Denver's Elitch Gardens Eyes Aurora as Future Home | Westword

Elitch Gardens Eyes Aurora as Future Home

Mayor Mike Coffman confirms that the amusement park is looking at a site in Colorado's third-largest city when it leaves Denver.
Elitch Gardens is looking for a new home, and Aurora is the only name known to be on the list.
Elitch Gardens is looking for a new home, and Aurora is the only name known to be on the list. Elitch Gardens
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With its wide-open plains stretching east of town — right next to Denver International Airport — Aurora offers what few other places in the metro area can right now: raw, undeveloped land that's easy for both tourists and locals to access.

Elitch Gardens has taken notice.

"We have been talking to a number of jurisdictions, and Aurora is one of them," says Rhys Duggan, CEO and president of Revesco Properties, which manages Elitch Gardens with Kroenke Sports & Entertainment.

The theme park has already announced plans to demolish its current site at 2000 Elitch Circle, off the banks of the Platte River between Interstate 25 and Speer Boulevard. It's a prime piece of real estate, and Revesco and KSE want to use it for the River Mile development project, constructing a residential neighborhood with commercial and retail space mixed in on the edge of downtown.

"When I rezoned the site that Elitch's is on now into a future called River Mile, we were pretty public in our comments around at some point we will relocate — or, more accurately, build a new park in the Denver metro area," Duggan tells Westword. "That's our desire. We're just looking for the right site." 

While he declines to name sites that might be on Revesco's list — "The timeline is quite long," he notes — the company "continues to be in dialogue with a number of jurisdictions," he says. "There's nothing much new that has happened in the four or five years since the rezoning, and we continue to look for a site to deliver a new Elitch's to the Denver market."  

In a July 18 interview, however, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said that Revesco has been taking a hard look at Colorado's third-biggest city, and added that he'd already been in discussions with Elitch Gardens reps about being their future host.

"They're going to be pretty much a little southeast of the Gaylord," the mayor said, referring to the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center. "I've been in conversation with both sides to make sure there's compatibility.            

"I was in discussion with [Elitch's] earlier about being in Aurora, in the northern part of the city by the Gaylord," he added. "I just want to make sure they fit with the other things that are there. The problem with Elitch's is it's seasonal — it's Memorial Day to Labor Day."

Although "the Gaylord really wants to talk about it," the resort still has reservations about the idea, according to Coffman. Much of the final say falls on the Gaylord, but it's apparently more thrilled with the idea of bringing another big attraction to Aurora because it's year-round and shares a similar market.

"Topgolf is year-round and probably fits more with their convention-goer business person," Coffman said. "Gaylord is a little wary of Elitch's and wants to see what's buffering them and Elitch's, because that's really not their clientele. They're more pure convention business versus families." 

As it is, the Gaylord resort sits in an isolated location between developed Aurora and DIA — far from any kind of entertainment destination that could help it book hotel rooms. "They certainly want to see more development out there," Coffman added, acknowledging that "it would be nice to have some destination-type venues" in the city, regardless of where they go.
click to enlarge Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman stands in his office near a window overlook the city's center.
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman confirms that the city has been in talks with Elitch Gardens about bringing the park to the city.
Bennito L. Kelty
For now, Duggan doesn't give odds on Aurora winning the 133-year-old park.

"We haven't landed on a location, and the move is not imminent," he repeats. "These projects take a long time to germinate and become reality; in the interim, Elitch's is going to stay in its current location and continue to operate."

The River Mile project that will replace Elitch Gardens aims to be a district that's almost half residential, half office space, except for chunks that will be used for retail space, community institutions, hotels and Meow Wolf.

Elitch Gardens moved to the Central Platte River Valley in 1994. When it moved to the largely undeveloped site, it became the first amusement park built in an urban area in the U.S. in three decades. "Elitch's has been there for almost thirty years now, and it's probably time for a new and improved Elitch's," Duggan explains. "Given the site's current location, there is a higher and better use for that land in the long term."

Mary and John Elitch opened Elitch Gardens in 1890 on West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street; when her husband died the next year, Mary kept the attraction going. While the original park was only 28 acres, its site along the South Platte is about 65 acres. Denver has little open space to spare, which factors into why Revesco is looking outside the Mile High City's boundaries for Elitch's next location. 

"As we look to build a new park, we're looking for a little more space," Duggan says. "The current Elitch's is about half the size of what we would be looking for in a new site, and so we just need more space to provide a new and improved experience."

Denver is completely surrounded by other jurisdictions and has already developed just about every acre within its borders. Aurora, however, has lots of undeveloped land...and ambition to match.

"Denver is doing some infill, they're landlocked, they by law cannot annex, where we can," Coffman says. "Basically, their boundaries are their boundaries. Their only raw land is pretty much close to the airport, but outside of that it's just redevelopment for them."

Aurora has a land mass a little larger than Denver's — it's about 103,000 acres, making it about 5 percent larger than Denver — but a third of the city is undeveloped, Coffman says.The Denver population is also shrinking, whereas Aurora has seen uninterrupted skyrocketing growth since 1950.

During that time period, more than 300,000 people have moved to Aurora, which expects to catch up to Denver's current population of about 700,000 by around 2070.

Although Duggan is hesitant to share any firm details about Elitch's inevitable relocation, he does encourage people to come on down and enjoy the park before Labor Day sneaks up. Far from looking like a park that's ready to be demolished, Elitch Gardens opened its renovated Twister III — the park's last wooden rail roller coaster — in late June.

"Come to the park!" Duggan says. "In its current location, we continue to invest in Elitch's to deliver a good experience for our customers, and we're going to be there for the next few years to come. So come to the park!" 
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