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Denver’s National Western campus has no funding for a new arena after voters said no. Now what?

Election night 2021 wasn’t Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s first rodeo when it came to asking voters to let the city take out a serious amount of new debt to pay for big public projects in the city.

But it was his first time getting bucked by the bull.

The defeat of Referred Question 2E, a $190 million bond measure that would have helped pay for a 10,000-seat arena and the renovation of a stock show building into a community market, has left Hancock and his advisers in search of a new plan to finish off major components of the National Western campus transformation he pitched during his first term.

The term-limited mayor, who leaves office in less than two years, now is in danger of failing to find a solution that would complete one of his largest legacy projects.

“For me, this isn’t about any legacy,” Hancock said in an email to The Denver Post last week. “It’s about (how) we made a commitment to the voters and the communities around the campus about what this will mean for our city, and I want to make sure we fulfill that commitment.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock speaks during a celebration called “Raising the Roof” on the roof of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on Sept. 22, 2021. The term-limited mayor is looking ahead to how to fund a new arena at the National Western campus after voters defeated a bond measure to pay for its construction.

While the early stages of the National Western Center project chug along, the bond measure’s failure was in fact the second blow to later-phase plans to transform an area of the 250-acre campus referred to as “The Triangle.” The southeastern portion of the property, located between now-consolidated rail lines and Brighton Boulevard, is home to aging stock show buildings and would see large new venues built, including the arena — if only the city can figure out how to pay for them.

In May 2020, with COVID-19 shutdowns ravaging the city’s economy and tourism visits, the Hancock administration froze a bidding process that was aimed at creating a public-private partnership bringing about $528 million in development there, including an arena to replace the Denver Coliseum.

The Election-night loss does not necessarily mean the city will pivot back to seeking private development partners. In his email to The Post, Hancock said he intended to make sure “any path forward reflects the needs of the community and includes City Council.”

What comes next, in the words of Joshua Laipply, the city’s chief projects officer, is a slowdown in the planning process and much more community input.

“I think we need to go on a little bit of listening tour and just hear things instead of saying things,” Laipply said.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

The National Western Center in Denver is seen from above on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

Neighborhood not unified on plan

City officials should be prepared to hear conflicting opinions from people in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, the neighborhoods surrounding the campus that often are referred to as GES.

Nearly 58% of voters citywide rejected Question 2E, according to final unofficial results. But one Globeville precinct, located south of Interstate 70 and west of the South Platte River, was among 16 across the city with majority support for the measure.

“I would like to live long enough to see this National Western Center completed — and to see some of the community benefits,” said John Zapien, 85, who lives on Washington Street in Globeville. He’s served for years on a project advisory committee and also sits on the campus authority’s board. He campaigned in support of 2E.

Decades ago, Zapien lugged animal carcasses to trucks at one of the slaughterhouses that once operated in the area, and he says he also helped build the original Interstate 70 through the city. Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, now predominantly Latino, are still home to laborers, even if upscale development is closing in from the south.

Zapien sees a new arena as a potential “golden goose,” he said, since it likely would generate the most revenue, with proceeds from a “round up” option on purchases going to a community investment fund.

Denver Post file

The Stadium Arena is pictured during the National Western Stock Show in Denver on Jan. 18, 1985.

He and Silvia Hernandez, a more recent arrival in Swansea who owns a catering business, both also see promise in plans to convert the stock show’s 1909-built Stadium Arena building to a community market. The area long has lacked close access to fresh food.

“I hope that this new renovation can bring some life to this neighborhood in different ways — like opportunities for work, for businesses, opportunities for expression and culture,” said Hernandez, 51, a Mexican immigrant who helped start the Comal Heritage Food Incubator.

While supporters look to regroup, opponents of the bond measure hope to steer the National Western redevelopment in a new direction.

Since before 2E was referred to the ballot, the GES Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice has been advocating for a new approach for the triangle property. The group is pushing for the city to cede control of public land there back to the neighborhoods, especially since some homes and businesses were among the properties acquired to accommodate the campus redevelopment.

