Can Denver's Billion-Dollar Stock Show Plan Save Neglected Neighborhoods?

Can Denver's Billion-Dollar Stock Show Plan Save Neglected Neighborhoods? (11)

Kelly Leid does not favor snap-button shirts, Wranglers and Tony Lamas. He’s more of a polo-shirt-and-khakis guy. The headgear on display in his office includes hard hats but no cowboy hats, ten-gallon or otherwise.

Yet Leid, a Colorado native, has a soft spot for the state’s Western heritage, and he’s betting that most Denver residents do, too. If there was a slogan for his current mission, a modest little effort to spend more than a billion dollars redeveloping the dilapidated facilities now used primarily to host the city’s century-old stock show, it would be this: Embrace the Cow.

“We’ve spent the last thirty years running away from our cowtown roots,” Leid says. “Now we’re rediscovering the importance of those roots. It’s part of who we are.”

Leid has made a career out of, as he puts it, “working on really complicated projects that require the creation of collaborative partnerships.” He’s been involved in planning major amphitheaters and stadiums, including the financing and construction of Sports Authority Field at Mile High and the University of Phoenix stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals. He’s also overseen operations for Denver Public Schools. Thirty months ago, Mayor Michael Hancock appointed him project manager of the newly formed North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, charged with coordinating six related planning projects on Denver’s north side, including the expansion of I-70, the arrival of two RTD rail lines, and 

the redevelopment of Brighton Boulevard. But the greatest challenge facing Leid’s team is how to transform the homely stock show grounds into a year-round complex of event venues and other regional attractions — without a substantial tax hike, and without ripping apart the surrounding neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea.

Leid says that what the city has in mind for rejuvenating the stock show, now known as the National Western Center, will be a boon to its long-suffering neighbors, too. “We’re talking about three historic neighborhoods that have seen little or no public infrastructure investment for over three decades,” he notes. “They’ve been very disconnected and very disenfranchised from the rest of the city. There’s no way the city can fund everything that needs to be done, so how do we create partnerships to rebuild this part of the city?”

The city’s solution? Embrace the cow, podner.

A few weeks ago, the administration unveiled its master plan for the National Western Center, a garrulous, bombastic document teeming with big ideas and bold declarations about the marvels in store for us all. It proposes the creation of new roads, a new arena and exhibition hall, public plazas and more, not just to beef up the stock show but to deliver what Hancock calls “a dynamic year-round tourist destination and agribusiness incubator.” It envisions a Colorado State University mini-campus, focused on equine medicine and related studies; farmers’ markets and art studios; and partnerships with History Colorado and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science that will bring schoolchildren to the area to learn about agriculture, the environment and “the importance of this site to human beings for the last 10,000 years.”

All of this hubbub, Leid explains, will benefit nearby communities in many ways. New infrastructure — including bridges across the South Platte River, walkways through the National Western campus, train stations — will help to connect underserved neighborhoods that currently lack decent bus shelters and, in some areas, even sidewalks. Consolidating existing rail lines and reconfiguring roads will open up access to the South Platte River and provide new recreational opportunities. The “agribusiness incubator” component, while a bit murkier at this stage, will provide employment possibilities —up to 10,000 “indirect” new jobs, Leid says.

An artist’s rendering envisions a grand new plaza and exhibition hall.
An artist’s rendering envisions a grand new plaza and exhibition hall.

By the city’s calculations, the price tag for the project comes to $856 million. But that figure includes only the initial stages of the National Western makeover; implementing the latter stages of the plan, including building a new arena and figuring out what to do with the aging Denver Coliseum, will certainly push the overall cost past the billion mark.

The Western Stock Show Association, the nonprofit that runs the stock show and owns most of the land apart from the Coliseum and nearby parking lots, has pledged to put up $50 million in cash, as well as property and naming rights valued at $75 million.

