Colorado History

It's a New Year for Denver: 22 People to Watch in 2022

Dana Rodriguez will be  in the pink as the executive chef of Casa Bonita.
Dana Rodriguez will be in the pink as the executive chef of Casa Bonita. Evan Semon
No one was sorry to kiss 2021 goodbye. Even with the ongoing pandemic, the new year is starting with a lot more promise, with projects ranging from the return of Casa Bonita to Representative Ken Buck's campaign against big tech. How tweet it is!

Here are the people we'll be watching in 2022 — and a few we'll be watching out for....
click to enlarge Chef Manny Barella is helping to elevate other Hispanic chefs and restaurateurs. - BELLOTA
Chef Manny Barella is helping to elevate other Hispanic chefs and restaurateurs.
Bellota
Manny Barella
After initially starting law school but opting to pursue a culinary degree instead, Manny Barella emigrated from Monterrey, Mexico, to Atlanta in 2009. Since then, he's spent time working in kitchens in Napa Valley, including at the Michelin-starred Solbar, as well as at Uchi Denver and Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder. In late 2020, Barella was brought on by partners Bryan Dayton and Bill Espiricueta as the executive chef of Bellota, a new concept that replaced Acorn at the Source.

Just over a year later, Barella is getting ready to open a second outpost of Bellota in Boulder in early 2022, but beyond showing off his expertise in the kitchen, he's shining a light on Hispanic chefs through his work with the recently formed Hispanic Restaurant Association. Though the organization is just getting its footing, it already has big plans for the upcoming year, including the official launch of the Hispanic Chefs Association on January 10. Additional plans include a one-day Hispanic Top Chef event in the summer, a Latin Supper Club series and the nation's first Hispanic Restaurant Week coinciding with National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs September 15 through October 15. Barella is also planning a live Spanish-speaking food show that will be on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
click to enlarge Is Cole Bassett too good for us? - COLORADO RAPIDS
Is Cole Bassett too good for us?
Colorado Rapids
Cole Bassett
Colorado Rapids midfielder Cole Bassett finished 2021 with his first appearance for the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, scoring the winning goal in the final minutes of a late-December exhibition against Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the Littleton native signed with the Rapids in 2018, he was the youngest signee in club history at the age of seventeen. Now twenty, Bassett has turned down transfers to European clubs so that he could try to win the Major League Soccer Cup with his hometown team.

The Rapids ended up as the top seed in the West this year, but lost to the Portland Timbers in MLS’s first Thanksgiving game. Despite the disappointing end to the season, Bassett excelled with a career high of five goals along with four assists. Bassett hopes for more USMNT opportunities in 2022 and may finally sign with a European team. In the meantime, the Rapids will ramp up training before the season starts in February. But will Bassett be on the Rapids roster — or will he  become another of Colorado’s homegrown soccer talents to make it overseas?
click to enlarge How tweet it is: Congressman Ken Buck - GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
How tweet it is: Congressman Ken Buck
Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
Ken Buck
If you see a social media post from U.S. Representative Ken Buck, rest assured that he isn’t the one who pressed "send." Representing Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, the former chair of the Colorado Republican Party disavows Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Twitter, saying that he believes they use their power to decrease competitiveness in the tech industry and give too many allowances to China; staffers manage his accounts so that he can boycott the companies. As the highest-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, Buck has a hand in how the country regulates those companies, and says he hopes to enact more rules to rein in monopoly power in big tech.

Buck will only be able to do that if he wins reelection in 2022. His district will change slightly with the advent of a new 8th Congressional District and the expansion of the 5th district into a bit of Buck’s current territory. So far, though, no Republican candidate has stepped forward to challenge Buck in the primary, and his district didn't get more competitive in redistricting. As a result, Buck’s campaign will likely focus on some of his favorite topics, including the Biden administration’s softness on China, its management of the pandemic...and the dangers of big tech.
click to enlarge Regas Christou opened The Church 25 years ago. - JON SOLOMON
Regas Christou opened The Church 25 years ago.
Jon Solomon
Regas Christou
Regas Christou remains the veritable club king of Denver. He's owned more than two dozen venues since 1982, including the Church, which just celebrated 25 years in business on New Year’s Eve, and Club Vinyl, Bar Standard and Milk. And now he plans to add two more clubs in 2022. With the empire of upstart Valentes Corleons imploding, an old hand could be just the thing the club scene needs.

