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Denver election 2021: Five questions, $450M worth of bonds and a controversial arena

Four years ago, a $937 million bond package seeking to raise money for things like overdue roadwork and improvements to city cultural facilities cruised to an electoral victory in Denver.

Mayor Michael Hancock and supporters are back on the ballot this year, asking voters in the Nov. 2 election to approve a $450 million bond package that would take a bite out of the city’s $4 billion backlog of projects.

Dubbed the RISE Denver general obligation bonds, the five debt-inducing measures would fund work including the construction of two new libraries, upgrades to homeless shelters and, most controversially, a new arena at the National Western Center campus.

For supporters, the time to move is now. They point out that federal regulators have indicated that interest rates will be increased starting next year and say investing in city infrastructure will fuel Denver’s recovery from the economic damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The reality is we have got to play a role in reigniting our economy,” Hancock said. “Most of these projects are focused in underserved neighborhoods. The post-pandemic era is when we focus on delivering services and jobs to underserved communities.”

The RISE package may face more voter scrutiny than the 2017 bonds, particularly when it comes to Referred Question 2E.

The costliest of the five measures, 2E would fund the construction of a 10,000-seat multi-use arena on the National Western Center campus a renovate an arena built there in 1909 to turn it into a public market.

Hancock sees those projects as the “economic stimulus” portion of the bond package, facilities that will create opportunities for small businesses and bring some money back into the city once complete.

Sarah Lake is leading the No on the Arena Bond campaign against the measure. She says 2E is half-baked, poorly planned and economically unsound, pointing to feasibility studies that raised questions about whether the proposed arena could compete for concerts with the then Pepsi Center and 1stBank Center in Broomfield and if the public market would be sustainable without more population density around the National Western campus.

The long-planned projects were expected to be funded through a partnership with a private developer but the city paused the bidding process for that last year amid the pandemic.

“The city is rushing to pass the cost on to taxpayers after the public-private partnership fell through without taking the time to consider other more equitable ways to finance the project,” Lake said. “We are not going to see the economic benefits if the market and arena ultimately do not turn out to be profitable.”

The RISE Denver campaign backing the bond package has emphasized that 2E will not raise taxes, but Lake says that’s disingenuous. The ballot language leaves the door open for the city to increase property taxes by $35.2 million a year to pay off the debt.

City finance officials say that even under the most conservative estimations, the city expects to be able to pay for the bond package without increasing taxes and there is no intention to do so.

In the north Denver neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea that surround the National Western campus, known collectively as GES, opinions over 2E differ.

The GES Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice has come out against the measure, saying in a news release that it is “not in line with equitable development, nor equitable recovery.” Instead of 2E, the coalition wants the city to focus on health and housing services like investing in rent-controlled and subsidized housing.

Longtime resident Juan Velos urged voters to pass the bonds at a news conference held Wednesday at the train station next to the National Western campus. He was joined by Councilwoman Debbie Ortega and more than a dozen other people supporting all five measures.

“The market that is being proposed is very important for the community,” Velos said through a translator. “We’re really going to try to raise the consciousness of the community and really complete these projects so it will be something successful.”

The bond package includes much more than the arena measure, and the Hancock administration is projecting a big return on the investments if voters choose to make them. He said the bond projects will lead to the creation of around 7,500 jobs, generating an estimated $483 million in worker wages. Private money is expected to follow the city’s lead.

“We have examples like Brighton Boulevard and Union Station where when the public leans in, the private sector tends to respond with almost five, six times the investment,” he said.

Christine O’Connor, a city government critic and watchdog, points out there are still projects funded through the 2017 bond package that haven’t been completed.

“They’re taking the easy way out,” she said of the city leaders supporting RISE. “They are relying on the goodwill of Denver voters who always say “Sure, have some more of our tax money.” I honestly don’t think it’s time for more general obligation bonds.”

Here is a breakdown of the five bond measures and what they do:

  • Referred Question 2A (Denver Facilities System Bonds): $104 million for projects like repairs and improvements at the Denver Botanic Gardens; two new libraries; renovation of a city-owned youth empowerment center; and accessibility upgrades for city buildings.
  • Referred Question 2B (Denver Housing and Sheltering System Bonds): $38.6 million for housing and shelter projects like building or renovating shelters for the homeless and possibly buying buildings to covert into shelters.
  • Referred Question 2C (Denver Transportation and Mobility System Bonds): $63.3 million for transportation projects like expanding Denver’s sidewalks; renovating existing bike lanes and adding new ones; rebuilding stretches of the Morrison Road corridor to add a cultural and arts district; and building an urban trail downtown.
  • Referred Question 2D (Denver Parks and Recreation System Bonds): $54 million for parks projects in northeast and south Denver; restoring athletic courts and fields; replacing playground and recreation equipment; and rebuilding the Mestizo-Curtis Park pool.
  • Referred Question 2E (National Western Campus Facilities System Bonds): $190 million to build a new arena at the National Western Center campus and to renovate the existing 1909 Building.