‘Yes’ or ‘no’ on event center equally risky

I’ll concede, after hearing my third event-center presentation Sunday evening, that proponents are running an effective campaign. Notably, they’ve shifted messaging from overtly seeking approval for bricks and mortar, instead asking voters to “Say Yes for Grand Junction.” Few of us could be against that. Committee members brought advocates for a community/recreation center aboard, some promising financial support for that future ballot effort.

But the event center proposal remains a high-stakes gamble, equally risky if approved or rejected. Approval of the event center might mean a diminished appetite for additional proposals. Rejection could reinforce reflexively anti-tax naysayers.

Maybe local history doesn’t matter. Perhaps “We don’t have to choose” as posited in a recent Daily Sentinel editorial. Some with longer memories might find that a shaky bet. Increased funding for public safety, $200 million for schools, a future community/recreation center, higher lodging taxes, perhaps even the street funding measure on the city ballot, all hang on who’s right.

The bar is set high for facility use, financial viability, job creation and spillover impacts to help fund other community needs. Not meeting expectations could taint future asks for additional funds, whatever the source or need.

Not one penny of additional sales tax revenue would flow to schools. They’re financed by property taxes. Increased county sales tax revenue would only fund a minor portion of public safety needs. Proportional shares of any additional property taxes, including perhaps $125,000 annually from a fourth downtown hotel, would be a drop in both buckets.

Other issues discussed in the oft-cited study by Hunden Strategic Partners deserve more exposure.

A new event center is projected to reverse financial losses, turning recent six-figure city subsidies into a $532,000 operating profit. Hunden examined similar centers in seven communities, providing recent financials for four of them opened between 2006-2011. Each showed 2014 or 2015 net losses ranging from $153,000 to $760,000 while hosting sports tenants and name concerts.

Hunden Strategic Partners also recommends an authority be formed to govern the event center. Observers of recent airport challenges will no doubt be thrilled at any prospect of removing the center and $135 million debt repayment responsibilities from direct control of elected council members.

Are you comfortable with only 104 dedicated parking spaces, less than half those currently available, after adding an additional 7,200 seat facility? It’s one thing to handle 10,000 people once a year for the Parade of Lights. Quite another to accommodate 12-15 additional larger conventions, perhaps two dozen concerts and family events, weekday graduations, multi-day regional athletic tournaments, 30 minor league hockey games and newly-added potential NBA development league games?

If there’s a letter of intent for a hockey team, might we also seek similar commitments from owners of public and private lots targeted to support a massive complex with parking plans that would be laughed out of the planning department if proposed by anyone other than the city?

I’ve actively campaigned for tax increases in this community for nearly 30 years, starting with our lodging tax back in 1989. I’ve worked on every school bond issue proposed. As a county commissioner, I championed a library district with its own tax base. As a Grand Junction council member, I helped convince voters to approve what was the largest municipal general obligation debt in western Colorado’s history to build the Riverside Parkway and the subsequent TABOR override.

The events center is not the hill I would have chosen to die on this time around despite enormous respect for the Reimers, who’ve gambled millions to anchor Main Street with their hotels and for Nick and Avery Santos, whose Café Sol represents equivalent risk in their young lives.

Perhaps we could have it all if we’d chosen to initially seek approval of projects providing direct benefits to local taxpayers. Tops on my list would have been our schools, the most important economic development investment we could make. Others could make compelling arguments for first capturing momentum for a community/recreation center like those in Fruita, Glenwood Springs, Durango and Montrose.

But we’re here now, in an imperfect world, with risks inherent in whatever choice we make. We’re at this point because of a proposal proponents admit started internally at the city. Absent a vote on broadband that’s now barely on life support, it’s been nearly 20 years, since Vision 2020, since we’ve been asked what we might want.

I’ll be a “no” vote when our ballots arrive in the mail later this week. Not because I’m tax-averse, not that I don’t see value in an event center, but because I believe there’s less risk in living to fight another day on a more timely and important hill.

Jim Spehar’s struggled with a lifetime of choices and absolutely hates being an “aginner.” Comments welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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