The city has also applied to the Colorado Department of Economic Development for $116 million in Regional Tourism Act sales-tax financing over thirty years. Last month, Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill authorizing up to $250 million in state funds over twenty years to fund CSU-related construction at the site. But the state’s contributions are contingent on Denver voters approving an extension of certain lodging and car-rental taxes — the chief mechanism by which the city hopes to raise the bulk of the money for the project, close to $500 million.

A privately funded campaign is already under way to put the issue on the ballot this fall. City officials believe they have a winning argument; the tax in question impacts tourists much more than residents, and the ballot question will essentially ask voters to make permanent some excise-tax revenue bonds, originally intended to fund expansion of the downtown Colorado Convention Center and set to be retired in 2023. (A portion of the money raised by extending the bonds, about $100 million, will go to add additional meeting and ballroom space at the convention center.) “We don’t need any new taxes,” says Cary Kennedy, the city’s chief financial officer. “All we’ll do is ask voters to leave the existing taxes in place.”

Yet several aspects of the plan could give voters pause. Even if the ballot issue passes, there’s still a substantial funding gap in the current proposals, references to private investments not yet identified — and, of course, the unknown amount of the final price tag. A host of other questions have been raised in the communities next door to the site, where the prospect of such a staggering transformation has triggered a range of emotions, from wary optimism to bewilderment and fear of rampant gentrification.

Hancock, Leid and other city leaders have stressed that the master plan is a collaborative effort, with several residents and business owners of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea serving on a citizen advisory committee (CAC) that had substantial input in the process. But even members of that committee acknowledge that they can’t speak for all the stakeholders in their diverse neighborhoods, which are among the last bastions of affordable housing for lower-income families within Denver city limits. They also note that the promised community benefits from the project are still being defined.

“My fear is the city is using this project as a catalyst for the future development of Globeville and Elyria,” says Drew Dutcher, an Elyria resident and CAC member who works in architecture and planning. “The client for the master plan is the National Western Center, not the neighborhoods. I’ve been frustrated from the beginning with the lack of integration and vision in overall planning for these neighborhoods. These are huge forces — the Colorado Department of Transportation, the city, National Western, RTD, the major industries — that are acting without regard for each other, and we can’t stand up against that. People feel overwhelmed.”

Some residents say the positives of the project, including repairs to decrepit streets and gaining access to the river, outweigh the potential negatives. Others grumble about rising housing prices, a lack of basic services and being trapped between the Brighton Boulevard and National Western construction zones and the even more ominous I-70 expansion — which calls for taking out dozens of homes, adding toll lanes and putting the highway below grade. Owners of property within the 270-acre National Western Center target area fret that the entire scheme is just another land grab by the historically less-than-neighborly stock show operators, and that they may lose their homes or businesses.

Kelly Leid, the city’s point man for the National Western Center, sees the project as a catalyst for positive change in north Denver.
Kelly Leid, the city’s point man for the National Western Center, sees the project as a catalyst for positive change in north Denver.
Anthony Camera

“The city and the stock show are like twins,” says Salvador Arrieta, who’s lived in Elyria for 45 years. “They’re connected, and they’re going to do what they want to do. No matter what you say or do, these guys have the power.”

Leid says he’s conducted “listening tours” around the neighborhoods and heard plenty of locals’ questions and concerns about the project. “One of the things I learned early on is that there’s an enormous amount of distrust — of the city, in particular,” he says. “Over the course of the last hundred years, a lot of promises have been made and not kept. There are also really fractured relationships between the neighborhoods themselves.”

Just figuring out who speaks for Globeville or Elyria or Swansea, he adds, can be a challenge. Different neighborhood associations have come and gone, casualties of disinterest or internal dissension. “The physical improvements, as complicated as they are, are the easy part of this work,” Leid declares. “The hard part is how you make the soft infrastructure, the social infrastructure, strong enough to accept all these improvements. These neighborhoods have been disconnected for so long. We run the risk of having them be overrun and not reap the benefits of the investment.”

