In 2009, Colorado business leaders came up with an idea to boost the state’s then-sagging economy: help cities and counties build new tourist attractions by allowing some of the state sales-tax revenue that would be generated by those attractions to be rebated to the developers to pay off construction costs.
Lawmakers green-lighted the idea by passing the Colorado Regional Tourism Act, or RTA. The law called for the state to give tax incentives to as many as two “extraordinary and unique” projects each year for three years. To qualify, projects must have the potential to draw a substantial number of out-of-state visitors — and they must really need the money. The law requires that incentives be given to projects that probably wouldn’t get built without them.
Glendale was among the six applicants for the first round of RTA funding in 2011. Its application was for the $400 million Riverwalk, complete with a four-foot-deep, man-made canal; electric riverboats; bars, restaurants and retail shops; a 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater; and a Rugby Hall of Fame. But Glendale didn’t win: The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, which evaluated the applications, rejected Glendale’s as not unique enough.
In May 2012, the state’s Economic Development Commission instead okayed Aurora’s application tied to the 1,500-room Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Conference Center, and one from Pueblo, which wanted to enhance its own riverwalk, expand its convention center and build a professional bull-riding academy.
.Aurora was awarded an estimated $81.4 million in sales-tax rebates over thirty years, while Pueblo got an estimated $14.8 million over fifty years. (Pueblo’s incentives package is currently being restructured, after the state discovered an error in its original calculations.)
Glendale officials say they were frustrated with the process and disappointed that their project lost out. Other applicants were upset, too, and in 2013, just one city applied — Colorado Springs, for four different projects: an Olympic museum, a sports-medicine clinic in cooperation with the University of Colorado, a new visitors’ center at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a downtown stadium. The commission subsequently awarded Colorado Springs an estimated $121 million in rebates over fifty years.
Of the projects that have been awarded RTA rebates, Aurora is the only one that’s broken ground so far. In April, construction work quietly began on the Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Conference Center, which has been the most controversial of the projects. Shortly after the commission approved Aurora’s application, the project’s developer dropped out. A new developer stepped forward with lower cost projections, which caused some to question whether the hotel really needed the RTA money. The incentives were also challenged by a group of Denver-area hotels that considered the Gaylord project competition. But Aurora lost a lawsuit earlier this year when a judge invalidated a separate one-person election to raise taxes to benefit the project.
The law creating the RTA has also faced scrutiny. Last year, lawmakers passed limits on how much money the Economic Development Commission can award to projects. And in June, the state Legislative Audit Committee voted to audit the RTA program, partly because of concerns about the Aurora project.
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This is the last year of the RTA, and two municipalities have applied in this final round. Denver wants the RTA to help support a colossal transformation of the outdated National Western Center, home of the annual stock show, into a “modern complex with year-round tourism and agribusiness potential.” Denver is asking the economic-development commission for $128 million in sales-tax rebates over 36 years; if that request is approved, it would be the most expensive RTA incentives package to date. But an outside analyst says that Denver is overestimating how much money the project would generate and that the city would actually be eligible for just $81 million in rebates. And Go NoCO, a nonprofit formed by Larimer County, Loveland and Windsor, is pushing for the construction of two luxury hotels, one with an indoor/outdoor water park; the Stanley Film Center, an auditorium and horror-movie museum at the iconic Stanley Hotel; and an artificial whitewater river adventure park.
The commission will hold a "deep-dive workshop" into the details of the Denver proposal at a meeting today; it's scheduled to vote on whether to approve the projects on November 12 — the week after Denver residents will vote on 2C, a funding plan that's also critical to the National Western Center. Then, on December 10, the commissioners will take another vote on the size of the rebates.