Denver Development

Council Conflicts Over Airport, Stormwater Project Air Tonight

Councilman Rafael Espinoza has questioned the proposed public-private partnership at Denver International Airport and the impact of the stormwater project on City Park.
Councilman Rafael Espinoza has questioned the proposed public-private partnership at Denver International Airport and the impact of the stormwater project on City Park. Matthew L. Van Deventer
Two long-simmering, high-stakes construction projects are expected to come to a boil at the August 14 Denver City Council meeting — amid pointed questions about cost, possible conflicts of interest, and just how deep in the soup of public-private partnerships the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock is willing to go.

Denver International Airport officials are seeking approval of a $1.8 billion deal with the Spain-based conglomerate Ferrovial that would reconfigure DIA's Great Hall and greatly expand concession space. Quite apart from the moral quandaries involved in dealing with a highly diversified multinational — a subsidiary acquired by Ferrovial last year manages offshore refugee detention camps for Australia, which have been denounced by human-rights groups as "islands of despair" — the proposal has raised eyebrows (and blood pressure) among councilmembers because it involves turning over to a private entity decisions and profits from concessions for decades. Some have suggested that it might make more sense to pay Ferrovial its $9 million termination fee and incorporate some features of the envisioned renovation into a less complicated scheme that the city could implement on its own.

Expect some lively debate during the public-comment period tonight on the claimed benefits of the proposal as well as the hazards of putting a private partner in charge of public assets. On Facebook, gadfly/activist Brad K. Evans (who is now suing the Colorado Department of Transportation over another multibillion-dollar upgrade, the I-70 expansion through northeast Denver) urged opponents to turn out in force: "This vote at tonight's City Council Meeting essentially sets the stage for Denver's public assets to be handed over to private companies ad nauseam. Please contact your council person today and let them know that Your Denver Is Not For Sale!"

Although not as widely scrutinized as the airport, tonight the city council will also be asked to approve three contracts related to construction of the Platte to Park Hill Stormwater Systems, a $300 million public-works project that has drawn strong opposition from neighborhood groups and environmental activists. As we've reported on extensively, critics have questioned whether the project benefits the I-70 expansion more than Denver residents and expressed alarm over the P2PH path through a Superfund site and the anticipated bulldozing of hundreds of trees on the City Park Golf Course to create a runoff detention area.

The vote on the construction contracts was supposed to take place last week, but councilman Rafael Espinoza managed to wring a one-week delay for more study of the issue. He has since sent a letter to Mayor Hancock urging him to split the design and construction contracts, a move that would eliminate "any premature threat to irreversibly destroy mature trees and the historic landscape and play in City Park" — and allow council to fund design while still awaiting resolution of a lawsuit filed by residents trying to preserve the golf course. (A four-day trial on the lawsuit is expected to begin next week.)

Whether Espinoza hears from Hizzoner or not, another councilmember faces other thorny issues around the P2PH contracts. Stacie Gilmore is married to Scott Gilmore, Denver Parks and Recreation's deputy executive director, who's been a strong booster of the stormwater project and an overhaul of the golf course. That prompted former councilwoman Cathy Donohue to file a complaint with the Denver Board of Ethics, seeking to have Gilmore recuse herself from voting on the golf-course contracts. According to Donohue, Gilmore "should
not be allowed to vote on any matter in which her husband, Scott Gilmore, plays or has played a role in providing professional services. She is obligated to disclose her conflict of interest and recuse herself from voting on these matters."

Gilmore, who has already recused herself from voting on the DIA project because her brother-in-law's construction firm, Gilmore Construction, is one of the local firms partnered with Ferrovial, declined to comment in response to the Donohue complaint. Her chief of staff indicated she would address the matter at tonight's meeting.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast