Last month when Pueblo City Council voted unanimously to use half-cent sales tax money to fund the expansion of the Pueblo Convention Center, it was 7 in favor, 0 opposed and 3 resigned.
What Puebloans witnessed was how the sausage is made in Pueblo. For most, when former council members Chris Kaufman, Sandy Daff and Ami Nawrocki resigned, that was the end of the story; the detractors to Pueblo’s growth were removed. But that’s not the entire story.
The battle of the RTA consisted of illegal meetings, conflicts of interest and city leaders making decisions based on what Steve Henson, managing editor of the Pueblo Chieftain most recently called “leaps of faith” in an editorial.
PULP’s reporting established that the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, Pueblo Urban Renewal, PEDCO, and the City of Pueblo did not know the current economic impact of the convention center heading into the vote in May.
In fact, no one has known the economic impact since the initial plans for the convention center were unveiled in the late ‘90s.
So, then, when the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce pitched the idea to expand the convention center and introduce an aquatic center and PBR University, who did that vetting?
It’s fair to ask why propose a PBR University when the Professional Bull Riders have struggled to meet their employment goals after using half-cent money for their building on the Riverwalk. It is also fair to ask: Why include an aquatic center as part of this plan?
Then you have the Hunden Report which states Pueblo Convention Center’s brand is so unknown that expo organizers do not know enough to make a decision whether a larger expo facility would attract conventions to Pueblo. Expo organizers said they would consider using a bigger convention center in Pueblo, but none gave a definite response that they would choose Pueblo as a destination.
Obviously, with more space at the convention center, it will attract conventions to fill that space. So, if the convention center loses money now and struggles to meet its current attendance goals how is that going to be solved by just making things bigger?
We don’t have those answers for you. Not even the Hunden Report which was a preliminary study says how Pueblo is going to attract more conventions. That’s entirely up to marketing. The entire RTA project was being sold to the public–if Pueblo builds it, people will come, but there is no factual evidence showing how this is going to happen.
Why were these questions not asked when PEDCO endorsed using $14.4 million of the half-cent funds for the RTA project? PEDCO’s former board chair, Steven Wright is quoted as saying that if they had been successful in attracting two companies in 2012, they would have depleted nearly $40 million of that fund.
Follow that statement for a moment. If PEDCO had been successful in attracting two businesses and then endorsed the loan to the RTA, that would have depleted, or come close to fully depleting the entire half-cent account.
The question here isn’t whether that’s right or wrong but $54.4 million of taxpayers’ money was going to be spent from 2012 to 2015 and Pueblo wasn’t asking for more details.
Well, that’s not entirely true, the Pueblo Chieftain did question the half-cent use but only after Chris Kaufman, Ami Nawrocki and Sandy Daff pitched the “Great Pueblo Payback.” Remember this was catalyst for the Pueblo Chieftain’s unusual front page editorial and why it requested emails on alleged illegal meetings.
Which brings this story back to where it all began. The resignations of three council members, who opposed funding the RTA through the half-cent. The reason for their resignation is the claim they were “manipulated” by former Pueblo County employee Greg Severance into an illegal meeting.
Somehow from November of 2013 to August of 2014, Greg Severance went from being in the good graces of the Pueblo Chieftain to master manipulator of council. In November 2013, as council was considering the RTA grant application, in an email to Greg Severance, Jane Rawlings, the assistant publisher for the Pueblo Chieftain, asked “a favor” of Severance regarding the “undecided” members of council, “I would encourage you to let them get their information directly from the principals without lobbying efforts by the County.”
Severance responded in-kind that he was supportive of Jane Rawlings’ request, “You will be happy to hear my favorable response to your request.”
To which Rawlings replied, “We appreciate your desire to facilitate the success of RTA and your decision to let the process run its course.”
But the narrative written by the Chieftain that was dubbed “emailgate” never said Severance was also lobbying council on behalf of the Chieftain. That side of the story was not made available to the public.
Before you throw Jane Rawlings under the bus, the editorial position of the Chieftain is well-established. Even Steve Henson has written that Bob Rawlings, Publisher of the Chieftain, is the “800-pound gorilla in the corner office […] and one of the founders of PEDCO.”
I can’t be the only one who has a problem with all this; the people who recommend to council how tax monies are spent (PEDCO), have a very powerful founding member who reports on how they are spent (Chieftain).
Those reports and very prominent editorial positions caused enough of a public outcry forcing controversial councilors–who opposed PEDCO’s recommendations on the RTA Loan and offered a competing, albeit questionable plan–to resign. And because of their resignations the vote to loan half-cent money on the RTA project, could have been 3 to 4 in the negative with council member Ed Brown as the swing vote.
When you consider that the outcome of a vote was impacted when council members were replaced and that vote dealt with government spending, this whole thing just looks bad.
Pueblo City Council should immediately hire an independent investigator to provide the public with the assurance that everything was done above board.
Since the public will be asked to reauthorize the half-cent tax and decide on the majority of city council’s open seats these voters need to be presented with a clear picture of the workings of city finances when they fill out their ballots.