Christou, who is 69, says that his CoClubs company is likely to up its employee roster from 290 people to 400 by the end of 2022. While the new clubs won't be in the Golden Triangle, where he's established such a presence, he says that they will be in the city and will include major outdoor spaces. “You never know how long this pandemic is going to last,” he says. “I would be an asshole to allow this shit to defeat us. I have great employees who have been with me for ten, fifteen, twenty years, and some of them even longer. They are the best at what they do. We are the best because my employees are the best.”
click to enlarge Elisabeth Epps is giving her campaign the hard cell. - ELISABETH EPPS
Elisabeth Epps is giving her campaign the hard cell.
Elisabeth Epps
Elisabeth Epps
Although candidates are just beginning to declare for the reconfigured Colorado Legislature districts, one of the most interesting politicians imaginable has already announced. In early December, Elisabeth Epps filed to run for State House District 6, in the east-central part of Denver, from Capitol Hill to East Colfax and Lowry.

A former public defender, Epps has worked to reform — if not abolish altogether — the criminal justice system, arguing that Black people are punished disproportionately because they can't make bail. She did her bit to change that on Mother's Day 2018, raising money to get women released from Denver County Jail. She used some of that cash to launch the Colorado Freedom Fund, which bails out people awaiting trial for low-level offenses. Epps knows all about jail; she wound up there for fifteen days in January 2019 after interrupting police who were dealing with a man in crisis in Aurora.

From there, Epps just expanded her activism. She's worked with Representative Leslie Herod on criminal justice issues ranging from making menstrual hygiene products available to incarcerated women to pushing for changes in the bail system, and was a prominent figure in the George Floyd protests demanding an end to racist policing in 2020. She also helped craft the sweeping police reform law that passed the state legislature that year. Now she wants to be a member of that body. "For years I’ve labored at the Colorado State Capitol — I advocated, testified, rallied. I’ve been shot with less lethal projectiles and gassed by Denver police at our Capitol," she says. "Now I’m ready to lead at our Capitol in a brave new way, representing Denver in HD6."
click to enlarge Anthony Garcia Sr. made his mark with Birdseed Collective. - ANTHONY GARCIA SR.
Anthony Garcia Sr. made his mark with Birdseed Collective.
Anthony Garcia Sr.
Anthony Garcia
Anthony Garcia Sr. has been making his mark on Denver for a long time as a sculptor, muralist and mentor. He has deep roots in the Denver arts community, where he started off as a graffiti artist and trained with the Arts Street program and the Center for Visual Art before founding the Birdseed Collective, which works with youth around the city.

Another member of the 2022 class of Livingston Fellows, Garcia plans to continue pushing Birdseed Collective's goal to “transform the lives of artists, youth, individuals and communities through visionary art, civic projects and programs.” After being closed to the public for more than a year because of the pandemic, Birdseed reopened at the Globeville Center in September; in the meantime, Garcia hosted multiple exhibits of the collective's artists at  Alto Gallery. With development rapidly encroaching on Globeville, the area could use an artistic champion like Garcia. In fact, the entire city could.
click to enlarge Kelissa Hieber will keep pushing craft beer forward in the new year. - GOLDSPOT BREWING
Kelissa Hieber will keep pushing craft beer forward in the new year.
Goldspot Brewing
Kelissa Hieber
Kelissa Hieber has been a fixture at Goldspot Brewing for six years — first as a bartender, then as a brewer, then as part-owner and head brewer, and finally as the sole owner. She is also one of the only women in Colorado who is both the face and the force behind her brewery. It’s an unusual trajectory, but one that, in retrospect, makes complete sense.

As a college grad in Ohio, Hieber looked toward a career in professional organizing for workers' rights and progressive issues. But when she got burned out in that field and decided to follow her other passion — brewing beer — she continued to organize in a different way. Since taking over at Goldspot in February 2021, Hieber has participated in dozens of collaborations with other brewers and made good on a promise to elevate the charitable giving and community work that her brewery does on a weekly basis. In June, she and Lady Justice Brewing hosted the Big Queer Beerfest, which will grow so much in 2022 that it will need a new location. Beyond that, Hieber plans to open an on-site food truck and greatly expand the brewery’s distribution footprint. “The people who know us love us. But I don’t want to be a well-kept secret anymore,” she says. “I want to make more of a difference.”

Part of that effort includes new lagering tanks to feed that distribution, as well as raising money for causes that Goldspot supports. But Hieber also wants to see other “diverse breweries” build a presence in the market, something she can help do as co-chair of the Colorado Brewers Guild’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. In other words, 2022 will be busy. “I’m trying to fuel all my ADD for good,” she says with a laugh.
click to enlarge Restaurateur JW Lee has plans to get into the beer game in 2022. - SEOUL HOSPITALITY GROUP
Restaurateur JW Lee has plans to get into the beer game in 2022.
Seoul Hospitality Group
JW Lee
Though he often flies under the radar, restaurateur JW Lee is one of the busiest hospitality pros in the Denver area. Currently, he operates fifteen establishments, including two of our picks for the 100 Denver restaurants we can't live without for 2022 (Seoul K-BBQ & Hot Pot and Seoul ManDoo). In 2021, he brought New York City-born Korean fried chicken concept Mono Mono to Denver; it landed on our ten best chicken wings list and quickly expanded to two locations — one in LoDo and one in Congress Park. Now he's adding a third in 2022, in a Lafayette location that just happened to come with brewing equipment.
"We're going to end up exploring some more brewery business, hopefully by mid-summer," Lee says.

A fourth Mono Mono in Boulder is a possibility, too, but the labor shortage is one hurdle Lee will have to get over to make his many 2022 plans a reality. "My daily pains are day-to-day operations for staff," he admits. But despite that challenge, getting into beer isn't the only thing on his radar. Lee is also planning to open another Seoul Korean BBQ in Colorado Springs — which will be the first with tabletop grills in that city — as well as a new Korean BBQ outpost in Aurora that will use cast iron for cooking. "It's a more traditional way to eat meat, and it holds so much more heat," he explains. Lee also has exclusive franchise rights to open more Mochinut locations in Colorado, and hopes to add more of the mochi doughnut shops soon.
click to enlarge SoYoung Lee is the executive director of the Rocky Ridge Music Center. - COURTESY OF ROCKY RIDGE MUSIC CENTER
SoYoung Lee is the executive director of the Rocky Ridge Music Center.
Courtesy of Rocky Ridge Music Center
SoYoung Lee
SoYoung Lee was recently announced as a member of the 2022 class of Livingston Fellows of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation for her work as executive and artistic director for the Rocky Ridge Music Center, which provides residential music programs for youth, college students and adults playing various instruments, as well as mastery-level classes and courses on music appreciation, fundamentals and technology.

“I am honored and humbled to be among the powerful BIPOC change leaders that comprise the Livingston Class of 2022,” Lee says. “I am grateful to the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation for investing in us in a meaningful and thoughtful way. I look forward to giving back more generously and energetically to the arts field through my own personal and professional growth afforded by this exceptional opportunity.”
Skye Barker Maa makes the arts accessible. - ALEXANDER ELMORE
Skye Barker Maa makes the arts accessible.
Alexander Elmore
Skye Barker Maa
Skye Barker Maa is working to make the arts more accessible in Denver. One of her first moves was founding Neighborhood Music & Theatre, which provides quality private music lessons for both children and adults, in her basement back in 2012. But since then, she's definitely moved up and out: Her latest venture is Factory Five Five, which she started in 2021 to provide an “inclusive, artistic community hub and event space.”

