Election

Arena Bonds Failed in Denver and Albuquerque: Here's Why

The National Western Center hoped to replace the Denver Coliseum with a multi-use arena, but voters rejected the proposal.
The National Western Center hoped to replace the Denver Coliseum with a multi-use arena, but voters rejected the proposal. Denver Arts & Venues
On November 2, Denver voters rejected Referred Question 2E, which would have pledged $190 million worth of bonds for projects at the National Western Center, primarily the construction of a new arena. But Mayor Michael Hancock, who pushed the project, might find some solace in the fact that across the country, every ballot measure asking voters to fund an arena or stadium met the same fate.

In Texas, voters were asked to fund improvements to stadiums at high schools in Houston and Fort Worth with bonds; both proposals failed. Just down Interstate 25, Albuquerque voters voted down a bond measure to help fund the construction of a minor-league soccer stadium for New Mexico United, which currently plays in Isotopes Park, the Minor League Baseball stadium.

Whether designed for sports, schools or multiple uses including rodeos, voters apparently weren’t interested in funding stadiums or arenas this year. But they weren't necessarily opposed to bonds: As in Denver, Houston and Albuquerque voters passed every other bond measure on their ballots (though Fort Worth voters only went for one of four bond questions). In Denver, proposals for funding for parks, public transportation, facilities updates and affordable housing each earned about 65 percent of the vote, while 2E got only 42.06 percent.

This wasn't the only election to see voters reject funding stadium construction. From 1990 to 2008, public spending covered two-thirds of the cost of all arenas built in this country — but since the Great Recession, it has accounted for only one-third of those costs.

What caused the shift?

Victor Matheson, a Holy Cross College professor of economics who grew up in Boulder, researches the impacts of sports on local economies. He says that the opening of Camden Yards as the home of Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles in 1992 inspired a boom of stadium construction in the 1990s and early 2000s, because everyone wanted a stadium with as many amenities.

In Denver, Ball Arena (originally the Pepsi Center), Coors Field, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and Empower Field at Mile High were all built during that era. But once the recession hit, people were more resistant to spending money on stadiums.

By then, research had demonstrated that stadiums don’t provide a substantial economic return to the communities that pay for them. Michael Mondello, a professor in the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida, attributes part of the shift against public funding for stadiums to voters having more information about the costs, both in dollars and in tradeoffs.

“Fifteen to twenty years ago, we didn't have the patterns of data to really see what was happening with some of these publicly financed buildings, but now we do,” Mondello explains. “It creates, I think, a more educated group of voters who are thinking [of] the best long-term play in terms of using their tax dollars.” Rather than accepting that stadiums are the best public good on which to spend money, he adds, voters started considering what other projects they could fund.
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Mayor Michael Hancock, seen here during the 2013 Stock Show Parade, pushed 2E.
Brandon Marshall
In Denver, residents who opposed the 2E included Alfonso Espino, a community organizer with the GES Coalition, which represents people who live in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea area, where the arena would have been constructed. “We know that there are other ways that the city should be using public funding to actually help communities like ours to combat the displacement, the historic environmental issues at play in our communities, and to really incentivize economic growth without referring back to exploitation,” Espino says. He argues that proponents of the ballot measure, including Hancock, exploited the GES community by saying that the arena project would help them economically when it would not have actually had that effect.

The No on 2E group that formed to oppose the measure, along with the GES Coalition, identified other potential uses for the nearly $200 million proposed for the arena, with a focus on affordable housing and community-based development. But according to Espino, even those who aren’t pushing affordable housing have other ideas for where they'd like to see investment. “I am confident that most people can identify various other ways that $200 million can be used that actually speak to, and create, material benefits to the city of Denver,” Espino says.

In a 2016 study, Mondello and co-author Tim Kellison found that the three factors most likely to influence whether a stadium referendum will pass are the perceived economic consequences, the perceived emotional consequences and the mobilization of those opposed, particularly communities at risk of displacement because of the project. In the 2021 election, communities at risk of displacement in both Denver and Albuquerque seem to have won the battle on the basis of economic and emotional consequences.

Anna Lee DeSaulniers, a waitress and flamenco dancer who helped Albuquerque grassroots group Stop the Stadium organize against the proposed facility there, had lived in the historic Barelas neighborhood downtown, one of the proposed locations for the stadium, until she was forced to find a new place to live in September. She struggled to find options in the area within her budget, which she says is more ample than that of many Albuquerque residents. When DeSaulniers read about the proposed bond, she worried that it would accelerate gentrification, leading to even higher housing costs and forcing people who have lived there their entire lives to move away.

