Tourism subsidies: John Hickenlooper vetoes bill that would allow up to six projects to qualify

The competition for state tourism incentives will remain as stiff as ever thanks to a veto this morning from Governor John Hickenlooper. Hick nixed a bill that would have allowed the Colorado Economic Development Commission to approve up to six new projects for sales-tax rebates. Six projects, including a proposed 1,500-room hotel, have applied for the perks.

Now the maximum number of projects that can receive the rebates is two -- as set forth in the original legislation, the Regional Tourism Act. The developers of the would-be hotel, Tennessee-based Gaylord Entertainment, have been lobbying hard for the commission to pick them. Speakers heaping love on the Gaylord dominated the first of two public hearings on the six proposals, using phrases like "win-win" and "dream project." There are also skeptics, however, including downtown Denver businessman Steve Weil, who question why the mega-hotel needs megabucks.

In his veto letter, Hickenlooper says expanding the number of projects that could receive tax breaks would "alter" the intent of the original legislation: to give a leg up to "unique" and "extraordinary" tourism projects that would "attract significant investment and revenue from outside the state of Colorado." The point is not to help projects that "are likely to serve only the interests of a particular community," he notes.

Gaylord argues that its hotel fits into the first category. In March, Gaylord's CEO, Colin Reed, told the nine-member eco devo commission that a Gaylord hotel in Aurora would attract big conferences -- conferences too large to be served in any other metro-area hotel. "Frankly," he said, "you have a gap in the meetings we go after." Reed also said that Gaylord's customers are loyal and would follow the brand to Colorado.

But commission members questioned how much money the Gaylord needs -- and how much it's already secured. Aurora -- which is trying hard to increase its tourism market, as explained in our feature, "Wish You Were Here!" -- has already promised it up to $300 million in tax rebates. Through the RTA, the city is asking that Gaylord be rebated an additional 81 percent of the sales taxes it would generate. Gaylord estimates it will cost $825 million to build the hotel, which could open as early as 2016.

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Other projects vying for the tax perks include a combination youth sports complex-and-archeological preserve in Douglas County; a project in Estes Park that would renovate the historic Elkhorn Lodge and build a ski area, museum and history center; a proposal to build a riverwalk in Glendale; and a proposal in Pueblo to expand the city's convention center and riverwalk and build a new aquatic center and bull-riding training facility. This last project appears to be a favorite.

The Colorado Economic Development Commission is scheduled to choose on May 18.

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