Today Factory Five Five has one project, Factory Theatre and Film, based at 10255 West 25th Avenue in Aurora, and another, Factory Fashion Academy, at Stanley Marketplace, 2501 Dallas Street, where she also runs a few bars that help support her efforts. Factory Fashion already has several programs planned for 2022, including Drag Tween-Teen Fashion, with both single sessions and a multi-week course on creating drag queen (or in this case, princess) looks. The academy also hosts adult and children's sewing classes, millinery classes and several ten-week courses for youth on fashion illustration, design, upcycling and more. Meanwhile, the Factory Theatre offers youth and adult theater classes, including stage combat and costuming, and a film program introduces students to the first steps of moviemaking. Keep rolling, Maa.
click to enlarge Suchitra Mattai tells stories through her multimedia art. - COURTESY OF K CONTEMPORARY
Suchitra Mattai tells stories through her multimedia art.
Courtesy of K Contemporary
Suchitra Mattai
Suchitra Mattai is not just a person to watch, but one who gives us plenty to look at. The mixed-media artist made a splash at Miami’s Art Basel 2021 with her textile piece "The Murmur of a Prayer," created with vintage saris, including some belonging to her grandmother and her mother’s wedding saris from Guyana. The piece also incorporated ghungroo bells used by her sister, fabric, rope net and boas. Artnet named Mattai one of six artists to look for at the illustrious event. Last year also saw a major solo exhibition of her work at the Boise Museum of Art (up through January 2022), which highlights her storytelling through found materials to describe her family’s journey from India to Guyana as indentured laborers before migrating to the U.S.

Mattai's work is mostly about reclaiming the narrative of her cultural history while addressing colonialism, displacement and ancestry. She uses embroidery, weaving and other traditionally domestic crafts to accentuate her feminist focus, often with large-scale textile works. For the 2019 Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, for example, she created "Imperfect Isometry," a 45-foot-long tapestry of vintage saris. In 2022 she will have presentations at EXPO Chicago and Frieze New York, but as an artist with Denver's K Contemporary gallery, you can count on seeing her work here, too.
click to enlarge Marijuana Enforcement Division director Dominique Mendiola likes to get outside when she's not keeping the pot industry in check. - COURTESY OF THE STATE MARIJUANA ENFORCEMENT DIVISION
Marijuana Enforcement Division director Dominique Mendiola likes to get outside when she's not keeping the pot industry in check.
Courtesy of the state Marijuana Enforcement Division
Dominique Mendiola
Colorado marijuana sales have totaled over $4 billion in the last two years alone, and the industry is still evolving. As the new leader of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division, Dominique Mendiola will be in charge of steering that multibillion-dollar plane, but she has a lot of airtime to rely on: Before becoming the MED's executive director in 2021, Mendiola regularly led MED rulemaking sessions in her deputy role, and she briefly served as former governor John Hickenlooper's director of marijuana coordination.

She'll have plenty on her plate after the 2021 legislative session approved several major marijuana laws, though. In 2022, Mendiola will have to continue navigating the growing presence of modified THC products while also dealing with a new set of laws that restructure Colorado's medical marijuana program, institute new concentrate packaging requirements and set new limits on concentrate sales. The restrictions have sparked growing concerns from the patient community, which Mendiola will have to continue addressing next year, as well.
Time to take note of Yuzo Nieto (left, with the Pink Hawks). - GISELE JARA
Time to take note of Yuzo Nieto (left, with the Pink Hawks).
Gisele Jara
Yuzo Nieto
A dozen years ago, Yuzo Nieto founded Pink Hawks, a jazz band with Chicano and Latinx roots that explores multiple genres, including Afrobeat, hip-hop, Latin, funk and blues. Pink Hawk’s music is rhythmically complex, with many nods to West African drumming influences; it's almost guaranteed to make audiences break out in dance.