“After that whole traumatic month, I saw the Stop the Stadium Instagram,” she says. “I had been telling my friends, and I felt like I was talking into the abyss, because it was just crickets. Nobody wanted to touch the issue, and so when I saw that, I was like, ‘I have to be involved in this.’”

She went door to door informing people that they would have the chance to make a choice in the election. And people ultimately chose to vote no, with the proposal going down 65 to 35 percent.

DeSaulniers’s goal was not to influence people but to inform them, she says. What most voters didn’t know was that the owners of the United team stood to make a substantial profit off the stadium, while taxpayers would pay for over 80 percent of the project: The bond proposed that residents pay $50 million, compared to United’s pledge to cover $10 million.

“This is really corporate welfare dressed up as some sort of public good,” Matheson says, pointing out that unlike parks and libraries, arenas aren’t traditional public spaces where the community can go for free and use the infrastructure that their dollars helped construct.

The group pushing the Albuquerque proposal, the New Mexico United for All political action committee, raised $840,000 — all of which came from United itself. In comparison, Stop the Stadium was a grassroots campaign that didn’t fundraise, asking people to donate their time while organizers used their personal money to print basic fliers; DeSaulniers estimates that stadium opponents there spent less than the $3,200 that the No on Arena Bond raised in Denver. Meanwhile, Friends of the National Western Stock Show raised $901,250 specifically to support the arena bond, and RISE Denver came up with $1,242,450 to promote all of the bond proposals, including 2E.

The money didn’t help stadium proponents win, and the strategy of promoting the economic benefits of the proposal probably didn’t help, either, Mondello suggests.

Mondello says that if he were advising a group that wanted to gain public funding for a stadium, he would tell them to focus on selling the intangible benefits of stadiums, like building goodwill and increasing the sense of community rather than pushing financial return — because research shows that those benefits are too small to persuade voters.

“There's a continuum here where you get certain stakeholders that are on one extreme, that are saying there's all kinds of tangible benefits that are happening, and then there's other people on the opposite side that say nothing is happening,” he says. “I think I'm somewhere in the middle.” That's because it's difficult to quantify the non-financial benefits that could provide a return on investment for communities, he explains.

But in National Western Center Authority CEO Brad Buchanan’s statement after 2E failed, he still pushed the economic narrative with this: “These are the phases of development that will unlock the main community benefits for GES, including the greatest potential revenue for the Community Investment Fund.”
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The proposed Albuquerque stadium that voters rejected.
New Mexico United
The reason that stadiums don’t drive economic growth in their neighborhoods, or even their cities, is because rather than generating more spending, they merely shift where people spend their money, Matheson explains. For example, Boulder fans making the trip to Denver for a Broncos game are simply spending their money at the stadium rather than on Pearl Street, where they might otherwise have been that Sunday.

Given the impact of the pandemic, Matheson expects voters to be even more hesitant to finance stadiums in the future. “Think about how many stalwart restaurants or other theaters or venues have been around forever. Think about how many of those have disappeared,” he says. “Now you're asking the taxpayers to make a thirty-year bet on something we don't even necessarily know is going to be around in thirty years.”

Even though it won this battle, the GES Coalition isn't resting easy. It's continuing to demand that the National Western Center work with the community more meaningfully, and has even requested land reparations from the facility. It also wants a say in development of the project.

“That's the bigger picture,” Espino says. “That's what we're focused on, and the arena was just in the way of that vision.”

The group will still have to contend with plans to build an arena on the campus, though. “We remain committed to bringing a new arena and public market to the campus, as envisioned in the National Western Center Master Plan adopted by Denver City Council in 2015," Buchanan's statement notes. "We will now turn our attention to working collaboratively and creatively with the City and County of Denver and partners to pursue other funding avenues, though it’s too early to say what other funding sources could be.”

While the GES Coalition has existed for years, Stop the Stadium formed specifically for this election. But according to DeSaulniers, now that organizers have found their voice, they plan to keep pushing for the community to stay involved on issues like affordable housing.

“It was very, very encouraging," she says, "and just a really powerful moment for us as a community to feel like we mattered, that what we want to happen to our hometown mattered, that it's not just whoever has the most money gets to make the decisions.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire