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The Martin Drake Powerplant in Colorado Springs pictured on Dec. 12, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Martin Drake Power Plant is as prominent as it is controversial in Colorado Springs.

It’s an unmistakable landmark on the downtown horizon, especially in winter when steam from its coal-fired electric generation billows high into the air over the city’s handful of tall buildings and nearby Pikes Peak.

But alongside the debate about public health and environmental risks posed by the aging plant, is anxiety about how the city’s plans for downtown growth can coexist with the belching behemoth. The overwhelming consensus among Colorado Springs’ leaders is that it can’t, and that questions about future development — which already include a sports stadium and museum — can be answered only after those centering around the power plant are put to rest.

“It’s going to be closed, and it’s just a question of when,” Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said. “For me, it’s a question of when can it be done without imposing too big of a burden on the ratepayers. Right now the drop-dead date is 2035, and I think it can be done earlier than that.”

The Martin Drake Power Plant, from above, in southwest downtown Colorado Springs. City leaders want to develop the area around the coal-fired electric generator, but there are questions about how soon that can feasibly be done. (Screenshot from Google Earth)

But the idea of a coal-fired plant operating within about a block of major new attractions to many seems oxymoronic. Would people really want to live, work and play in the shadow of Martin Drake?

Shuttering the power plant will not happen overnight, though, even with pressure from other community leaders eager to see more growth and a mandate from City Council that it be powered down. City Council President Richard Skorman, for instance, would like to is decommissioned yesterday.

But Martin Drake provides a quarter of Colorado Springs’ entire power generation, and millions of dollars have been directed toward keeping it open and cleaning up its emissions.

“I think the sentiment is growing that it’s time to get serious about investing in modern electric generation and that Martin Drake’s time has come,” said Susan Edmonson, who leads the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership.

She added: “More and more that plant almost becomes symbolic of the past instead of the future of our city.”

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“Once we have this part of the equation done, it opens up all the other conversations”

The person at the center of the future of Martin Drake is Aram Benyamin, who took over the city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities late last year amid hopes that he would be able to usher in change.

He’s well aware of the political pressure he finds himself wedged in and welcomes it. Benyamin sees himself as an equal partner in cheerleading economic development for Colorado Springs — and he knows that Martin Drake is the barrier.

“The sky is the limit when you talk about all of those potentials,” he told The Colorado Sun. “Once we have this part of the equation done, it opens up all the other conversations. … We have huge economic development that’s waiting to happen.”

The Martin Drake part of the equation is not easy to solve. The site, near where Interstate 25 meets with U.S. 24, has been home to a power plant since 1925, and much of downtown Colorado Springs’ electricity is routed through that area. Shuttering the plant means building new infrastructure, both to generate power and to get it to customers.

The Martin Drake Powerplant in Colorado Springs pictured on Dec. 12, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“Unplugging Drake is a big hit to the system because all the feeders that come into downtown Colorado Springs come into the substation that’s next to Drake,” Benyamin said. “We need to get the projects in place. We need to get steel in the ground. We need to upgrade the system.”

Colorado Springs Utilities has been running through hundreds of scenarios to figure out exactly how to generate enough power without Drake while keeping electric rates and the city’s grid stable. Officials say the future will likely include some combination of renewables, battery storage and gas-fired generation. Right now, it’s looking like the earliest those could all be in place would be 2024 or 2025. But Benyamin isn’t making any commitments.

“It’s an engineering and a system problem,” he said. “And it’s not that big of a problem when you put it in (the) context of the future of the city for generations to come.”

Even if the consensus is that Martin Drake must die, some don’t want to see it go as quickly as others.

After all, the city has spent millions on so-called “scrubber” technology in an attempt to keep the power plant running with minimized emissions.

“We’re going to shut down the Drake power plant someday,” said state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican. “Right now, the best estimate, the cooler heads if you will, set that at 2035.”