In 2021, Nieto completed a Ph.D. program in music education at the University of Northern Colorado; it was a step that made sense for him, as he was already teaching and mentoring young musicians in the state.  Now he hopes to open a charter school, one that will start out by catering to youth of color in middle school, offering music, songwriting, production and recording. He has plans to ultimately expand the school to grades K-12 and add classes on hip-hop, visual arts, creative writing and theater. Nieto will spend much of this year turning his dream into reality for 2023.
click to enlarge The food at Casa Bonita will get a big 2022 upgrade courtesy of new executive chef Dana Rodriguez. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
The food at Casa Bonita will get a big 2022 upgrade courtesy of new executive chef Dana Rodriguez.
Danielle Lirette
Dana Rodriguez
"Twenty-twenty and 2021 were pretty fucking shitty years for me," Dana Rodriguez admits. But now, the chef and restaurateur behind Work & Class and Super Mega Bien is at the center of one of the biggest food stories of the past year — and has a lot to look forward to in 2022.

After moving to Colorado from Mexico in 1998, the single mother applied for a job at Casa Bonita and was turned down because she "wasn't qualified," she recalls. She went on to get a job as a dishwasher at Panzano, was mentored by James Beard award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski, moved with Jasinski to Rioja, and then went on to become one of Denver's culinary powerhouses in her own right. She even recently launched her own mezcal and tequila brand, Doña Loca, and is opening her first solo-owned restaurant, Cantina Loca, at 2880 Zuni Street on January 12.

In August 2021, Rodriguez (along with the rest of us) got word that South Park creators and native Coloradans Trey Parker and Matt Stone would be buying Casa Bonita. "I said, "I'm going to go and reapply and see if they hire me,'" she jokes. But then she got a call that was no laughing matter. "I had an amazing phone call with the Casa Bonita guys," she says, "and I'm like, 'Fuck, yeah, this is a full circle of my story in Colorado.' It was almost like a movie."

Rodriguez's role as a culinary partner in the project was announced in November, and she's already busy updating the kitchen and revamping the food as executive chef at the high-volume Denver icon, which is planning for a late fall opening after being closed since March 2020. Rodriguez says she wants to keep the names of many menus items the same — enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos and, yes, sopaipillas — while making everything from scratch. "It's going to be real shit from Mexico," she promises. "Housemade tortilla, housemade red sauce. That's going to make the difference in many ways."

Rob and Tina Rushing
For nearly a decade, Rob and Tina Rushing worked in outreach for the Love Hope Strength Foundation, raising awareness about mental illness and getting people to sign up as bone-marrow donors at rock concerts and other music festivals. The Rushings were laid off in 2019 when the foundation did away with its outreach program, but they did not want to stop doing good. The couple called on their connections in the industry to start their own Denver-based nonprofit, Punk Rock Saves Lives, collecting signatures at local punk shows, going on the festival circuit and touring with bands.

Three months after launching their crusade with a Flogging Molly tour, though, the pandemic made them change plans. The nonprofit went virtual, creating a podcast that featured punk and rock musicians as well as Zoom sessions to promote donating PPE to first responders. Punk Rock Saves Lives also focused more on mental health, using sessions to provide a space so that those tuning in would feel less alone; it recently started holding meetings for those on a sobriety journey where no topics are off the table.

As restrictions loosened and live music returned, the nonprofit was able to return to its roots at shows it hosted at independent venues in Denver. The Rushings have big plans for 2022: They have applications out to set up Punk Rock Saves Lives at some major music festivals, and will continue to offer shows when they aren’t on tour.

click to enlarge Amanda Sawyer is often a dissenting voice on Denver City Council - DENVER.GOV
Amanda Sawyer is often a dissenting voice on Denver City Council
Denver.gov
Amanda Sawyer
Although Denver City Council is composed entirely of Democrats, its thirteen members have vastly different political leanings. On the far left is Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, a Democratic Socialist. Much closer to the center of the overall political spectrum is Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who often votes in a more conservative fashion than her counterparts.

