Arena vote draws near
Some residents can already taste the nachos while taking in a hockey game or feel the thrill ripple through the audience when their beloved band takes the stage.
Others shudder to think Grand Junction could invest tens of millions of dollars in a new event center and convention center upgrade considering the price tag and an abundance of other local needs.
For certain, the April 4 ballot issue over whether to boost taxes to build a downtown event center and overhaul the current Two Rivers Convention Center has prompted plenty of conversation on both sides of the debate.
When ballots start hitting mailboxes March 13, the 36,990 registered Grand Junction voters will be asked to bump up the city’s sales taxes a quarter-cent. If passed, the increase will be used to spend up to $65 million to build a 140,000-square-foot, 5,200-seat facility and dramatically remodel an outdated Two Rivers. The city estimates the jump from a 2.75 percent sales tax to 3 percent will generate $4 million a year, which will cover the debt and any potential net operating cost of running the facility. The tax increase will sunset in 30 years and the debt will not exceed $134 million, according to the wording of ballot measure 2A.
The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development Authority and Grand Junction Economic Partnership have endorsed the idea.
Of the variety of issues that wend through the Grand Valley, the question over whether to fund an event center has been the talk of coffee shop conversations and Facebook postings, and filled editorial sections of the newspaper.
According to a 2016 feasibility study conducted by Hunden Strategic Partners, a more than 5,000-seat arena connected to Two Rivers Convention Center could host a minor league sports team and offer events with a regional draw for people in the underserved areas between Salt Lake City and Denver.
With its proximity to Grand Junction’s downtown hotels and restaurants, the project over 30 years could create about 400 new jobs, with 200 to 240 of those positions becoming permanent, proponents say.
An additional 80,000 new visitors a year would create an additional $30 million in annual spending — or nearly $1 billion over 30 years.
Downtown hotel owners Steve and Kevin Reimer have said if an events center is built they will create a new, fourth hotel in Grand Junction’s core. They possibly will create a fifth hotel off Ute Avenue. Proponents say the increase in foot traffic in the downtown will increase sales at local businesses and restaurants.
Skeptics, though, harbor a host of concerns and doubts. Some believe assumptions and projections about spending and event attendance in the feasibility study are too optimistic. They fear the building will sit empty too often and require a significant taxpayer subsidy, much like Two Rivers has over the years. And they say the city has more pressing needs that need attention.
TALK OF THE TOWN
An event center has the power to boost Grand Junction to the next level, making it an attractive city for millennials, Grand Junction resident Melissa Bachart said.
Bachart is a Central High School graduate who left Grand Junction and has since moved back, yet she’s unsure whether she’ll always call Grand Junction home.
The 27-year-old said she and her husband of a year question whether to put down roots here. They may head for a city they find more exciting like Denver or Austin, Texas.
While the couple appreciates Grand Junction for its access to the outdoors and its dearth of traffic jams, a bigger population base would invite more of the diversity that Bachart is seeking. Projects like an event center would help break the cycle of young people yearning to leave, she said.
“Absolutely there’s a generation growing up here that doesn’t want to stay. They’ve grown up with the “junk town” stigma. I feel it would be a catalyst for change,” she said of an event center. “It would have more people coming and seeing our awesome city.”
The prospect of attending activities and events would create buzz, Bachart said.
“I feel like in my group of friends, having a D-league NBA (developmental league for professional basketball) team here would be awesome,” she said. “I start to salivate just thinking about that…that it would be right down the street and I wouldn’t have to drive to Denver.”
The Hunden report says a semi-professional hockey team from the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) is committed to locating in Grand Junction if a center is built. Attracting a D-league NBA team also is a possibility, but the report suggests scheduling for both teams could get tricky.
The issue of the additional tax isn’t even a consideration for Bachart, especially after learning that Grand Junction’s 2.75 percent sales tax is low compared to surrounding cities.
Proponents say the sales tax increase would amount to roughly $2.50 a month per family — equal to the price of six lattes a year. They claim Grand Junction residents would bear only 22 percent of the increased tax because it is spread around by all who shop in Grand Junction. And the items locals buy most like groceries and services are not taxed.
Tom Streff is having none of it.
The 83-year-old retired history teacher thinks throwing an event center into the mix is a horrible idea.
Like Bachart, Streff doesn’t consider the sales tax increase to be the largest issue.
Streff sees a big red flag with ongoing operating costs of an event center. Besides, Grand Junction has plenty of places to invest money; if an event center is such a good idea, the private sector would have already built it here, he said.
The Hunden report recommends the city use a management company to operate an event center. It also says savings would be realized by sharing employees with Two Rivers and the Avalon Theatre. In 2015, Two Rivers and the Avalon operated at a combined loss of $400,000. Grand Junction recently contracted with Pinnacle Venue Services for management of the two facilities, which includes an agreement to cap the city’s annual payment at $225,000 — roughly $200,000 less than the city was spending to operate the venues.
A renovation of Two Rivers combined with an event center is expected to create revenue of $500,000 a year. However, as the Hunden report says, small arenas can be successful or they can operate with annual losses from $150,000 to more than $800,000.
“There’s no end to the money pit that an event center would be,” Streff said. “We can’t afford that. To me that’s simple economics. Build it and they will come? That is such pie-in-the-sky nonsense.”
Streff said numerous streets in Grand Junction are riddled with potholes, and some areas need curbs and gutters. Street maintenance has been put on hold to the point of being “criminally neglected,” he said.
City officials agree and are acutely aware of Grand Junction’s declining road conditions. Former city councils did not direct enough funds to keep up with road maintenance projects.
