Colorado Competes: USOC Gets Millions to Stay in Colo. Springs

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USOC Headquarters in downtown Colorado Springs [Photo: Courtesy USOC]

The Opening Ceremonies for the London Olympics are just two days away. CPR is looking at our state’s Olympic ties with our series “Colorado Competes.”

Since 1978, Colorado Springs has been home to the U.S. Olympic Committee, but four years ago, as the USOC’s agreement with the city was about to expire, the committee asked for millions in incentives to stick around. CPR’s Ben Markus has more on the USOC’s sometimes difficult relationship with the Springs.

Listen to other stories in our series "Colorado Competes."

Reporter Ben Markus: At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, dozens of visitors start their tour by watching an inspiring video.

USOC Video Clip: In London, an American tradition will continue - US Olympians and Paralympians competing with pride, with unyielding determination.

Reporter: More than 70,000 people visit the Training Center every year. Between this and the USOC headquarters downtown, the economic impact on Colorado Springs is estimated at more than $200 million a year, according to a report commissioned by the USOC.

Scott Hente: The economics are huge.

Reporter: Scott Hente is President of the Colorado Springs City Council. He says that’s why the city put up big money to keep the USOC in town, paying for new offices and upgrades to existing space. A local developer was supposed to provide some of that space as part of a complex proposal meant to save the city from fronting all the cash. But as the recession deepened, things quickly fell apart. The developer ran out of money, and his efforts to keep the deal alive ended in fraud charges. The then-mayor, who allegedly had ties to the developer, faced an ethics inquiry. But Councilman Scott Hente defends the integrity of the deal that some have called "shady."

Hente: Well, you know, having been intimately involved in that, I’m not sure that I would use the word "shady dealings."

Reporter: He notes the Mayor was cleared, and the charges against the developer were dropped. Hente says eventually the city had to craft a new incentives deal - not something local taxpayers were thrilled with.

Hente: Boy, I tell ya, anytime you start talking about incentives in Colorado Springs it becomes a very heated topic very quickly. And not just with the USOC - any types of financial incentives. And I think a large part of it is, it’s a very fiscally conservative city.

Reporter: The city created a $42 million package financed with taxpayer money to build new downtown office space and upgrade the Training Center. Colorado Springs Business Journal columnist and reporter John Hazelhurst is an outspoken critic of the deal. He says the city was in no position to offer an incentives package during a recession.

John Hazelhurst: The city was broke. The city had to subsequently to turn off street lights and stop watering parks.

Reporter: And he says no other cities had offered the USOC anything. There were only rumors that places like San Diego were interested. But Hazelhurst says the City Council panicked in offering the organization millions to stay.

Hazelhurst: They saw it as symbolic, and they thought if the USOC leaves on our watch, you know, we have not done our job.

Reporter: For its part, the USOC has been busy building bridges following the flood of negative press about the incentive deals. USOC spokesman Mark Jones, sitting in those brand new downtown offices paid for by the city, says the committee is trying to give back where it can.

Mark Jones: Whether it’s our executives serving on boards of directors or making financial contributions to various non-profits throughout town.

Reporter: He says the economic impact of the USOC is big, but so too is the psychological impact.

Jones: We think the Olympic movement is something to be proud of, and something, a cause for good, in this world. And it can’t hurt to associate with that as a community.

Reporter: The words “Proud Home of the U.S. Olympic Committee” have been added to the sign off the interstate welcoming drivers into the city. Outside the USOC’s downtown offices, city resident Marty Caldwell shares that pride.

Marty Caldwell: And it just gives us something extra in our town that other towns don’t have.

Reporter: And fellow taxpayer Colleen Turner said the incentives package was worth it.

Colleen Turner: Well, everything costs money, got to give a little to get a little. You know, you always think that money could have been used to other things, but you know I think it’s being OK.

Reporter: Despite differing opinions in the community about the deal, Councilman Scott Hente is pleased the USOC will call Colorado Springs home for the next 30 years.

Hente: And my goal is, at the 30 year anniversary, to be standing there going, "see this did work out really well." I’ll be in my late 80’s when we do that, but I have every intent to be here, you know.

Reporter: He hopes people will see that paying $40 million to keep an organization that will contribute billions to the local economy was a good deal.

[Photo: USOC]