Take any vote on safe-camping sites, for example, a new model that the City of Denver is supporting to help ameliorate the issue of unsheltered homelessness. Sawyer consistently votes no on funding for these sites, and also voted no on a recent lease contract for a site on city property. Denver has a camping ban, so there shouldn’t be any outdoor “camping” allowed, she argues.

Sawyer was also one of two councilmembers to vote against an overhaul of the group-living aspects of the Denver Zoning Code, which raised the number of unrelated adults who could live in the same household from two to five and increased the areas in the city in which service providers could set up halfway houses and homeless shelters.

In 2022, as Denver City Council deals with a lame-duck mayor, expect Sawyer to continue to push back against certain progressive policies.
click to enlarge Josh Schmitz's Handsome Boys Hospitality is growing fast. - MOLLY MARTIN
Josh Schmitz's Handsome Boys Hospitality is growing fast.
Molly Martin
Josh Schmitz
Denver has a handful of big-name restaurateurs who have been around for well over a decade, and it's been a while since a new name was added to the mix. But that's exactly what's happened — in pretty short order — with Josh Schmitz and his Handsome Boys Hospitality group. When the pandemic hit, Schmitz, who has a background in the clothing industry, owned just one spot in Denver: bar/coffeehouse/clothing store/barber shop Bellwether on East Colfax. Since then, he's weathered controversy when that space became Horror Bar under a partner who faced sexual-misconduct accusations, transformed it again into Slashers, and opened three more concepts — Hidden Gems and Drunken Bakery in Larimer Square and Telephone Pub in Lakewood — plus a pair of holiday pop-up bars.

"My dream, or my vision, is to be one of the biggest hospitality groups in the world, and to be a company that everyone wants to work for," Schmitz told Westword last August. Now Schmitz is pursuing that goal with at least two more projects slated for 2022: RiNo Country Club, which will be complete with a mini-golf course, and Con Safos, a Mexican party bar on Market Street. But if Schmitz's track record over the past two years is any indication, he'll make even more moves in the new year.
click to enlarge Kwame Spearman helped Tattered Cover turn the page. - TATTERED COVER
Kwame Spearman helped Tattered Cover turn the page.
Tattered Cover

Kwame Spearman

At the end of 2020, the city was startled by the news that the venerable Tattered Cover independent bookstore chain would celebrate its fiftieth anniversary under new ownership: a local group pulled together by Denver natives Kwame Spearman and David Back. From its early start as a Cherry Creek shop, the Tattered Cover grew into a powerhouse with a national reputation for its First Amendment fights under second owner Joyce Meskis. After more than four decades, Meskis sold the company to like-minded literature lovers, but the pandemic almost closed the book on the company. Then Spearman and others stepped up.

After a few missteps, the Tattered Cover has started a promising new chapter, with a pop-up at Park Meadows; a children's store at Stanley Marketplace; and the impressive McGregor Square outpost, which, like the Lowenstein store, offers in-person events, and also has a partnership with the legendary Hue-Man bookstore. And the next moves are real page-turners. "Tattered Cover is excited to broaden our impact in 2022 with stores opening in Westminster, Colorado Springs and, hopefully, beyond," says Spearman. "We're diversifying by offering new experiences, like the opportunity to enjoy a glass of locally made wine while perusing your next book. We're also staying focused on the community and finding better ways to support talent and showcase local talent. With any luck, we'll be seeing a lot less of COVID and a lot more opportunities to connect and inspire."
Robin Thurston is on a roll with Outside. - OUTSIDE
Robin Thurston is on a roll with Outside.
Outside
Robin Thurston
Outside got a new CEO and a new headquarters in 2021 when Robin Thurston, a Colorado entrepreneur, bought the magazine and merged it with his Boulder-based company Pocket Outdoor Media. Thurston is on a quest to create the Amazon Prime of the outdoors: a one-stop shop for everything from gear to advice to movies for outdoor enthusiasts. Along with Outside, Thurston acquired many other companies dedicated to the outdoors, as well as local chef Biju Thomas of Biju's Little Curry Shop, bringing them under the umbrella of newly developed Outside+, a membership service that provides a subscription to Outside magazine, event passes, training plans and the opportunity to interact with Outside’s expert employees.

