Build it, and residents and tourists will come downtown, Colorado Springs boosters say

Torn-up roadways and dusty construction sites are a sign of progress for Colorado Springs’ downtown.

That was the message delivered Wednesday by the heads of the city’s Downtown Partnership and Downtown Development Authority at the third-annual State of Downtown report, held at The Pinery at the Hill: pardon the inconvenience, better things are ahead.

Last year, the city’s downtown, which encompasses 120 city blocks or just over a square mile, saw a boom of major groundbreakings and a $74 million increase in total investment, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership. Total investment for the area is about $674 million, split between projects that are either completed, under construction or announced.

Some of the projects underway include the 171-unit ECO Apartments building at the southwest corner of Colorado and Wahsatch avenues, the 165-room Hilton Garden Inn on the southeast corner of Cascade Avenue and Bijou Street and the U.S. Olympic Museum at Vermijo and Sierra Madre streets.

More evidence of the boom can be found in the 25 land use permits and approvals that were issued last year for 21 separate projects, a 30 percent increase in the number of projects seeking approval from the year before, Edmondson said. In all, construction downtown represents more than 12 percent of all the city’s permitting activity. And what that figure is half what it was in 2016, she said it’s still indicative of a strong year for the area.

"We’re not just talking, we’re not just dreaming, we’re actually accomplishing the projects we set out to finish in our city center," Edmondson said. "Downtown still stands strong in attracting new investment for the city overall."

Edmondson praised the creativity and innovation of downtown investors, which surpasses most cities in the country, she said. Those qualities and more brought the recently-opened Oskar Blues Grill & Brew downtown, which will soon be joined by locations for Brass Brewing Co. and the Denver Biscuit Co., among others, she said.

Results can be seen in programs like First Friday Downtown, which saw a boost in attendance, Edmondson said. But Skate in the Park boasts the biggest increase with a 70 percent rise in admission from the year before, totaling about 20,000 visitors, she said.

Another major improvement to downtown – which makes up only about 2 percent of the city’s land mass – is the completion of the Interstate 25/Cimarron Street interchange, Edmondson said. That work serves as an attractive new entrance to the city’s core.

For these investments and more, Steve Engel, chair of the Downtown Development Authority, thanked the attendants.

"A strong downtown just helps a thriving community at large," Engel said. "It also helps create critical talent for workforce development."

But to continue the area’s steady growth, more investments are needed, said Sarah Humbargar, vice president of the Downtown Partnership.

About 30,000 people, a 10th of the city’s workforce, are employed downtown, Humbargar said. But more office space is needed to attract new businesses. Many property owners are currently revitalizing their buildings to fill that need, she said.

While 18 street-level businesses opened downtown in 2017, Humbargar said more people need to live in the area to sustain those operations.

Those who live downtown are more likely to eat out and shop frequently, Edmondson said.

The Downtown Partnership currently has a goal of adding 2,000 housing units downtown by 2025, Humbargar said. Already about 1,300 are on the way, but new businesses and investors are needed, and the partnership has committed $750,000 to bringing such a project downtown, she said.

The need for housing downtown, both affordable and high-end, is "incredible," Humbargar said. New projects, and those already nearing completion, will benefit the city substantially.

Downtown isn’t just for Colorado Springs residents, Edmondson said.

More than 5 million people visited the city for an overnight trip last year, Humbargar said. And hundreds of thousands more came for day trips.

"If we give them a great reason to come downtown and offer experiences unlike anyone else, they will come," Edmondson said.

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