much space for too few conventions?
Colorado Springs and Vail
may jump into the growing pool of conference centers. But
critics doubt the facilities could compete with Denver's for
photo / Craig F. Walker
|A foe of Colorado
Springs’ convention-center plans says that
“many people who are looking at Colorado
Springs are also looking at big brother
Denver” and its newly expanded facility, the
auditorium of which is shown above.
Decades-long proposals to build publicly funded convention
and conference centers in Colorado Springs and Vail may be
nearing reality amid questions of whether the investments will
Colorado Springs residents will most likely vote this spring
on a $74 million convention center and U.S. Olympic Hall of
In Vail, the Town Council will make a final decision early
next year on whether to break ground on a $42.5 million
conference center that was approved by voters in 2002.
The earliest the facilities in Vail and Colorado Springs
would open is 2007.
Proponents envision economic engines that pump millions of
dollars into their communities from increased tourism, overnight
hotel guests and sales-tax revenues.
With the same logic, Denver spent more than $310 million to
expand the Colorado Convention Center, which opened to great
fanfare this month.
But convention centers are far from a sure bet. The meetings
and convention industry has been shrinking for several years,
according to Heywood Sanders, a public policy professor at the
University of Texas at San Antonio and a leading critic of
convention centers as revenue generators.
Attendance at the 200 major U.S. trade shows and conventions
has dropped from a peak of 5.1 million in 1996 to 4.1 million in
2003, Sanders said. At the same time, the amount of exhibition
space has grown from 40.4 million square feet in 1990 to 63.6
million square feet available this year.
"You've got a lot more space chasing fewer
attendees," Sanders said. "I'd advise serious caution
before launching such a project."
Another hurdle for Vail and Colorado Springs: their regional
airports offer far fewer direct flights than Denver
International Airport, a factor that meeting planners take into
consideration in choosing a location.
"We're a second-tier market (in Colorado), and it's very
competitive out there," said Jackie Duff, president of the
Pikes Peak Lodging Association, a group of Colorado Springs
hotels that oppose building a convention center because they say
current meeting facilities are adequate.
"The reality is many meeting planners are looking for
the nonstop air service," Duff said. "I think we would
be naive if we don't recognize that many people who are looking
at Colorado Springs are also looking at big brother Denver up
It is possible for convention centers to thrive in smaller
Colorado cities. Two Rivers Convention Center in Grand Junction
opened in 1975 and underwent a renovation in 2001. It generated
$1.3 million in revenue in 2003.
"You just have to have a really good plan and a really
strong product," said Larry McCue, director of conference
sales at Keystone Conference Center, which opened its mountain
conference space in 1989. "It's all about quality of
Need for convention center
debated in Colorado Springs
In Colorado Springs, the proposal calls for a
155,000-square-foot convention center and a 25,000-square-foot
U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. The U.S. Olympic Committee's
administrative headquarters are in Colorado Springs.
The center is part of the city's larger urban renewal plan
for southwest downtown.
The proposed convention center is likely to be funded by an
increase in lodging and auto-rental taxes, said Tom James, a
Colorado Springs attorney who is heading the coalition of
convention center proponents. Voters there have long been wary
of a publicly funded convention center and have turned down
numerous proposals in the past three decades.
"Colorado Springs has not approved this several times in
the past, so history would say that it will be a
challenge," James said. "But in my own opinion, this
will be the most viable proposal yet to be put forth. I'm
optimistic voters will approve."
According to a 2003 feasibility study funded by taxpayer
money, the center could have an economic impact on downtown of
$87.1 million by 2011, create 1,200 new jobs and bring in about
$2 million in annual tax revenue.
But some believe the city doesn't need the additional
exhibition space. Colorado Springs is already home to two
100,000-square-foot venues - the Phil Long Expo Center and the
Southern Colorado Expo Center.
"We're opposed to it because we believe that this is not
going to be the bonanza to the tourism industry that has been
reported," said Duff, who is also general manager of the
local Embassy Suites hotel. "We already have places where
people can hold conventions. We believe this one would
eventually become a tax burden to the citizens."
Another factor in the Colorado Springs convention market is
The Broadmoor Hotel and Resort, which is undergoing a $43
million expansion of its convention space, slated to open in
October. The additional 70,000 square feet will bring the
Broadmoor's total convention and meeting space to about 184,000
"The market is so oversaturated, it's tough," said
Broadmoor president Stephen Bartolin, who opposes the city's
convention center proposal. "But in our case, all we're
doing just adding another niche of business to our existing
A push in Vail to attract
conventioneers in off-season
In November 2002, Vail voters approved a 1.5 percent lodging
tax increase and a half-cent sales tax increase to fund a
proposed $42.5 million, 113,000-square-foot conference facility.
It will be in Lionshead Village and could host corporate and
professional groups as large as 2,500 people.
If the Vail Town Council approves final design and financial
plans this spring, construction could be completed by 2007.
But a controversy has erupted over the chosen
"natural" design for the conference center, complete
with an undulating roof, which some say looks like a mushroom.
"I believe that the brand name of Vail will give us a
very strong advantage," said Stan Cope, owner of Vail
property management company American Hospitality and a member of
the Conference Center Oversight Committee. "We feel pretty
comfortable that if we do a good job on this, the people will
The Vail Conference Center is part of a push by the resort
and the town to attract tourists year-round.
Given the lack of room inventory and parking spaces during
peak ski season, some say it is not a wise move to build a
facility that can be fully viable only from March through
"You don't spend $42 million building something that can
be used four or five months out of the year," said Diana
Donovan, a Vail Town Council member who is against the
conference center. "The rest of the time, the beds are just
Staff writer Julie Dunn can be reached at 303-820-1592 or firstname.lastname@example.org.