The other measure on the April ballot, 2B, asks voters to approve delaying repaying the Riverside Parkway debt for four years to free up funds for the city to make more immediate road improvements. If approved by voters, already allocated dollars will be combined with money in the TABOR fund balance, creating about $6.6 million a year for five years to improve the city’s roads. At current savings rates, the city would be ready to pay off the debt by 2020. If voters allow the city to spend the money, the debt would be paid off in 2024.
Streff said he’d rather see money directed to law enforcement and infrastructure, rather than building “an image that outsiders will find glimmering.”
“I don’t care what outsiders think,” he said. “There’s so much that needs to be done that are basic to a community, we have no reason at all to be going on a hopeful journey toward an event center.”
Elton John. Disney on Ice. Home and garden shows. Regional conferences. Knife and gun shows. Monster Jams.
Landon Balding sat down recently and listed 99 types of events he believes Grand Junction could host if it had a space large enough.
Balding, the director of operations at Monumental Events, is the hired spokesman for the local event center action committee. He has been logging more than 40-hour weeks lately, giving dozens of PowerPoint presentations and fielding inquiries from community members. As a promoter he’s also witnessed the talent that bypasses Grand Junction as various acts travel Interstate 70 between Salt Lake City to Denver.
Balding said he turns down one event a week partly because there simply isn’t a venue large enough. If Grand Junction builds an event center, those opportunities will return, he said.
“If you have an arena, you’re just naturally on their list,” he said. “They’re going to start calling and pushing their shows through. Anything that’s coming from Boise, or Salt Lake (City) to Loveland or Colorado Springs is going to route through here.”
To see the kind of shows and events that would come to Grand Junction, Balding suggested looking toward schedules at other similarly sized arenas.
The Hunden report analyzed some of those arenas, including Loveland’s Budweiser Events Center, which is owned by Larimer County. The facility was built in 2003 and has 5,289 seats for hockey games and 7,200 seats for concerts. It is home to the Colorado Eagles hockey team and the Colorado Crush Indoor Football team. A March event calendar for the Budweiser Events Center advertises seven Colorado Eagles games, two Colorado Crush games, the Harlem Globetrotters, and two performances of a “Frozen”-themed Disney on Ice show. Country stars Lee Brice and Justin Moore are slated to play their American Made Tour there.
To the northwest, a calendar for March for the 5,000-seat CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho, advertised 13 hockey games of the Idaho Steelheads and the Fraternal Order of Police Inaugural Policeman’s Ball. The privately owned arena also hosts mixed martial arts fights called Front Street Fights, though none was slated for March.
Hosting a semi-professional hockey team in Grand Junction would help support already established youth sports and competitive teams, said Robbie Koos, co-owner of the Glacier Ice Arena.
Robbie said she and her husband, Alan, often are asked whether having a semi-professional league hockey team in Grand Junction would compete with their business. Quite the opposite is true, she said.
A semi-professional team would need to practice at the Glacier Ice Arena during its off hours, increasing their business’s bottom line. And, she said, having team members in Grand Junction could help mentor local competitive and youth hockey teams.
Koos said the hockey scene is probably bigger in Grand Junction than most people realize. About 500 people come out to watch games for Colorado Mesa University’s club hockey teams.
“We’ve heard from people (opposed to an event center) that we already have a hockey rink,” Koos said. “We’re really talking apples and oranges. We see that this would really energize us. We would love to make this a hockey town.”
Having the ECHL locate a team would be exciting for residents, Koos said, because hundreds of those players eventually move up and play in the National Hockey League.
Koos said hockey games tend to attract repeat fans because the high-energy game is fun to watch.
“People come to one game and they have so much fun, they come back,” she said.
FUTURE TAX QUESTIONS
It seemed the minute in mid-January the Grand Junction City Council unanimously voted to place a tax question on the April ballot for an event center, people started wondering aloud about the status of parallel efforts to create a recreation center.
Three years ago, after rounds of community talks and 1,000 completed citizen surveys, the Grand Junction Parks and Recreation Department unveiled a master plan for the 207-acre Matchett Park off Patterson and 28 1/4 roads. It includes a placeholder for a community recreation center and aquatics center.
The idea for a recreation center in Grand Junction has been on some residents’ minds since the 1970s. In the fall of 2015 a group called PLACE, People for Local Activities & Community Enrichment, organized to advance the idea.
With an event center question on the ballot, there are concerns about whether voters will stomach the number of tax questions that are likely to be pitched in the next couple years. In addition to a recreation center question, others possibly include bond issues or tax increases for School District 51, the 911 Regional Communication Center and a countywide measure for law enforcement.
PLACE member Andreya Krieves said group members went back and forth over whether to support the idea of an event center, and ultimately determined they would back it. Saying “yes” to an event center doesn’t constitute a “no” for other tax questions, the group reasoned. PLACE members are angling to ask voters in a year to approve a tax measure to build a recreation/community center.
“We want to be a unifying force,” Krieves said. “That will be more proactive and successful for everyone.”
PLACE members are working on obtaining grants for a feasibility study and then hope to obtain a grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.
Since the event center question hit the municipal ballot, PLACE has received loads of interest and a number of volunteers getting involved in the mission of bringing a recreation center to the area, Krieves said.
Members of a steering committee for an event center also said they would support the efforts of PLACE to create a recreation center.
“PLACE supports the ‘Yes to Grand Junction’ movement. A strong community includes many components, including a community center, an events center, well-funded schools and a safe place to call home,” group members said in a statement.