Arrieta, who has worked as a drywall finisher on construction projects all over town, is skeptical of the city’s sudden interest in reviving his community. “The city isn’t interested in this neighborhood at all, unless developers start buying land,” he says. “Then they get involved. These people are working from the top down. If you build a house from the top down, it isn’t going to work.”

Cowboy up! The rodeo remains an important part of the National Western.
Cowboy up! The rodeo remains an important part of the National Western.
Brandon Marshall

The three neighborhoods huddled around the National Western Center are among Denver’s oldest, a crazy quilt of industrial and residential zones not seen elsewhere in the city. In the course of researching property titles for land acquisition and rezoning the area, Leid’s planning team has come across baffling boundary descriptions going back more than 120 years, including a reference to a rock marked with an X that seems to have departed its original location long ago.

Swansea dates back to 1870. In the 1880s, ore smelters in the vicinity attracted a steady stream of Eastern European immigrants and created a demand for housing in what would become Globeville and Elyria. The proximity to rail lines and the South Platte also made the site a logical place for the Denver Union Stock Yard Company to set up shop. Several meatpacking plants launched operations nearby, and the stockyards quickly became the center of the region’s cattle industry.

In 1898, a consortium of stockmen decided to host a barbecue at the stockyards, with enough venison, beef, possum, lamb and bear to feed 3,000 people. Unfortunately, the organizers gave away 12,000 tickets. The affair turned into a human stampede, complete with pickpockets, fistfights and ravenous hobos, who overwhelmed the police and devoured huge slabs of beef. The Denver Post denounced the melee as “barbarism” and urged the citizens of Denver to develop a more respectable stock show.

The respectable version arrived eight years later. The Western Livestock Show, later known as the National Western Stock Show, was inaugurated in a circus tent provided by Post owners Frederick G. Bonfils and Harry H. Tammen. The event was a huge hit, leading to the creation of a permanent arena, the National Amphitheater, in 1909.

For decades, the stock show and the modest neighborhoods around it thrived together. Many of the locals worked in the yards, in the packing plants, or for the railroad or the smelters. But then things began to head south. The construction of I-25 in the 1950s, followed by I-70 in the 1960s, bifurcated the neighborhoods and effectively cut them off from the rest of the city. Over the next couple of decades, the smelters and packing plants closed or relocated, and many related jobs went away as well. Blocks of stable blue-collar households devolved into blocks of shabby rentals and Section 8 housing, their affordability a reflection of the area’s proximity to the clamor and odors of a dog-food factory, a wastewater treatment plant, an oil refinery, gravel pits and other attractions.

“When the packing houses closed down, it really changed the neighborhood,” says Bettie Cram, a 92-year-old Swansea resident who’s lived in the area since 1942. “But we still had the stock show. When they started talking about moving the stock show, then a lot of us got concerned.”

With attendance on a steady upward rise, the stock show had, in fact, made noises about pulling up stakes on many occasions. When it outgrew its original arena, the city responded by putting up the Denver Coliseum, completed in 1952. In 1971 the National Western threatened to move to Houston, Fort Worth or Las Vegas. Plans were quickly drawn up for a million-dollar Hall of Education and other improvements, financed by private sources. The latest fit of pique came in 2011, when the National Western announced that it was considering relocating to the proposed Gaylord development in Aurora. Michael Hancock, then Denver’s newly elected mayor, vowed to keep that from happening, setting in motion the creation of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative and the grand plan to keep the stock show viable in north Denver for another century.

Cram worked for many years in the venerable Livestock Exchange Building, the oldest building on the National Western site. She’s been a strong supporter of keeping the stock show where it is, saying it’s part of the identity of the neighborhood. One of the new roads in the master plan is slated to be named Bettie Cram Drive. While she’s a bit flummoxed by the honor — “I never dreamed that would happen,” she says — she’s particularly pleased that the plan calls for preserving the Western atmosphere of the show as well as keeping it in Denver. The stock show lasts less than three weeks of the year, but its economic benefits to the region have been pegged at $115 million annually, and the proposed improvements are projected to double the attendance and nearly double that economic impact while making the facilities available to host up to a hundred new events each year — from trade shows to Riot Fest, which is booked for the National Western later this summer.

