Editorial: Reset the RTA?

Pueblo’s RTA bid was always an odd duck. The “Heritage of Heroes” seemed little more than jumbled pieces on the Riverwalk — a Professional Bull Riders University, an aquatic park, the expansion of the Pueblo Convention Center and piecemeal odes to veterans. Now it’s stalled because the state wants a strong commitment from the bull riders.

A half-decade later, and what seemed like jumbled tourist pieces weren’t so jumbled after all.

Pueblo desperately wanted to expand the Pueblo Convention Center at all costs. Officials and the city saw it as their great unfinished project, the capstone in the Riverwalk project and a “true” tourism driver.

The state of Colorado wanted the PBR training facility to be a unique landmark in this state- funded project to satisfy their guidelines.

Those two competing wants by the city for the convention center and the state for the PBR University are driving Pueblo’s RTA bid to the brink of collapse.

What’s different this time is that the facade of Pueblo’s RTA bid has eroded to show a project that doubles-down on the weak links on the Riverwalk. And it shows a loosey-goosey tourism attitude by state officials that could hurt Pueblo’s project, if it ever gets built.

The PBR, owned by WWE/IMG, is hesitant to commit to their own training facility in Pueblo. Why? WWE/IMG’s reluctance should not be a surprise as PBR has been timid on training facility all along.

In 2012, as city officials needed the PBR University to serve as the unique element of their bid they rolled in the PBR training center. PBR was reluctant to sign off on the facility, where the city, as we are told by a city official, had to craft the letter for PBR. The same city official told the PULP the training facility could have been built “on their own.” It raises the possibility that PBR didn’t need state funds to build their University.

The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s—the agency approving the RTA applications—guidelines state, “that in the absence of state sales tax increment revenue, the project is not reasonably anticipated to be developed within the foreseeable future.”

Also at issue is the slow growth by PBR in Pueblo. PBR was billed in 2006 and again in 2015 as the “The fastest growing sport in the U.S.”

But it’s not growing in Pueblo. To attract PBR in 2006, Pueblo Economic Development Corporation and the City of Pueblo offered $6 million in half-cent funds for a building and $2.5 for a parking garage. The city would put $5.2 million to PBR’s administration offices and PBR would agree to pay for a first floor restaurant and patio area. PBR would agree to hire 76 workers by 2007 and 180 by 2012.

PBR never hit those job numbers forcing, in 2012, the city to renegotiate PBR’s job commitment to the 2007 level of 76 workers. The deal also returned the restaurant and patio section of the PBR building to the city which was being used as storage.

At the other end of the Riverwalk is Pueblo’s baby, the expansion of the convention center.

The Pueblo Convention Center has been hemorrhaging money since it was built. It also rarely meets its attendance and event goals. Yet proponents of the convention center are quick to point out an expanded convention center will allow it to compete regionally.

Local officials have little information to back up this claim and the state and Pueblo disagree on what is the biggest attraction of the RTA project. The city believes the convention center will draw 40,000 people a year, the PBR University will attract 30,000, and the aquatic center will bring 60,000. The state estimates Pueblo will only bring in 11,250 (convention center), 30,000 (PBR), and 7,500 (aquatic park) visitors respectively.

If the Pueblo Convention Center builds bigger but doesn’t attract more people, city taxpayers will pay for those losses.

Proponents are also quick to point out that Pueblo will compete on price and location because it’s the only facility like this in Colorado. Well, it was until COEDIT approved the GO NOCO project in Windsor.

On paper, GO NOCO is nearly the same as Pueblo’s project. The PeliGrande Resort and Convention Center is expected to offer 58,500 square feet of space compared to Pueblo’s expanded size of 54,800 sq. ft. The PeliGrande will have a 300 room hotel compared to 163 rooms at the current Pueblo Marriott. If you add in the recently built Cambria Suites then Pueblo has 268 rooms close to the Riverwalk. And PeliGrande will build an aquatic park, a whitewater park, and a golf course that already has commitments from the Senior PGA.

How does this compare to Pueblo? Pueblo once had its own championship golf course. Walking Stick Golf Course, once rated as one of the best public courses in America by Golf Digest, hosted USGA events but couldn’t attract bigger tournaments. The city has since let the links slip in “championship” quality.

The city built a whitewater course on the Arkansas River but not a championship whitewater course. And, Pueblo’s RTA will build an unspecified indoor aquatic park with a championship pool for competitive meets.

As for the unique aspect of GO NOCO, that’s a convenient 43 miles away in a “Film Center” in Estes Park not Windsor.

Should the reset button be pressed on this whole project?

No, the RTA project shouldn’t be forced to start over. But this does provide the city and state an opportunity to get the project right. The state should demand more reassurances that Pueblo’s build can attract tourists and not lose money.

Pueblo should demand answers on why COEDIT is approving projects that threaten the success of Pueblo’s current tourism assets such as State Fair which now has to compete with the National Western Stock Show Complex RTA, in Denver and Pueblo’s Riverwalk which has to compete against Windsor’s Peligrande.

And that’s the real issue. How is Pueblo, who went first in the state’s RTA funding experiment, going to grow tourism by facing the stiffest competition not just from other states but other tourism projects receiving the same Colorado money?