofsky spoke of the necessity of the three hotels he planned to build in Pueblo because the city had an 80 percent hotel occupancy rate, which he says is full by industry standards. He says not only the baseball stadium but the new Professional Bull Riders arena being attached to the convention center on Main Street would also be a source for guests at his hotels.

“We ain’t coming without hotels,” Katofsky told me.

The team was intending to have facilitators come to Pueblo from California to hold baseball camps for the city’s youth, and those facilitators would have also needed places to stay according to Councilmember Flores. The camps were expected to be held on the six new ballfields planned to be built at the Runyon complex.

Flores believes there are three reasons the YES project did not go smoothly. The first was a lack of communication between county and the city governments, and the city’s Urban Renewal Authority. Second, there was a lot of misinformation circulating among the public. And third, he says, is that there was a group of people actively trying to kill the stadium project from the beginning.

A stadium lost

Now the baseball stadium was supposed to be built on the west side of the Arkansas River by Lake Elizabeth. There was optimism for something grander for the downtown and the stadium would have been added to it. It would have been a place for families and that was one of the goals the team wanted to interject. Chris Markuson, the Director of Pueblo County Department of Economic Development & Geographic Information Systems eyes the family-friendly attraction to it all, “think kids playing there, while mom and dad are enjoying the game nearby. In the outfield, you’ll see a video scoreboard. One of the things that the team owner is really excited about is that a home run hit to left [field] – or right, I don’t remember – goes into the Riverwalk.”

He added, “We know the grass on the field will be [artificial] turf – not that horrible stuff you and I saw when we were kids – the stuff that you can’t even tell isn’t immaculately manicured, perfect grass.”
Markuson continued that the plan also had called for a memorabilia/team store on the Riverwalk, and possibly a restaurant that can be accessed both by those on the Riverwalk and by baseball fans.

“Of course, in the stadium, there will be a couple concession stands and beer sales booths,” Markuson told me, adding the stadium was to be laid out with spectators in mind.

Parking

Now with the ongoing Riverwalk expansion, Katofsky’s hotels, and the planned baseball stadium, people in Pueblo were wondering about parking for the roughly 3,000 fans that were expected to attend Owlz’ games – not to mention those attending the many other special events and activities going on in the city, particularly during the summer months. So I asked Katofsky about the problem. He told me he intended to have a parking plan drawn up that would have involved reconfiguring existing curbside parking spots downtown to fit more cars and “an old-fashioned trolley system” that would have shuttled fans to and from the stadium from various downtown locations.

A little history

What did Pueblo miss out on? Steve Downs, Orem’s deputy city manager, told me the city and the Orem Owlz have been on good terms since Katofsky brought the Owlz to Orem in 2004.

“We had some disagreements, but none of those ever escalated,” Downs told me of the partnership between the Owlz and Orem. “We expect to have the same relationship with the team … as we had in the past.”

He said prior to moving to Orem, the team was known as the Provo Angels from 2001 to 2004. Provo is roughly six miles south of Orem.

Downs said the city hasn’t been in touch with the team or Katofsky since the team owner announced they were moving to Pueblo. He said the town has liked the team, but it also understands the needs of Katofsky, who was supposed to have found more space in Pueblo to build.

The Owlz wanted to expand its facility in Orem to include ballfields for youth tournaments, but there is not enough room because, according to downs, the city of Orem is at a 96 to 97 percent buildout rate – bordered by mountains to the east and Lake Utah to the west. Land availability is among the key reasons Katofsky gave me for moving his team to Pueblo.

The ballpark in Orem has about a 5,000-seat capacity.

But Katofsky told me there are only 2,500 actual seats in the Orem stadium with the rest of the seating on the lawn. He had planned a similar arrangement for the Pueblo stadium. The Orem stadium is rarely filled to capacity, Downs says, with attendance averaging over 2,000 fans. The team set an attendance record with an overflowing crowd of 6,209 people back on July 24, 2013, when it had a fireworks display in commemoration of Pioneer Day, a state holiday in Utah.

Infrastructure, families with children, a fan base that is very much interested in baseball, and the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk are what made Pueblo a hit for Katofsky. It just so happened it was pop-up fly to centerfield – and just like that the Owlz were out.