Thurston has long-term goals of turning Outside into a digital-first company and increasing sustainability and diversity in the outdoors industry. In 2022, he'll continue to work toward those goals, starting with a video series on Outside TV featuring Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin.
click to enlarge Phil Washington returned to Denver to run Denver International Airport. Good luck. - DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Phil Washington returned to Denver to run Denver International Airport. Good luck.
Denver International Airport

Phil Washington

While it was just July 2021 when Denver City Council confirmed Phil Washington as the CEO of Denver International Airport, the former head of the Los Angeles County Metro (and RTD before that) has already had a major impact. Washington has proposed completing the Great Hall renovations, which will include relocating security checkpoints, for a total price tag of just over $2 billion.

"This is an aging facility. This airport is 26 years old. It is aging. It is showing its age in many respects, and it's crowded. I've often said that around the country, not just DEN, it's the same airport but more people. More people are flying, and we are recovering more than and faster than any large hub airport in this country," Washington says.

It’s especially important that Washington gets it right with the renovation, as the previous work done on the Great Hall project turned into a disaster when Denver terminated a 34-year contract in August 2019, 32 years early.

But Councilman Kevin Flynn, who chairs the city’s Business, Arts, Workforce and Aviation Services Committee and used to work at RTD with Washington, believes he's up to the  job.“The way Phil operates, he’s a retired command sergeant major from the Army," Flynn says. "He’s very organized. He worked in logistics. He gets things done."
click to enlarge Tristan Watkins is leading a state diversity effort in the marijuana business. - OEDIT
Tristan Watkins is leading a state diversity effort in the marijuana business.
OEDIT
Tristan Watkins
Colorado launched the Cannabis Business Office in July, creating a new division within the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade to support marijuana business owners from backgrounds affected by the War on Drugs. The office will implement $3.5 million in grants and low-interest loans, as well as technical assistance programs for potrepreneurs who qualify under a new social equity provision that prioritizes such communities, with the hope being that more diversity eventually seeps into the marijuana trade.

The office is still getting ready to dole out money to qualified applicants, but OEDIT has already chosen a leader of the operation: Tristan Watkins. A Vanderbilt graduate with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, Watkins previously served as chief science officer for a marijuana extraction company and has experience in the business consulting world, as well. Although Watkins's expectations remain realistic, he hopes to reach a point where marijuana social equity programs are no longer required in Colorado. As Denver and Aurora both struggle to see success in their own social equity marijuana programs, though, Watkins will have high hills to climb in 2022.

Trevor Wittman
Wheat Ridge could be the toughest city in the country, and that's all thanks to Trevor Wittman. A former boxer who had to retire because of medical issues, the Colorado native has gone from warrior to wizard since becoming a mixed martial arts coach, taking his fighters to eight combined UFC title fights in the last two years alone.

Wittman began training boxers in the late ’90s in Denver before opening an MMA gym in Arvada. His current training center is Wheat Ridge-based ONX Sports, home to UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and UFC female strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, as well as title contenders Curtis Blaydes and Justin Gaethje. Wittman ended 2021 with big wins, coaching Gaethje, Namajunas and Usman to a collective 3-0 record at UFC 268 in November before securing his third straight MMA Coach of the Year award. Usman and Namajunas will defend their titles in 2022, and Gaethje is expected to fight for the UFC lightweight title, too. Add in ONX's groundbreaking training equipment for MMA — still relatively new to the world of professional sports — and 2022 promises to be just as interesting for Wittman.
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