“I think it’s going to be positive for the neighborhood,” Cram says. “It’s a very expensive project, but some day Denver is going to be very proud of it.”

But some of Cram’s neighbors — even some who, like her, have served on the citizen advisory committee — aren’t quite as bullish on the stock show itself. In their view, the National Western has an uneasy, sometimes antagonistic relationship with the neighborhoods. Old-timers grouse about how the operation has privatized what they consider to be a public throughway and jams the surrounding streets with traffic. For many years, one of the few direct benefits to the neighbors was the opportunity to charge a few bucks for stock show visitors to park in private driveways or on vacant lots, but the show now offers free parking and shuttles, undercutting local entrepreneurs.

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“The current relationship between the stock show and the neighborhoods is almost medieval,” says CAC member Dutcher. “It might as well be a walled-in city. If this was just about the stock show, I don’t think it could get off the ground. They have one foot in the nineteenth century; we have to come up with something for the 21st century.”

But Dutcher is encouraged by the involvement of CSU and the history and science museums; their presence, he says, is a “game changer” that could transform the site into a more welcoming educational and cultural center. “There are elements in the plan that do try to provide for a public realm, open space and amenities like farmers’ markets,” he notes. “But there are some things I think we’re going to have to fight for every step of the way.”

One of the most tangible benefits to the neighborhood offered by the plan is the promise of “connectivity.” By building new east-west spans across the Platte at 49th and 51st avenues, lowering 46th Avenue under the 1-70 viaduct to make it easier to move between the National Western facilities and the Coliseum to the south, and providing various pedestrian and bike routes through the site, the plan hopes to simplify travel between the neighborhoods and the rest of the city. The prospect is an inviting one, particularly in Elyria, which is hemmed in on all sides by the highway, Brighton Boulevard and industrial zones.

But skeptics point out that the plan doesn’t address one of the major bottlenecks in Elyria: the Union Pacific tracks that cross York Street, bringing north-south traffic to a standstill several times a day. The pedestrian walkway through the stock show site, from the river to an RTD train station, has been dubbed a lonely “Grand Canyon” of dubious utility. And some question whether the new connectivity and infrastructure will benefit the stock show at the expense of the neighborhood. It’s fine and dandy to talk about connecting his neighborhood to the stock show site, says Globeville resident Vernon Hill, as long as the infrastructure improvements extend to his side of the river, too.

Hill has worked in Globeville since 1984. He helped to convert one of the old packing plants into warehouses and is now the managing partner of JJJ Properties, overseeing a 150,000-square-foot facility at 50th and Washington that hosts several small businesses. “I’ve watched this place go through substantial changes,” Hill says. “For a while we had all these vacant buildings and people coming off the river and homesteading in these places. I’ve seen the area begin  to come back.”

As a member of the advisory committee, Hill has seen the discussion about upgrading the stock show site largely skirt the need for additional upgrades in the arterials that feed into the area. “It was clear they had an agenda of their own,” Hill says of the city’s planning effort. “As we started looking at the maps, I noticed that Globeville wasn’t their focal point.”

He wonders how making new links between Washington and Brighton Boulevard will affect traffic in his neighborhood. Washington is in desperate need of repair and expansion, he says, and should be included in the road improvements targeted in the master plan. The area also needs more retail to attract businesses and new residents. “If we had a grocery store around here, it would make so much difference,” he says.

Hill firmly believes the stock show makeover will attract more jobs and businesses to the area, and he’s encouraged by his ongoing conversations with Leid’s team. Leid acknowledges that he’s working on what he calls a “community benefits memorandum” to try to formalize the sort of commitments the city is willing to make to the neighborhoods.

“I feel they’re beginning to listen to us,” Hill says. “This is a great first step. But we do have a level of apprehension. The city of Denver has not really done well by this part of this town.”