They view it as reparations for generations of neglect and harm by the city.

GES Coalition co-director Nola Miguel, 43, said community ownership of the triangle property through the coalition’s community land trust would benefit not just longtime residents but indigenous groups that the city’s growth and development have displaced. The land trust could make development decisions that aren’t driven by profit motives, focusing on attracting things like a grocery store and a childcare center and providing business opportunities for underrepresented people.

“We need the things that people need to survive,” she said.

There has been a lot of talk about the visitor-fed community investment fund and local jobs created by the campus, but Miguel dismissed those as crumbs compared to the benefits that would come from community ownership and an equal stake in decision-making. Locally owned businesses would generate more sales tax than any chain restaurant, she said.

“I think what we’re saying is, ‘Hey, we’re here and we’re willing to do this work but we want an equal stake, not developers taking all the profit,’ ” Miguel said. “Equity in the sense of actual equity; money, land.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony to kickoff construction on the National Western Center redevelopment on April 24, 2019.

A project years in the making

Voters may have struck down $190 million in new financing, but the work that’s already been done and is underway on the National Western ground hasn’t come cheap.

The massive city project’s roots go back to the very start of Hancock’s tenure in mid-2011. Right as he was elected mayor, Stock Show officials announced they would partner with the developers of the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center in Aurora to relocate the annual event to new adjacent grounds there.

City officials persuaded National Western to stay put — and in late 2014, they unveiled a master plan that not only would upgrade the facilities for the annual event but would expand the site into a year-round tourism, event, education and agricultural center.

In late 2015, city voters agreed, by a 30-point margin, to kick in hundreds of millions of dollars by indefinitely extending existing 1.75% city taxes on car rentals and hotel rooms.

The scope of the initial phases of the 250-acre campus eclipsed $1 billion once Colorado State University signed on as one of several partners. CSU committed to building its “Spur” campus focused on publicly oriented food, water and health programs, also including a role for the university’s veterinary medicine program.

The first of three CSU buildings open in early 2022, with the others following later in the year.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Crews work on the Vida building on Colorado State University’s Spur campus on the National Western Center grounds in Denver on Tuesday. Jan. 12, 2021.

Massive new livestock and equestrian centers planned by the city haven’t yet been constructed, but the livestock building likely will break ground next spring.

The city’s approved spending, currently budgeted at $774 million — most of it coming from those tourist taxes — doesn’t cover everything envisioned by the master plan, only the first two phases of eight. The later phases included the renovation of the 1909 building and construction of a new arena and exposition center.

There were only vague hopes from the Hancock administration that the private sector would see the revenue potential of those structures and help figure out a financing plan. But those hopes fizzled when the bidding process was called off during the pandemic.

A recent city presentation shows it has spent 57% of that $774 million so far, most of that for the massive undertaking of preparing a complex site obscured by above-ground pipes, freight railroad tracks and other impediments.

Crews have built or rebuilt roads; gotten started on a new bridge across the South Platte River at 51st Avenue, into Globeville; buried a massive sanitary sewage pipe to replace two 6-foot-diameter pipes that had run at ground level along the Platte; relocated railroad tracks to consolidate them near the Regional Transportation District’s new N-Line commuter rail; and laid new utility pipes, including starting work on an innovative system that will provide the eventual new buildings with heat captured from the underground sewer pipes.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Construction is ongoing on a new bridge near near 48th and 51st Avenues of the National Western campus on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

When visitors arrive for the Stock Show’s January 2022 run, the first in two years, they “are going to be impressed with all the change that’s happened out there,” predicted Tykus Holloway, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center, which is overseeing construction.

A centerpiece is a replaced National Western Drive, between the campus and the river, complete with multi-use paths for people on foot or bikes.

“You’ll be able to walk along there and see the river for the first time in a long time,” Holloway said.

Crews also have cleared out old wooden animal pens and outdated auction halls. They’ve built a new Stockyards Event Center, surrounded by 20 acres of yards, on the northern part of the campus.

