- Associated Press - Sunday, September 13, 2015

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Paul Ruggeri has everything he needs in one place at the Olympic Training Center.

The 26-year-old gymnast, who is preparing to compete for the United States in the World Championships, can live for free, access athletic trainers, take college classes and break away from the grind of practice by exploring towering mountains that don’t exist where he grew up in New York.

“Every time I come back here I’m really excited just to be back,” Ruggeri said. “And it’s almost like a stress relief to know everything is taken care of and it really accommodates our intense training.”

Six years after a 30-year economic development agreement kept the United States Olympic Committee headquartered in Colorado Springs, officials say the deal is working.

The USOC and some of its sports’ national governing bodies have moved into new headquarters here, training center improvements have enhanced the experience for athletes and coaches, and the money the city pays annually as part of the $42.3 million deal is considered to be worth the investment.

The controversy surrounding the agreement - including a criminal investigation, an ethics complaint, and the use of taxpayer money to keep the organization in Colorado Springs - is largely gone.

“What we’re seeing now is the accumulation and the fruition of the deal that was struck,” Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, told The Colorado Springs Gazette (https://bit.ly/1KgctDt). “So we can look back with the wisdom of time and see that was turbulence in the beginning and it’s really working out in the long run.”

In 1978 the USOC moved from New York City to Colorado Springs and established its headquarters at a former North American Aerospace Defense Command facility. Among the promises made in the city’s 2009 agreement with the organization were a collection of tax breaks, perks and incentives.

There has not been a recent economic study done on the impact of the USOC and the approximately two dozen sports national teams headquartered in the city. Analyses by local economist Dave Bamberger and Deloitte, conducted around the singing of the agreement, estimated the USOC’s impact to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The study by Deloitte, a USOC sponsor, said in 2009 that the organization and its governing bodies employed 719 people in El Paso County. Additional jobs, earnings and visitors were also attributed to it via tourism, related sports organizations and other indirect impacts.

Fred Crowley, an economist with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said if the USOC had left, national governing bodies based here may have followed. Those moves could have caused a negative economic ripple effect impacting rent prices for downtown real estate and the number of high-paid employees in the region.

A marketing deal that allows the city to use the United States’ five-ring Olympic logo and brand itself as the official home of the USOC was another benefit that organization’s presence brings to the city, Crowley said.

“It can never hurt you to have the best-known sports symbol in the world as a logo for your town,” he said.

Colorado Springs issued $31.47 million in debt - without needing voter approval - to help pay for the deal. The city is projected to pay an average of about $2 million a year over the course of the agreement to pay off the debt.

The annual payments are overshadowed by the city’s long-term prospects as a result of the deal, said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers.

Without keeping the USOC, improvements to the training center, retaining and expanding the national governing bodies in Colorado Springs and plans to build an Olympic museum would not be possible, he said.

“The combination of these things is allowing us, in a not unreasonably boastful way, to brand ourselves America’s Olympic City,” Suthers said. “And I just think the future economic development that’s going to flow from all those things together is really tremendous.”

Draper said the impact of having the USOC in Colorado Springs is also felt in the number of former Olympians who live in the area.

“It’s part of our community’s DNA,” he said.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said the organization is happy with the partnership.

“One of the primary benefits of the agreement is that it paved the way for a much more constructive and collaborative relationship between the city and the USOC - for too long we were ships passing in the night,” Blackmun, who became CEO in January 2010, said in an email. “Now we look for opportunities to support each other.”

The USOC can buy out of the leases for its downtown headquarters and the building that houses national governing bodies in October 2024, according to the agreement.

But that’s a long way off. For now, Blackmun said he sees good things for the future of the organization in the city.

“The recruiting advantages of Colorado Springs are that this is a beautiful place to live, with remarkable access to outdoor recreational activities, and we have a lower cost of living,” he said. “It is a beautiful place to work and train and live. We are grateful for the support the community has given us.”

Colorado Springs does not have the same activity level as bigger cities across the country, but that may be a good thing for the athletes training here.

The ability to mix high-level training at 6,000 feet above sea level with a more relaxed social scene makes this an ideal place for athletes to prepare, said Davis Roast, a paralympic strength and conditioning coach.

“Here I think it’s a good balance of having a social life in Colorado Springs but not being distracted from your main goal, which is training for the Olympics or Paralympics,” he said.

The USOC also has training centers in Chula Vista, California, and Lake Placid, New York, but the Colorado Springs location is considered its flagship.

Sherry VonRiesen, who coordinates athlete services at the training center, is seen as a motherly figure for athletes like Ruggeri. About 150 coaches and athletes live in the training center’s on- and off-campus housing, she said, with the number of residents expanding when people visit for camps or competitions.

Although the number of people who use the training center does not deviate much year-round - between 12,000 and 15,000 athletes visit it annually - the excitement on the complex is palpable as the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro near, VonRiesen said.

“This is where the action is,” she said.


Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com

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