Denver Government

Mayor Hancock Visited Las Vegas to Shop for Grocery Stores

Secret shopper
Secret shopper
Mayor Michael Hancock got in trouble last year for traveling out of state after telling Denver residents to stay home over the Thanksgiving holiday. Early this month, Hancock hopped back on a plane for a trip to Las Vegas. But this time, Hancock didn't violate any of his own instructions, and his journey was for work, not pleasure.

"The mayor was there for the RECon 2021 convention and has gone down there for several years running now (excluding 2020, of course) to various retailer conventions as part of his and [the Office of Economic Development and Opportunity's] work to recruit new grocery stores to Denver, especially in food desert areas of town," says Mike Strott, a spokesperson for the mayor.

RECon 2021, which took place in Las Vegas December 5-7, was a massive convention for the shopping- center industry; Hancock attended so that he could shop possible candidates for building grocery stores in areas of town such as Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and northeast Denver, according to Strott.

"The Mayor has prioritized access to fresh food for all Denver residents, and while there are many complexities to the grocery industry when it comes to retail locations as well as the current state of the industry, we felt like the conversations were positive," says Chelsea Rosty of the Office of Economic Development and Opportunity.

The neighborhood around the National Western Center and a future development on the Park Hill Golf Course have both been mentioned as potential locations for grocery stores.

The lack of access to fresh food in these two spots was an issue in the November election. Denver City Council had referred a handful of bond measures brought forward by Hancock to the ballot, including the controversial 2E that called for borrowing $190 million for the National Western Center: $160 million was earmarked for a new arena, and $30 million for the renovation of the circa 1909 arena into a public market.
click to enlarge The circa 1909 arena could still become a public market. - NATIONAL WESTERN COMPLEX
The circa 1909 arena could still become a public market.
National Western Complex
The Globeville and Elyria-Swansea Coalition opposed the bond, saying that the area is a food desert that needs grocery stores that sell fresh, affordable food rather than a new arena.

Brad Buchanan, CEO of the National Western Center Authority, argued that the public-market aspect of the National Western campus would serve the need for a grocery store in the neighborhood. But the No Arena Bond advocacy group pushed back against that claim, saying that the proposal for the public market called for a food hall akin to LoDo's Denver Milk Market, with upscale restaurants and merchandise vendors rather than an affordable supermarket.

Voters rejected 2E, but the demand for a supermarket in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea area remains. And this time, residents are applauding Hancock's efforts in Vegas.

"I think, generally speaking, that sounds like a good thing, because a good, well-stocked grocery store is very sorely needed for a lot of our community members," says Alfonso Espino, an organizer with the GES Coalition.

Espino, who lives in Elyria-Swansea, notes that a Natural Grocers store opened at 38th Street and Brighton Boulevard a few years back. But the store doesn't always have groceries that cater to families in the GES area, he says, and sometimes the products aren't affordable.

"I definitely would like to see not only affordable and nutritious options available, but I would like to support positive values," Espino says, adding that he'd be interested in seeing a cooperative grocery store. "It would be nice to have something that's walkable."

But Espino wants to make sure that the city works with residents before deciding on a grocery store plan. "A process is still important, and I really hope it's not a closed-off conversation that the mayor is going to recruit on his own. ... I hope it's going to be determined by not just input, but partnership from communities," Espino says.

Miles away in northeast Park Hill, residents are also hungry for a grocery store.

The City of Denver initiated the Park Hill Golf Course Area Visioning Process last January and released a "Prevailing Vision" document on December 13. "Allowing space for grocery and fresh food choices was a recommendation the city heard a lot of support for among Northeast Park Hill residents during the visioning process for the Park Hill Golf Course. It’s something we look forward to talking about more with residents in 2022," says Laura Swartz, a spokesperson with Community Planning and Development.

Any possible development on that property will be subject to a citywide vote, however, because of the passage of Initiative 301 and rejection of Initiative 302 in November.

CPD works with community groups to try to recruit grocery-store operators in certain parts of town that qualify as food deserts or areas where there is limited food access. Forty-two percent of the land area of Denver actually qualifies as a food desert.

"These larger groceries, they tend to locate where the demographics are what they are looking for, which often means higher incomes and higher educational attainment," says Sarah Nurmela, the neighborhood planning and implementation manager for CPD. "That’s why our planning processes are important, because we can help understand where the need is and identify the larger universe of strategies and opportunities that can help attract partnerships and organizations to come in."
click to enlarge This neighborhood is creating its own grocery store. - MONTBELLO FRESHLO
This neighborhood is creating its own grocery store.
Montbello FreshLo
Sometimes communities have to get creative in attracting grocery stores. Donna Garnett, the executive director of the Montbello Organizing Committee, says that Hancock took a similar trip to a conference on Montbello's behalf a few years back. "It was very clear from the community planning that we had been doing for almost a year that we needed to have a grocery," Garnett says, "and none of the grocery operators in the Denver metro area were interested in opening a store in the Montbello community, for a variety of reasons — the biggest being, what we were told, was that the education level of the community would not lead to the type of sales and profit margin that would be desirous or motivating for a local operator to come in."

When the mayor's recruiting work at that conference didn't result in any deals, the Montbello Organizing Committee decided to pursue a grocery store on its own. The organization set up a subsidiary, Montbello FreshLo, which paid $600,000 to RTD to purchase a former park-and-ride lot. The deal closed in February 2020; Montbello FreshLo plans to break ground in the next couple of months on a project that will include a grocery store, affordable housing, a community center, retail spaces, a mental health clinic and a business incubator. The subsidiary is hoping to have the project wrapped up by early 2024.

"This is a plan that has been developed by the community and is continuing for the community," says Garnett.

If Hancock's recruitment efforts don't work out for Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, and Northeast Park Hill, then those communities could opt to follow the Montbello FreshLo model.

"It’s an uphill challenge," admits Nurmela, "but being creative and developing partnerships, that’s an opportunity that people are starting to realize and follow through on."
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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.