All of the work that’s occurred has set the table for more buildings to start coming out of the ground next year, Holloway said. But the uncertainty of the arena and other buildings in the unfunded later phases casts a shadow over the endeavor.

“They were identified in the master plan as key elements … in helping meet the future vision and mission, including the future home of the stock show,” Holloway said. He noted that stock show events hosted by the coliseum, which opened in 1951, will need a new home when that aging building is no longer viable.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Bailey Lonnberg brings horses out of the coliseum to head out of town after the U.S. Bank Pro Rodeo Finals on January 21, 2018. It was the last day of the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

A ticking clock for arena

The deterioration of the coliseum isn’t the only ticking clock governing what happens next.

The city and its partners signed a framework agreement in 2017 that set the terms for how the campus would be developed and operated over the next 50 to 100 years. It includes a 10-year deadline by which the city must solidify a financing and construction plan for the new arena and expo hall.

If the city doesn’t hit that 2027 deadline, the project partners — CSU, the stock show or the National Western Center Authority — will have the option to submit their own plans to bring those pieces to fruition. The authority is a nonprofit that’s separate from the city’s National Western Center office and was set up to operate, maintain and oversee programming on the budding campus, including attracting new events and shows throughout the year.

For now, those partners are committed to supporting the city in its efforts to find the money for the unfunded phases.

“These are not quick projects. They take a year or more to design and engineer and a couple more years to construct, at least,” said Brad Buchanan, the CEO of the National Western Center Authority. “We’re not wasting time. We have got to find another funding source.”

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Taylor Toves rides to a win during PBR Denver Chute Out at the National Western Stock Show on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.

Geoff Propheter, an assistant professor in the University of Colorado Denver’s school of public affairs, studies economic and land development in the sports world. He sees similarities between Question 2E and tax and bond measures to pay for sports stadiums.

They rarely pass easily, he said, tending to eke out wins by a percentage point or two — with a stronger chance of passing if supporters wildly outspend opponents.

For the arena bond measure, the Friends of the National Western Stock Show committee spent $845,102 during the 2021 election cycle, while the opponents’ committee spent $3,430, campaign finance reports show. That’s a ratio of roughly $246 to $1.

That suggests to Propheter supporters did a poor job selling the voters on the benefits of the projects, and perhaps that voters who remembered the 2015 tax measure felt they already had done their part. The city could regroup and approach voters again, but Propheter said it might be better served looking at the tools it already has.

“So now we have land,” Propheter said. “As long as real estate prices are booming or are expected to boom in the near future, the value of the land is a tradeable asset.”

In the near term, Buchanan is looking forward to bringing in some money through the authority he oversees. Launched with funding from the city, up until now the authority hasn’t had any public facilities on the campus available to rent out and bring in a return on the city’s investment. That has resulted in some lean times; earlier this year, the authority laid off two staff members.

Now it is staffing up again, hoping to hire for marketing and event operations roles, Buchanan said.

“We’ve been holding off on a number of smaller (events) until we figured out if we have secured a larger one. I hope to have more information shortly,” Buchanan said. “With the Stockyards Event Center as the anchor and with access off of the almost complete National Western Drive, people are going to be amazed at what’s available here in 2022.”

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Nick Sell pets his miniature zebu Sterling during the National Western Stock Show on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.

First comes the 116th annual National Western Stock Show. While Denver voters didn’t show much enthusiasm for the arena bonds, stock show CEO Paul Andrews said the opposite is true about the festivities in January. Ticket sales, sponsorships, livestock entries and horse show entries are all at or near all-time highs, he said.

“Our numbers are tremendously strong,” he said. “We are excited as all get-out.”

Andrews worked for Kroenke Sports & Entertainment before taking the reins at the stock show. With that company, he oversaw the then-Pepsi Center, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and the 1stBank Center in Broomfield.

A new arena may lack a funding source, but Andrews doesn’t need convincing that a gleaming 10,000-seat venue on the National Western grounds will be successful if it ever gets built.

“I am 100% sure that, well managed, that venue will drive financial results we can all be proud of,” he said.