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2/22/2004

Millennium tennis bubble becomes an event facility

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — Many people are familiar with the “tennis bubble,” just off the bike path west of the 28th Street underpass at the Millennium Harvest House Hotel — it’s been inflated in the fall and taken down in the spring for the past 20 years.

Thanks to a favorable ruling from the city, however, the bubble can now be used for more than tennis — it’s now the biggest indoor space in the county in which to hold events.

“It’s a sign that the city is realizing it’s important to keep business in the city of Boulder,” said Dan Pirrallo, the Millennium’s general manager. “Any dollars generated in the Omni (in Broomfield) or the Westin (in Westminster) for taxes, they never came back to Boulder County.”

The Millennium, just south of 28th Street and Arapahoe Avenue, has 18,000 square feet of space inside its hotel in which to hold events, but the bubble itself is 32,000 square feet.

By comparison, total space at the Omni and Westin is approximately 32,000 and 35,000 square feet, respectively. But that’s total space, not one big room, which essentially is what the bubble becomes.

The biggest ballroom at the Raintree Conference Center in Longmont is approximately 9,200 square feet.

“We did our first event on February 7 (in the bubble),” said Charlie Gordon, the Millennium’s director of catering. “We had about 700 people, and it was the largest indoor event in the hotel’s history.”

At that event, Gordon said three bands on three stages fit inside the bubble without interfering with each other. Up to 1,200 people could be accommodated, she said.

The bubble, which normally holds five tennis courts and is about the size of a football field, is inflated around October and then deflated in April. Pirrallo said years ago, the hotel had approached the city about using the bubble to host special events but was turned down.

“I’ve been in this city a little over two years,” Pirrallo said. “When I first came to the city and we would pick up the phone and speak with staff and ask about an issue, the easy answer was always ‘no.’

“I’m not sure how they classified (the bubble), I just know when the question was asked before the answer was no.”

Last year, Pirrallo approached the city again — and asked if he could hold functions in the bubble. He was told no at first, but then he met with City Manager Frank Bruno and Chief Building Official Corey Schmidt.

“They thought at the time they wanted to have at least one (event),” said Schmidt. “It’s an air-supported structure, and we did have some concerns about that.”

Normally, the bubble’s maximum occupancy is 50 people. For that to change, Schmidt said changes needed to be made to bring the structure into compliance with the required number of exits and the fire code. Each time the hotel wants to hold an event in the bubble it needs to file for a special events permit, but Schmidt said that shouldn’t be a problem, given the success of the February event.

While the 32,000-square-foot bubble does give the hotel a chance to market itself as a place for large events, its primary function will not change: It’s still first and foremost a place for guests and members of the hotel’s tennis club to play tennis, Pirrallo said, adding that it’s also very important that when they do host events, it has to be the “right kind of group.”

Dog shows and possibly a New Year’s Eve “cultural arts showcase,” involving some of the county’s non-profits, are two future events being considered, Pirrallo said.

He said that since he wasn’t here then, he couldn’t say whether the city would have given him the green light on the bubble five years ago. But everything he’s heard anecdotally indicate that the city’s attitude may be shifting.

“I think the (city) council has finally recognized that economic development is a critical piece of the long-term health of the city,” said Pirrallo.

With the Crossroads redevelopment still in the planning stages and Boulder’s sales and use tax having fallen each of the past two years, even if the bubble only features a few events a year, every little bit can help.

“Their intentions were one thing, and our intentions were another, but the fact that it’s good for Boulder County from a business standpoint is another benefit,” said Schmidt.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.