Dripped Dry

As metro cities buy up high country water rights, Park County's ranching heritage is evaporating.

Dilbeck believes Denver has advantages that will allow its convention center expansion to succeed where others have failed. Unlike Los Angeles and Kansas City, Denver has an attractive and thriving downtown. And Denver doesn't have a reputation as a depressed industrial town, like Philadelphia. "When people see lower downtown and the 16th Street Mall, it works to our favor," Dilbeck says.

Levine agrees that a city like Denver will have advantages over competing venues because of its mountain setting and revived downtown. But he questions whether the much-vaunted jobs created by conventions are worth large municipal subsidies. "Denver would have a reasonable chance of succeeding," he says. "The key question is, even if it succeeds, is that the best allocation of resources? There's no evidence these developments create the kind of economic boom their proponents claim. It doesn't create quality jobs for local residents."

Restaurant and hotel jobs are notoriously low-paying, and Levine believes it's a mistake for cities to lavish funds on an industry that doesn't provide decent employment. He points to New Orleans, one of the most successful tourist cities in America, as an example of the drawbacks of an economy based on travel. "New Orleans is a classic success story of tourist-based development," says Levine, "but 30 percent of the residents live in poverty."

Dilbeck, however, bristles at the charge that hospitality-industry jobs aren't worthwhile. "The average salary in the tourism industry matches up to average salaries in other industries," he insists. "You're talking to idealists when you talk to people who only want high-paying jobs. They're all wet behind the ears. The tourist industry is a wonderful one for entry-level employees. It's providing jobs for people without the skills to become computer programmers or engineers."

In the late 1980s, building a new convention center was touted as a way to recharge the depressed Denver economy, which was still suffering from the mid-decade collapse of the oil industry. Many office towers and hotels were half-empty, and civic leaders and downtown boosters were looking for a replacement industry to put some life back into Denver's core. Tourism seemed to fit the bill. Conventiongoers spend freely, pay local taxes, pack their bags and leave. For politicians they're like a dream: tax-paying party animals who never ask for more police patrols or a new elementary school.

But while Denver voters have been generous in funding everything from the performing arts to libraries--not to mention approving the construction of a $3.2 billion airport--they've been considerably more skeptical about the merits of convention facilities. The idealistic Pena charged into office in 1983 with the charismatic slogan "Imagine a great city," but soon discovered that a new convention center was a hot-button topic that could frustrate even the most resolute builder of cities.

Creating a new convention center became a major priority for Pena. But the young and inexperienced mayor found himself in the midst of a political free-for-all, as vying real estate interests came up with competing proposals. Denverites spent years arguing over where the new center should be. One group backed by developers Mickey Miller and Marvin Davis pushed a site behind Union Station, while another advocated the Golden Triangle just south of Civic Center Plaza. A smaller, less organized group wanted the convention center to be next to Currigan Hall on 14th Street, in a section of downtown that was looking more blighted by the day.

Pena pushed the Union Station site, and at one point it seemed all but certain the convention center would be built there. But questions over financing and the wisdom of locating the convention center away from the downtown core continued to dog the project, and opponents launched a successful petition drive to require a public vote on the proposal. The result was one of the biggest setbacks of Pena's career, as voters rejected the Union Station site 65 percent to 35 percent in 1985.

That's when the Colorado Legislature entered the fray. The state agreed to contribute $36 million to the project, with the proviso that final determination of an appropriate site would be given over to the Urban Land Institute, an independent Washington, D.C.-based research group. (With its contribution, the legislature also ensured that the new center would be named for the state, rather than the city in which it was built.) After studying the competing sites, the Urban Land Institute recommended the location on 14th Street next to Currigan Hall; Pena and other civic boosters endorsed the selection with a sense of relief that the whole controversy had come to a close. In those pre-Amendment 1 days, all it took was a vote by Denver City Council to approve the bond sale, and the deal was done. The job of designing the center fell to Curt Fentress, the Denver architect who would later be brought in on Denver International Airport.

"The impact of this will be very substantial, not just in terms of hotel beds it fills, restaurant business and shopping sales, but the spinoff of ancillary tourism as well," predicted Governor Roy Romer in 1990. The new center came in on time and within budget that spring, and civic leaders gleefully waited for torrents of new business to course through the streets of downtown Denver.

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