Federico Pena, former Denver mayor and current Secretary of Transportation, was so anxious to build Denver International Airport that he paid an $8 million "ransom" to Adams County.
So says Jim Nelms, chief hostage-holder and an early player in Denver's airport game. In the Eighties Nelms served as both Adams County commissioner and chairman of the Front Range Airport Authority, which was building a 3,100-acre facility some three miles due east of what would someday become DIA. Back in those days, though, Front Range didn't regard a new airport as potential competition. In fact, the plan sounded far preferable to renovating Stapleton. "The Adams people had been dead-set against any expansion onto the [Rocky Mountain] Arsenal, because we feared it would cause noise problems for our residents," Nelms recalls. "But when Pena came up with this idea of a new airport, we were all for it, because it would be in sparsely settled country where we were building Front Range at the time, and there was some thought we might be included in the new Denver project. "
Pena, however, said that Front Range was too far from Denver. And in August 1984, Denver quietly began buying land west of there in Adams County.
(The next few years saw a series of land deals with greatly inflated prices. Although a 1991 state attorney general's investigation found no illegalities in the dealings, it recommended that Denver seek redress in civil suits. No such suits have been filed, however.)
As momentum for the new airport began to build, no mention was made of any alternatives to the DIA site. But in 1987 Denver was offered permission and financing by the Federal Aviation Administration to expand Stapleton onto the arsenal, after a study determined that the land in question wasn't significantly contaminated. Not only was such an expansion possible, the FAA determined, but it was desirable. Two arsenal runways could be added to Stapleton at a cost of just $75 million.
This was the same expansion that Mayor William McNichols had proposed eight years before and that Pen had dismissed soon after taking office in 1983. He didn't consider it in 1987, either. Instead he pushed on with his proposal for an annexation of the Adams County site.
"It was that 1987 decision of Pen's that put the fix in," says Nelms, who at the time was the chairman of Front Range. "Up to that point, it was always possible to expand Stapleton. But Pena killed the project and kept it secret. The handwriting was on the wall, and at Front Range Airport we felt we might as well get some good out of it," he remembers.
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Here's how Nelms says they did it:
"It looked to us like a done deal, and Pena was so anxious to have this airport that we figured he'd give us anything we wanted if we sort of held the airport hostage.
"At the time, our own Front Range Airport was $8 million in debt, which we had borrowed for construction. In our meetings with Pena, he agreed to pay it off $2 million a year. But as Pena got closer to the end of his second term, word began going around that he wouldn't go for a third term. So at Front Range, we thought it might be a good time to get our full $8 million before he got out of office and reneged on us.
"Pena needed to move some power lines at the Denver International site, and I was county commissioner at the time and refused to go along with that. So Pena asks for a meeting. He and I met at a Holiday Inn on Chambers Road.
"I get there, and we no longer sit down for coffee than he is offering us the whole $8 million at once, just so we'll close the airport deal. I've never seen a man so anxious. Sure enough, he couldn't agree fast enough, and a few days later our county attorney, Bob Lowe, went to Pena's office and picked up that $8 million check to pay for our little county airport.