No More Bull: Opposition to National Western Center Bond Projects Kicks Off Campaign

Mayor Michael Hancock during the annual Stock Show Parade in 2013, during his first term.
Mayor Michael Hancock during the annual Stock Show Parade in 2013, during his first term. Brandon Marshall
While Denver's November ballot will be packed with controversial issues, one of the biggest fights will involve around $190 million worth of bonds to fund projects at the National Western Center, including a new arena.

"An arena is so out of sync with what the voters of Denver want, the residents of Denver want, and most certainly [what] Globeville and Elyria-Swansea want," Ean Tafoya, an environmental advocate and co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, said during the September 8 launch of the No On the Arena Bond Committee in front of the Denver City and County Building. The $190 million the city is seeking in bond money for the National Western Center projects would be much better spent on affordable housing or achieving climate goals, he added.

The committee is fighting Referred Question 2E, the ballot item that will ask voters to allow the city to borrow bond money to put $160 million toward the construction of a new arena on the National Western campus, as well as another $30 million to the transformation of the historic, circa 1909 arena already at the complex into a food hall and market.

"I think ultimately it is a vanity project and wanting to leave a lasting mark on the city versus improving its economic status and the services for community members," said Sarah Lake, who is chairing the committee.

Mayor Michael Hancock announced his plan to create a new arena during his annual State of the City speech in late July, noting that it would help Denver recover from pandemic-induced economic hardships.

"Building a new state-of-the-art arena and the new events it will attract will create year-round jobs and provide funding for community programs and projects important for the well-being of surrounding communities," Hancock said.

The Hancock administration initially proposed a $450 million bond package split into four categories — facilities, housing and sheltering, transportation, and parks and recreation — with each category a question on the November ballot. The National Western Center items were originally in the facilities category, along with such voter-friendly projects as the construction of new library branches and a youth center.

But in early August, a Denver City Council committee voted to put the two National Western Center items into a fifth category. Later that month, the full council voted to forward all five measures to the November ballot.

"The rationale for this bond package is to stimulate the economy, create jobs and careers, and support local businesses for years to come," says Mike Strott, a spokesperson for Hancock. "That includes expanding opportunities and equity in the neighborhoods around the National Western complex, which the mayor is committed to seeing happen. Nearly 3,400 of the projected 7,500 jobs that will be created through this bond package will be created through the proposed arena and 1909 Building projects. The events and businesses after construction is complete will support additional jobs there and in the neighborhoods on top of that. Any significant amount of funds and resources for meaningful local community investment will need a sustainable revenue source, and the arena and 1909 Building package provides just that."

The No On the Arena Bond Committee is using the slogan "No more bull" to express its opposition to those National Western Center projects and promises.

"This is not the first time that developers have also made promises to that community. They've had promises made over and over again, everything from kitchens at National Western to improvements in the infrastructure and transportation," Lake said at the campaign launch. "And nothing has been followed through on."

A few hours after the No On the Arena Bond Committee event, a group called RISE Denver, which has registered as a political committee, sent out a release pushing 2E's passage. It quotes John Zapien, a Globeville resident, encouraging voters to approve 2E "so that we can start reaping the benefits of this important project."

Another group is also pushing for the passage of 2E: The Friends of National Western Stock Show political committee, which is being run by Roger Sherman of CRL Associates, a local lobbying firm. Sherman did not respond to an interview request.

According to to the group's first campaign finance report, it has already raised $290,000. Ronald Williams, who made his money in oil and previously served as the chair of the National Western Stock Show board of directors, has donated the most of any individual, up to $100,000. Patrick Grant, another past chair, has donated $50,000.

Other large donors include John Ikard, a banker who has served as chairman of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation; Arrow Electronics, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Centennial; John Freyer Sr., chairman of a land title company; Hutchison, Incorporated, a manufacturer and distributor of livestock and equine equipment; and Robert Tointon, a construction tycoon.

In addition to the National Western Center measure, Denver residents will be voting on Referred Questions 2A, 2B, 2C and 2D, the four other bond items. Council referred additional measures to the ballot, too, including whether nominating power for the Independent Monitor should be pulled out of the mayor's office, and whether to move municipal elections from May to April, in order to get in line with federal and state voting laws.

Denver citizens also worked to place measures on the November ballot. As a result, voters will weigh in on whether to repeal a group-living ordinance passed by council earlier this year, raise the marijuana sales tax to fund pandemic research, block development on the Park Hill Golf Course, allow development on the Park Hill Golf Course with council approval, create civil liability for the City of Denver if it doesn't mitigate unsanctioned homeless encampments, and lower the sales tax.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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