Activist Tom Anthony (outside the Armour building with sons Arnan and Colter) questions the benefits of the plan to locals.
Activist Tom Anthony (outside the Armour building with sons Arnan and Colter) questions the benefits of the plan to locals.
Anthony Camera

As Tom Anthony sees it, his battered neighborhood has three vital needs if city planners want to revive some sense of north-side community and pride. A recreation center to replace the one that the city decided to close a few years ago, in a supposed cost-cutting move, even as it was opening new rec centers in communities that have far fewer children. A grocery store, since the only source of basic provisions in the food desert of Elyria is a pricey 7-Eleven. And a school to provide an alternative to Garden Place Academy, which is situated practically in the shadow — and the exhaust fumes — of the I-70/I-25 interchange.

All three were frequent topics of discussion when Anthony was on the citizen advisory committee for the stock show master plan. For various reasons, none of those items receive any attention in the plan itself, and none are slated to receive even a driblet of the money that the city hopes to spend transforming the National Western into a year-round tourist magnet and agribusiness incubator.

An environmental activist and furniture-maker, Anthony moved to Elyria seventeen years ago, in search of an inexpensive fixer-upper he could convert into offices and residential space. He set about rehabbing the former Armour packing-plant office on National Western Drive, a lofty two-story, 15,000-square-foot historic building that came with its own water tower — as well as “32 broken windows and all kinds of leaky steam pipes and sewer problems,” he says.

Over the years, Anthony has clashed repeatedly with city officials, including city councilmember Judy Montero, over the cleanup of the former Asarco smelter, the closing of the Anne Louise Johnson Recreation Center and other community issues. (As a result of redistricting, the area is now represented on council by Albus Brooks.) At one point, he headed one of Elyria’s short-lived neighborhood associations. He believes his pointed questions at CAC meetings about the master plan and the salaries of stock show executives prompted the city to retaliate against him, coming down on him for alleged zoning violations at his building. After city inspectors claimed he had too many unrelated adults using the art studios he leased, forcing him to lose tenants and income, he resigned from the CAC. And, he suggests, the whole episode has had a chilling effect on locals’ ability to challenge the stock show plan.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” Anthony says. “Everybody’s afraid they’ll be targeted like I was. They put a sign on my house that says it’s an unsafe building; no one can be here but the owner. I’m still making furniture, but mostly I’m selling my raw materials.”

In guest columns and at public meetings, Anthony has inveighed against many aspects of the stock show plan. He questions whether there’s adequate parking for all the uses the plan anticipates, and he doesn’t think it will do much to connect the neighborhoods. He pushed hard for an open-air market that would help bring the community together, quite different in scale, location and orientation from the “food and western artisan market” referenced in the plan as a possible use for the historic, 106-year-old arena. He’s questioned whether any of the profits from this tourism magnet will find their way back to local residents. But most of all, he’s taken issue with the city’s assertions that the plan is the result of a deep collaboration with the neighborhood.

Anthony says it’s tough to get a dozen people from Elyria — the minimum the city requires to qualify as a neighborhood organization — in one room at the same time. Many don’t have e-mail accounts, are in short-term living situations, or don’t want to get involved. “I’ve been a community organizer for many, many years,” he says. “But up here, nobody’s got e-mail addresses. There’s like five people from the neighborhood on the stock show advisory committee, and they’ve been appointed until 2022, but they don’t have to report to anybody in the neighborhood.”

Leid points out that many members of the CAC were recruited from steering committees that helped develop neighborhood plans for Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. “We used a lot of information from those two neighborhood plans to inform the National Western plan,” he says. “The mayor has been very clear about this: We are going to meet the residents where they are, and they’re going to help define what they want for their neighborhoods.”

Anthony counters that among the key elements sought in the Elyria 2020 Vision Plan, prepared years earlier than the latest round of neighborhood and stock show plans, were a new school and a rec center. He says he did his own informal survey of neighbors shortly after the National Western plan was released, knocking on the doors of dozens of houses. “Almost nobody I talked to knew that we had a plan,” he says. “No one was at the meetings.”

At one point threatened with foreclosure after being cited for zoning infractions, Anthony is now in negotiations to sell his building to the city. The historic building, practically in the center of the new campus, is cited in the master plan for its “reuse potential,” but Leid denies that there was any concerted effort to pry it from Anthony’s grasp. “We were planning that Tom wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “We were going to design around it. But because of some challenges he’s had with the city, he’s put it up for sale. We want to restore it.”

Anthony’s building is far from the only private property within the National Western “study area” that the city has a hankering for. At present, the city and the Western Stock Show Association own close to two-thirds of the projected 270-acre campus. But that still leaves around eighty acres in the hands of three dozen property owners. The National Western footprint may slightly contract depending on circumstances, Leid says, but most of those properties will have to be acquired by the city to make the plan work — a process the NDCC has already begun. City officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of using eminent domain to buy up the private acreage, but right now they’re focused on what they describe as “opportunistic land acquisition.”

“We have been really transparent from day one with all the property owners that, as the plan evolves, there’s going to have to be some land acquisition,” Leid says. “Anything within the boundary has to be acquired to make the full vision of the Center a reality.”

Blue Silo owners Reed Weimer and Chandler Romeo wonder if the artist studios they’ve created can survive the city’s makeover of the National Western Center.
Blue Silo owners Reed Weimer and Chandler Romeo wonder if the artist studios they’ve created can survive the city’s makeover of the National Western Center.
Anthony Camera

That kind of talk makes Chandler Romeo and Reed Weimer nervous. For the past thirteen years, the husband-and-wife artists have owned the Blue Silo, just a short distance from Anthony’s place on National Western Drive. The nearly 20,000-square-foot property had housed a creamery, a furniture factory and a janitorial supply company in the past, but had become a forlorn hulk with a rotting roof when Romeo and Weimer took it over in 2002. It now contains fifteen artist studios, shared by thirty artists.

Before finding the Blue Silo, the pair had attempted a similar venture at a warehouse in the RiNo district — back when the area was still known as the River North neighborhood. But the area was gentrifying so quickly, with rents soaring, that Romeo and Weimer decided to sell and look elsewhere. The stock show area seemed to be the last frontier for affordable studio space for artists, and the Blue Silo turned out to be the ideal location — right up until last fall, when the owners received a form letter from the city offering “to provide key updates and solicit your input” about the National Western plan.

They met with Leid, who presented a PowerPoint version of the draft plan but didn’t provide any details about the fate of their building. One map showed Blue Silo’s location as open space; in another, it was designated as part of the livestock pens. “I followed up with an e-mail trying to get specifics, and I really didn’t get any answers,” Romeo says.

Romeo and Weimer say they were never asked to be on the citizen advisory committee, never consulted about the project until last fall. Romeo has since attended one of the CAC meetings, which are open to the public, but says there was no opportunity to ask questions. “I’m confused about what they consider a stakeholder,” Weimer says.

The experience was in sharp contrast with the public meetings they’d attended in River North, at which RTD and other public agencies sought property owners’ input at every stage of major projects. “We had the opportunity to weigh in,” Romeo says. “We had a place at the table. This time around, we were told we could sign up to get e-mails.”

They’re not sure what plans the city has for Blue Silo or what to tell their tenants. “I wish we had more information,” Romeo says. “I’m hopeful we can be included. It’s part of their mission to have the arts included.”

Indeed, the National Western plan makes references to “shared art studio space between partners, Coors Western Art, and community groups, perhaps including the nearby RiNo Arts District.” It would be counterproductive, Romeo suggests, for the city to attempt to encourage the arts at the National Western Center by giving the heave-ho to a thriving artists’ den.

