What can Colorado Springs teach us about Downtown soccer stadium construction?

They just finished what we may be about to start

Two sprawling mid-sized western towns compare notes
The panorama at Weidner Field, the new Downtown Colorado Springs soccer stadium. Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
We have similarly sized populations that share a passion for outdoor activities, low population density, and driving everywhere. We both sprawl out to a total city land area of just under 200 square miles. We share I-25. Both towns have boulevards called "Academy," and both are even framed by prominent mountains on one side.

Add to that one more similarity between Albuquerque and Colorado Springs: We may be about to begin construction of a soccer stadium just south of our Downtown core, and they recently finished building one just south of theirs.

Naturally, it seemed like a good time to compare notes. So on September 29, DAN and the Santa Fe New Mexican convened a panel of experts from Colorado Springs to see what we might be able to learn. 

The full video of the discussion is here, but below, we have a summary of the main points:
(1.) It pays to work with a philanthropically-inclined mega-developer 
Albuquerque voters are presently deciding whether to devote $50 million to a soccer stadium, with New Mexico United kicking in $10 million and other funds coming from state government.

In Colorado Springs, it's almost the inverse of that: The state kicked in $13 million for the stadium but the owner of the team (the Switchbacks, who regularly play New Mexico United) and native son real estate developer Dean Weidner covered the rest of the bill that ultimately totaled $47 million. 

"It is a unique situation," said Robert Carr, the vice president of operations for Weidner Apartment Homes. "He wanted to do something big in Downtown Colorado Springs, partially to give back to the community that gave him a lot growing up."

But Carr is quick to add that this is far from a purely charitable enterprise. He expects the stadium to be a great business on its own, and the company is also busy constructing what will eventually be about 1,100 apartments in the immediate area, supplementing its vast portfolio that covers 12 states.

"Having this amazing amenity out the front door of the apartment is certainly a plus for us," he said.

The comparatively low level of tax money tied up in the project also seems to have created an unusually helpful political situation for advocates, with hardly a whisper of organized opposition appearing in local press reports

"Not everybody was for it," Carr said, but "definitely I think the amount of private investment in the project helped."

The fact that the public money was already allocated by the state and destined to be spent on something anyway also helped smooth the path, he added.
(2.) In the right circumstances, sports spending really can inspire knock-on development
Those 1,100 apartments are not nearly the end of the story, according to Susan Edmondson, the CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs. 

"We now currently have about 3,000 units that are recently completed or will be under construction by next year," she said.

The stadium is "not the only factor but it's a major factor" in the elevated investor interest, Edmondson added. Other components of the larger sports spending package, including a new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum and a hockey area built as a collaboration with Colorado College, are helping as well.

"The combination of all those, what I think they served to do was ... set a path for Downtown that excited investors," Edmondson said. "It gave us a story to tell."
(3.) Urban stadiums can inspire more side development than suburban ones
When it comes to which businesses stand to gain the most from a new stadium, restaurants and bars in the immediate area tend to get first mention thanks to all those hungry and thirsty fans. So far, that basic formula seems to be happening in Colorado Springs.

"I've seen a huge transformation since the stadium has been built," said Ari Knaup, who owns a restaurant a few blocks north of Weidner Field. Since that and some new housing have come online, she has noticed a 35 percent increase in revenue.

But what is it about a stadium in an urban core that so efficiently attracts new customers? After all, venues in suburban and less dense areas don't seem to manage the same trick. There is no cluster of restaurants around Isotopes Park, for example, and Edmondson said it was the same situation with the Switchback's former far-flung location.

Chalk it up to too much efficiency, the panel said. If it's easy to drive right to the venue and drive away when it's over, that's what people will do. But if parking is scattered around the entire Downtown area, making at least a bit of walking part of the deal, people will make an occasion out of it. They meet friends, go out for dinner before the game, and maybe even linger after.

"That energy that's created is very different from everyone arriving in their individual vehicle in a big parking lot," Edmondson said. "It's much more of a complete evening out."
(4.) For questions of gentrification, an argument that more housing is the answer
Fears of property tax and rent spikes around the two preferred Albuquerque stadium sites have been a key factor in the debate so far, even pushing the development of a community benefits agreement that Albuquerque recently codified into law.

The situation is a bit different in Colorado Springs, where Weidner Field was built in a primarily industrial area and without displacing any homes (and without a community benefits agreement). But there is a historic low-income neighborhood called Mill Street a few blocks to the south that seems to be undergoing some major changes similar to what we see today in Barelas and South Broadway.

"We have concerns about this neighborhood but it's not directly about the stadium," Edmondson said. "It's about what Colorado Springs is experiencing citywide ... housing affordability issues that are occurring at a much larger scale."  

That's putting it mildly. Zillow pegs the typical home value in Colorado Springs at $427,896, with the median monthly rent going for $1,650 in September, according to Dwellsy. That is, respectively, $158,000 and $716 more than Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, all of the 1,100 units that Weidner Apartment Homes is building will be rented out at market rate, Carr said, but he argues that any new housing supply helps in the grand scheme of things.

"Even though we're bringing in market-rate apartments that will not be cheap, that supply helps overall affordability," he said. (More on the economic theory behind this argument in this DAN from July of 2020.)

"The fact that we now have thousands of units in the pipeline - that's how the price gets moderated," Edmondson added. "If the rest of the city was delivering as many units as we are, we would solve our housing issue right there."
(5.) Turns out parking wasn't a big deal
Much like Albuquerque, the residents of Colorado Springs love their cars, and our panel said the concerns we're seeing now about where and how parking might work dominated the discussion there as well.

But apart from a larger-than-required parking allotment slated to go into the under-construction apartments, "We really didn't build anything extra," Carr said.

Instead, fans are directed to an array of garages, surface lots, and street parking options in a roughly 60-square block area around Downtown. There's also valet parking, pedicabs, a bike parking option, and coming next year, a circulator bus.

So far, it's working out for Knaup, the restauranteur. Customers have complained about parking, "but they're few and far between," she said, and diners from the more far-flung parts of town are still coming.

Nonetheless, parking was a major part of the Colorado Springs debate, just as it is here, where city leaders aren't saying much about the specifics of how it might work at the two preferred sites. Undeterred, we found some national experts - one of whom helps manage parking for the Superbowl - who were happy to give their recommendations on how city leaders could approach it. Stay tuned for that next week.
Downtown Albuquerque News covers greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area created by I-40, the Rio Grande, and the railroad tracks. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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