The fourth and final City for Champions project — the U.S. Air Force Academy Gateway Visitor Center — is finally getting underway.
After a two-year delay caused by the collapse of the bond market due to the COVID pandemic, $90 million in bonds for construction of the visitor center and $235 million in bonds for the adjacent hotel, office and retail space were sold on Jan. 31.
This project, the most expensive of the City for Champions suite, could be the one that contributes the most to the local economy. The other projects — Weidner Field and Robson Arena, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, and the Hybl Sports Medicine & Performance Center, already are in operation.
Besides providing about 1,700 jobs during construction and about 1,200 permanent jobs when the visitor center complex opens, “we expect it to add about $2.6 million to our economy over 25 years, which is about $104 million annually,” said Bob Cope, Colorado Springs economic development manager.
The 375-room hotel, which will be managed by Denver-based CoralTree Hospitality, is expected to provide 275 jobs and to generate about $50 million a year from leisure and business travel activity.
CoralTree Executive Vice President André Fournier said the hotel will have one of the largest areas in the city to host meetings, conferences and other corporate events — 25,000 square feet of indoor space and another 20,000 square feet outdoors.
The hotel also is poised to attract “cultural” tourists, who come to Colorado Springs to experience its history and attractions that are receiving national attention, such as the Olympic & Paralympic Museum.
Academy graduate Dan Schnepf, president and managing partner of Blue & Silver Development Partners, said ground was being broken the week of Feb. 14 for utilities, grading and stormwater work.
The groundwork will take four to five months, said Schnepf, who also is president, CEO and chairman of the board of Matrix Design Group. He expects groundbreaking for the visitor center and hotel to occur in four to six months and for construction to be completed in 2024.
Blue & Silver, master developer for the project, is developing the visitor center itself. Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Provident Resources Group is the owner of the hotel and True North Commons, which includes retail and office buildings, and Lewisville, Texas-headquartered Matthews Southwest is the hotel’s developer.
Besides bond proceeds, the visitor center is being financed by part of the $120 million the city received through the state Tourism Act for the City for Champions projects. The 57-acre site, which surrounds the North Gate entrance to the academy just east of the security checkpoint, was annexed into the city in 2019 to take advantage of City for Champions funding.
The project also is in a designated urban renewal area and will benefit from tax increment financing.
“This is a unique project, because there are multiple governmental entities that get to review everything,” he said. Those entities include the city, Air Force, Pikes Peak Regional Building Department and State Historic Preservation Office.
“We have to meet the most restrictive standards,” he said.
A set of design guidelines has been approved by the Air Force and the city, Schnepf said, and a design review committee has been formed to review all the design documents. The committee has already approved the schematic designs for the visitor center and hotel, he said.
The 35,000-square-foot visitor center will be a soaring white structure that symbolizes flight with four winglike roof panels. It will contain upgraded and expanded exhibits that honor the contributions of the Air Force and academy graduates. State-of-the-art audio-visual equipment will provide visitors with a museum-quality experience.
The 160,000-square-foot office building will house businesses in the space, aerospace and cybersecurity arenas, but it will be “much more than just an office building,” Schnepf said.
The building will be integrated with the Madera Cyber Innovation Center, which is under construction on the academy campus about a mile and a half north of the visitor center. The office structure will provide additional space to help the Madera center fulfill its function of cyber education for cadets and research and innovation in the industry.
The office building will house a secure compartmented information facility — an area that meets high security standards — as part of an incubator for thought leaders in aerospace and cyberspace who potentially will develop patentable new technologies.
The office building also will support standard aerospace education as well as prepping cadets to enter the U.S. Space Force.
Schnepf said he has letters of intent to develop the office building and retail component, a 12,000-15,000-square-foot inline site that will house 10-13 businesses.
“I don’t know what’s going to go in there,” he said, “but there’s a lot of interest from a lot of different groups.”
The retail site also has three standalone pads, one of which is earmarked for a gas station and convenience store. Schnepf said he is negotiating with four potential owners for that site.
He anticipates that the other two pads will feature “a midlevel, sit-down restaurant” and “a higher-level restaurant like a steakhouse or Italian restaurant.”
The hotel will be built to meet at least four-diamond standards, Fournier said. It will feature a spa, three eating and drinking establishments including a rooftop bar, pool, sun deck and expansive lawn.
Its signature feature will be flight simulators in the lobby that will replicate the flight deck of a Boeing 737.
Fournier said the hotel will serve “a built-in demand in Colorado Springs around flight, space, aeronautics and cybersecurity.” In addition, CoralTree will build its marketing strategy around associations headquartered in Colorado.
“Colorado’s about the third largest association headquarters in the country,” he said. “These associations tend to do business in the state, so I think there’s a real opportunity for this new venture to be able to capture some of that share into the Colorado Springs market.”
CoralTree also operates the Inverness Hotel and Conference Center in Denver and the Vail Cascade Resort — now the Grant Hyatt Vail, and has “a deep database of companies that would love a new facility with an exciting amenity like the visitor center or the U.S. Air Force Academy,” he said. “We have a global sales team that goes after that business and knows exactly what industries to go after.”
Traffic has picked up around all of CoralTree’s 22 hotels, which are drawing tourists from a 500-mile radius around each destination, he said.
“The great American road trip is coming back,” he said. “People are traveling and want to get in their cars.”
There will be special interest in the Air Force Academy property, he said. It’s the only major national academy that does not have a hotel outside its doors.
The hotel’s marketing also will tap into the region’s history and culture, attracting visitors who will stay longer and spend more than traditional tourists.
“It’s not just going to be about the Air Force Academy,” Fournier said. “People want to learn about how the West was explored and settled, about the railroad barons and Spencer Penrose.
“That’s the beautiful thing about not being a normal branded hotel,” he said. “When you’re an independent property, you have the ability to create your own canvas — you really tell the story of the place.”
CATALYST FOR GROWTH
Schnepf believes the entire project “will create greater awareness of this area of our city, because it will attract over a million visitors a year. Usually, that generates entrepreneurship and economic growth outside of what we’re doing.”
Cope, the city’s economic development manager, expects the visitor center to have a synergistic effect with the other City for Champions project to increase tourist numbers.
The visitor center complex also will be a catalyst for development in north Colorado Springs, he said.
“That’s because it’s so tourist-related,” Cope said, “and so much of the retail development now is experiential — restaurants, entertainment. … People are going to want to be at Polaris Pointe to do the [go-kart] racing, the Top Golf, the trampolines, [Magnum] shooting range, and the iFLY facility. That’s a perfect complement to the visitor center. We will have families going through the center, staying in the hotel, and then wanting to participate in all those activities.”
The new Interstate 25-Powers Boulevard interchange has opened up about 100 acres of Polaris Pointe for further development, Cope said, and land is available and zoned for expansion around the North Gate and Interquest corridors. Cope expects the visitor center complex to spur development there as well.
Tourists who stay in other facilities in north Colorado Springs, such as Great Wolf Lodge, are going to want to go to the visitor center, he said.
“That thing’s going to be very compelling,” Cope said. “When you drive by, it’s one of the first things you’re going to see, and the building is so interesting that you’re going to want to see it. And it’s attached to one of our most important institutions.”
Cope said north Colorado Springs could be looked at as one trade area that’s closely connected and interconnected.
“When you look at the residential development that’s happening within the area, there’s a lot of density, a lot of growth and high household income,” he said. “So I think you’re going to have more retail development. I think they future is very bright there.”