“We would have a hard time repeating what we did here,” she adds, noting that many of her tenants require large spaces to work on their pieces but can’t pay downtown loft prices. “If the Blue Silo closes down, some of these people are going to be out of business.”

Leid says it’s too early to know what private businesses might be able to survive the National Western makeover. The master plan is more of a “vision document” than a blueprint; detailed designs won’t be drawn up until after the election has secured funding for the project. “Art is a big part of our goal for this campus,” he adds. “Maybe there’s an opportunity to partner with them, I don’t know. We’re simply not at a place yet where I can tell you.”

The proposed 270-acre campus would more than double the existing size of the facilities.
The proposed 270-acre campus would more than double the existing size of the facilities.

City planners have their own version of the English language, an obscurantist dialect brimming with buzzwords and jargon that seeks to strike all the right notes but rarely breaks into song. Amid all the elaborate gab of the National Western master plan — burbling blather about synergies, cultural tourism, cowboy wisdom, an ethic of regeneration, farm-to-table, “blurring the lines between entertainment, competition, education, and industry,” yada yada — perhaps the most startling is the stated goal of creating a “net zero” system for energy, waste and water at the site.

Net zero is the idea of recycling, sequestering or otherwise replacing the power, water and waste consumed by an enterprise so that the activity has, in effect, zero negative impact on energy supplies, the environment or landfills. That’s a high aspiration for any human undertaking, but particularly for one involving trainloads of livestock and hundreds of thousands of two-legged visitors. Imagine a team of highly trained technicians with pooper scoopers, tracking every cow and cowpoke throughout their visit, prepared to convert all half-gnawed turkey legs, horse apples and other leavings into biomass energy.

If the National Western Center can achieve such a thing, it will be a remarkable change for the Globeville-Elyria area — a major new industry that isn’t founded on the principle of fouling the air and water and dumping on its neighbors. Mickey Zeppelin, whose innovative, “new economy” redevelopment projects have fueled the rebirth of RiNo, points out that northeast Denver has long been a sacrifice zone for heavy industry, recycling and sewer plants, and any other business that more affluent neighborhoods don’t want. But his time on the advisory committee has Zeppelin feeling encouraged about where the National Western is headed.

“I view it as a catalytic element, a bit of catch-up for the neighborhoods after all these years of neglect,” Zeppelin says. “Those areas have had an awakening. I think what the neighbors are looking for is that they get the real benefits of the project, that the focus will not be entirely on creating a tourist destination. I’m hoping the benefits won’t be confined just to the site. But without major neighborhood input, it’s going to get lost.”

If the vision behind the National Western’s “vision document” seems a bit cloudy, it may be because the project is trying to appeal to so many different interests, not all of them compatible. There’s a mushy, something-for-everybody tone to the master plan that makes it seem more like a grab bag than a solid proposal. The North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative has a similar catch-all quality, the notion that lumping together several different but somewhat related building projects will somehow soften the blow — even the massive disruption of the I-70 expansion — and magically change the construction zone into what the mayor likes to call the Corridor of Opportunity.

City planners know that part of the alchemy of planning is to find ways to present problems as opportunities. But in the case of the National Western project, Leid insists, the opportunities for the neighborhood are real. “The list of challenges was a lot longer than the list of opportunities,” he says. “But over the past year, we’ve been able to turn some of the challenges into opportunities.”

Leid is in the process of assembling an executive oversight committee to steer the project for the next few months. If the lodging-tax extension passes, he expects that the National Western Center will ultimately be overseen by a special authority appointed by the mayor. At present, though, he’s asked the citizen advisory committee to select one member to serve on the oversight committee alongside representatives of the city, the stock show, CSU and other investors in the project. The citizen member will have one vote out of nine, one voice out of nine.

Will it be enough? That could depend on how effectively one advocate of the neighborhoods can turn problems into opportunities. The National Western backers surely have enough cowboy wisdom among them to know that if your bronc is riled, it’s tough to stay in the saddle.

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National Western Complex

4655 Humboldt St.
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