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Gaylord Entertainment makes pitch for tourism incentives to build hotel in Aurora

The addition of a 1,500-room hotel and conference center in Aurora would definitely give out-of-towners a reason to visit. And Aurora is looking for 'em, as explained in our cover story, "Wish You Were Here!" Yesterday, the company that wants to build said behemoth hotel made a pitch for the millions in incentives needed to make it happen.

The company is Tennessee-based Gaylord Entertainment, and the folks they have to convince are the nine members of the Colorado Economic Development Commission. The members are responsible for granting sales-tax rebates under the Regional Tourism Act to projects that demonstrate a capacity to bring new visitors and tax dollars to the state. Aurora is asking that Gaylord be rebated 81 percent of the sales taxes generated by the new hotel, which Gaylord estimates will cost $825 million to build. If all goes well, they hope to open in early 2016.

Thursday was the first time the board heard in-person presentations from the applicants. But the final decision about whether to grant the incentives is still months away, as explained by the Denver Post, in whose building the meeting took place.

There are six applicants currently vying for RTA funding. Each had twenty minutes to make their case, with ten minutes reserved for questions. Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan was up first. He laid out the numbers: A new Gaylord hotel in Aurora would create 1,550 permanent jobs and 10,172 construction jobs, bring 400,000 new overnight guests and generate $273.3 million for the local economy each year.

Hogan insisted the Gaylord wasn't just a win for Aurora, but a win for the entire metro area. That's been a sticking point, especially since one study showed that the Gaylord would drain $186 million from Denver-area hotels in its first four years of operation.

Gaylord's CEO, an energetic and passionate man named Colin Reed, disagrees -- passionately and energetically. "The whole notion is just incorrect," he said. The Gaylord's other hotels -- it has four, in Tennessee, Florida, Texas and Maryland -- have actually boosted business for their supposed competitors by bringing more tourists and conference attendees to the area, he argued. Even though Gaylord's hotels are massive, Reed said that they can't always accommodate everybody, and business spills over to neighboring hotels.

It was clear that what Reed really wanted to talk about, however, was the majesty of his hotels. Flipping through slides of sparkling waterfront properties, manicured gardens and luxurious swimming pools, he said he likes to think of the properties as theaters, not hotels. Every winter, Gaylord hires artisans from China to spend a month carving massive ice sculpture displays for the properties. Gaylord has an exclusive partnership with Dreamworks and offers "family fun" packages that include parties hosted by Shrek and Kung Fu Panda (both of whom, he noted somewhat confusingly, have millions of Facebook friends). And Gaylord is hooking up with Dolly Parton, who's already in the tourism business with Dollywood, to build a giant water and (fake) snow park in Tennessee.

But while Gaylord caters to some leisure travelers, the bulk of its business is big conferences. The Denver area, Reed said, has a dearth of hotels large enough to handle the gatherings of 500 to 1,500 people that are Gaylord's specialty. "Frankly," he said, "you have a gap in the meetings we go after." Gaylord has a gap in its offerings too: The company does not own any hotels west of Dallas, though Reed said it has customers eager to hold their functions in Colorado. "These customers of ours are loyal," he said.

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Board members asked questions about the incentives Gaylord already secured from Aurora. Hogan was reluctant to name a dollar amount since the total will be based on how much tax revenue the hotel generates, although he admitted it could be $300 million. "But that's not a bag of cash sitting in Aurora's treasury," he added. "It's based on performance."

They also asked about the potential that the Gaylord would siphon business from existing hotels (an assertion Reed refuted) and how much the company planned to spend to build the hotel. Reed ended his presentation with that figure. "Thank you for giving us an opportunity to spend $800 million in your community," he said. The board laughed.

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