Gardner was referencing a report put together by a task force that determined the power plant should be shuttered by that date.

“It’s very frustrating to me, after that process was done, to hear people say ‘let’s just shut this down, we’ll buy our power off the grid,’” Gardner said. “Well, that’s a surefire way to be at the mercy of the market, and it’s shortsighted.”

City-center power plants elsewhere

Other cities around the nation have had to deal with questions about what to do with centrally located power plants, which gives Colorado Springs a kind of playbook to follow.

For about five decades starting in the early 1900s, Denver Tramway Company’s coal-fired electric plant chugged away at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River — near where Speer Boulevard and Interstate 25 intersect.

Now the building that used to house the plant is REI’s Denver flagship store and serves as an anchor for recreation and real estate development in the area. Tom Noel, who chairs the history department chair at the University of Colorado Denver, says the area is now the “cradle of the city”

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“I think it transformed the core city that was suffering from blight and pollution into a magnet,” said Noel, who is chairman of the State Historian’s Council.

Noel said other Colorado cities have seen downtown power plants transformed into areas of growth. Salida, for instance, turned its steam-power plant — which was retired in the early 1960s — into the city-owned Steamplant Event Center, a riverside multi-use facility with an outdoor sculpture garden and space for meetings and other events.

“Salida has been a great model, and it really helped with how Salida is a little boom town now,” Noel said.

Redeveloping a power plant isn’t so easy, though. The area surrounding downtown Denver’s REI store, for instance, has needed costly coal-tar remediation.

Confluence Park in downtown Denver, photographed in March 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Springs Utilities says environmental assessments haven’t been completed on the Martin Drake site, but they think some kind of cleanup likely will be required there eventually. “It’s not as if that site is going to suddenly become a pristine park or we are going to build houses on top of it,” Gardner said. “It’s a clean-up site once it’s done.”

The hope, though, is that the site can eventually be redeveloped into a mixed-use mecca. It’s perfectly situated in Colorado Springs downtown.

“Certainly that area is so unique in that it has the creek and trail access as well as being centrally located near I-25 and Highway 24,” said Edmonson, who leads the downtown partnership. “That’s not just a once-in-a-generation opportunity. That’s almost a once-in-a-century opportunity to reenvision the heart of our city.”

But new businesses looking to move into Colorado Springs want to know when they will be able to tap that potential.

“They ask about it, and it helps to have a clearer answer than 2035,” she said.

“It’s just long overdue”

Colorado Springs leaders have been talking about the future of Martin Drake and its 35-acre campus hugging the city’s downtown for years.

“The downtown power plant — we should have closed it before,” said former Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, who helped envision the renaissance of the city’s southwest downtown. “It’s just long overdue.”

But the conversation has been forced to the forefront as the first real development moves toward completion. A museum for the U.S. Olympic Committee — which is within eyesight of the plant — is slated to open next year, and a 10,000-seat stadium for Colorado Springs’ soccer team is planned for the area just east of Martin Drake.

The under-construction U.S. Olympic Museum in downtown Colorado springs on Dec. 12, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The hope is that those two attractions will buoy development in southwest downtown Colorado Springs — housing and commercial space is the idea — which is now a kind-of industrial district dotted with warehouses and empty lots.

The city council asked for the power plant to be shut down by the end of this year — a goal the utility said was too lofty. But that doesn’t mean local leaders aren’t still pushing hard.

They are convinced that the future of Colorado Springs and Martin Drake are inextricably linked, and that it would better to go their separate ways as fast as possible.

“That image of a big downtown fire plant, a coal-fired power plant and the coal trains that come along with is something that our population is trending more and more to oppose,” said Skorman, one of Colorado Springs’ biggest proponents for closing Martin Drake as soon as possible. “If we let it go too long and we are too careful and we’re not able to make a decision because we don’t have all the information, I think we lose a real opportunity in terms of our branding image and who we are becoming as a city.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....