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Investment in Colorado Springs evident in revitalized city center

Area has garnered about $2.3 billion in investment in the past 10 years

By Eric Peterson //June 17, 2024//

Downtown Colorado Springs

Downtown Colorado Springs

Investment in Colorado Springs evident in revitalized city center

Area has garnered about $2.3 billion in investment in the past 10 years

By Eric Peterson //June 17, 2024//

The formerly forlorn AdAmAn Alley in downtown Colorado Springs was long lined with dumpsters and dotted with potholes. That changed in 2022, when a $2.1 million placemaking project remade it with public art and infrastructure upgrades, garnering numerous awards.

It’s a microcosm of the entire neighborhood’s transformation in the last decade. Downtown Colorado Springs has long had that elusive sense of place, but it was until recently playing catch-up to other Front Range cities in terms of revitalization.

As Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs, puts it, “People would always say, ‘It has potential.’”

As Denver and other major metropolitan downtowns struggle, that potential is being realized. Colorado Springs has bucked the “doom loop” trend that has plagued downtown cores across the country in the post-pandemic area, as the area has seen about $2.3 billion in investment in the past 10 years.

Richard Skorman, owner of Poor Richard’s, a bookshop/toy store/restaurant complex that’s grown and evolved downtown since 1977, says the mall boom hit downtown hard in the 1980s into the 1990s. “Downtown for several decades was really struggling to remake itself,” says Skorman, who served on Colorado Springs City Council for more than a decade.

A push to revitalize downtown in the 1990s nudged the pendulum in the other direction, paving the way for bigger things.

Staked with more than $120 million in state tax incentives, the City of Champions initiative led to a pair of marquee projects in the heart of downtown: The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum opened in 2020, followed by a new 8,000-seat soccer stadium, Weidner Field, in 2021. “I think all of those things proved we could set big dreams and big goals and actually accomplish them,” says Edmondson.

The projects have helped catalyze hotel development, she adds, including a dual-branded SpringHill Suites/Element. Since 2019, the number of hotel rooms in the downtown area has more than doubled to a total of 1,108 rooms.

The same virtuous cycle has also sparked a wave of residential development. About 1,200 new residential units have hit the market since 2016, including more than 400 in 2023. About 2,000 more units will hit the market by the end of 2025.

Edmondson says there was “very little” in the way of residential options downtown before 2016. “Starting to bring more residential options downtown and really making downtown a neighborhood where people lived was a long-sought goal,” she says. “It took a while to build that momentum and now, of course, it’s really taken off.”

Kirkland, Washington-based Weidner Apartment Homes is one of the companies leading the charge. The company entered the Colorado Springs market in 1993 in large part because it’s the hometown of founder Dean Weidner, says Greg Cerbana, vice president of public relations and government affairs.

Weidner’s portfolio has grown to 2,700 rental units in the market. Its first downtown project, with about 400 units, is slated to open in summer 2024 next to the aforementioned $50 million stadium that bears the company’s name.

“We ended up taking an ownership position in the team [Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC] in order to allow them to move downtown, and then bought land and put together land around the stadium in order to build what eventually will be about 1,200 units,” says Cerbana. The second and third phases will likely take about five years.

The new population base will shape the next phase of downtown development. “A big part of our motivation all along in wanting to grow residential is it’s key to supporting our small businesses,” notes Edmondson.

Chains are few and far between. A Starbucks closed in 2019, and a former Subway reopened as a slick burrito joint, Dos Dos, in late 2022.

“Over 90 percent of our storefront businesses are locally owned and operated, and that’s a different kind of motivation to get through the tough times,” says Edmondson. “A chain may just cut and run in the tough times, look at certain markets and just say, ‘It’s not worth it. We’re out of here.’ But our local businesses stuck it out, and people are passionate about supporting their local businesses.”

That translates to a retail vacancy rate of about 4 percent, says Edmondson. The office vacancy rate was 7.3 percent as of Q4 2023, a far cry from downtown Denver’s 31.5 percent office vacancy rate in Q4.

Under the Downtown Partnership’s umbrella is a Downtown Development Authority (DDA) program that makes low-interest loans to businesses to help them buy their own locations. “We really want to grow and support tenant ownership, because when your small businesses can own their property, then they will have a greater stake in their future,” says Edmondson. “They can withstand what comes next in terms of unpredictability around rents into the future. They can grow equity.”

The program’s first loan went to ICONS, a gay bar co-owned by Joshua Franklin-Wolfe, who grew up in Colorado Springs in the 1990s. “I’m the same age as Matthew Shepard and went through enough in high school that I couldn’t wait to get out of Colorado Springs back then,” says Franklin-Wolfe.

Returning in 2018, Franklin-Wolfe says he “started to see that growth and get really excited about it,” but something was missing: There were no gay bars downtown. “I just felt for people visiting and for people living in Colorado Springs, that was sending an outdated message that didn’t really represent the progression of Colorado Springs.”

In 2020, he and his husband, John Wolfe, opened ICONS, where the servers and bartenders double as performers and regularly break into song. “Our very first weekend, it just was wild,” says Joshua. “People were so ready for a space like ICONS.”

The staff more than doubled from the opening day head count of five before a fire in a neighboring business shut the bar down in late 2023, leading Wolfe and Franklin-Wolfe to look for a location they could buy. They found one a block away from the original location and cobbled together bank financing, crowdfunding, and the DDA loan.

“There’s a lot of incentives for unique and diverse businesses,” says Franklin-Wolfe. “If there’s not something like that downtown, they want to make that happen and make it a more diverse, inclusive downtown.”

Notes Wolfe: “Before we moved here, there were like two or three Starbucks. They’re all gone. Nearly every chain that existed downtown has been replaced by a local business. I’m proud to be a part of that community.”

Joshua says they’re building on their success at ICONS with another venture. “We’re part of a group that is converting an old movie theater downtown into a live theater,” he says.

Kimball’s Peak will become The Peak, with one movie screen adjacent to a resident theater company’s space. “We’re at least a year away from any sort of actual performance happening in that space, but we’re well on the way to making that happen,” says Joshua.

It’s one harbinger of things to come. The two top items on Skorman’s wish list for downtown are a grocery store and stop on Front Range passenger rail. The first seems inevitable; the second could be a decade or more away. He’s also an advocate for better connectivity with Manitou Springs, six miles west of downtown.

Also on the horizon, the much-maligned, coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant is in the midst of a demolition slated for completion by the end of the year. It shut down in 2022 after nearly a century of operations on the southwestern fringe of downtown.

Edmondson calls the 65-acre infill site a “once-in-a-century opportunity.” The Downtown Partnership and other entities have collaborated on visions for redevelopment, with ongoing environmental assessment.

COS Creek Plan, a collaborative concept from the city, Colorado Springs Utilities, and nonprofit Pikes Peak Waterways, has a mixed-use vision not unlike Riverfront Park in downtown Denver.

If it comes to pass, says Skorman, “They’re going to create a whole ‘Riverwalk’ that’s going to really make downtown even more special.”