Gaylord hotel project: Meet the locals in love with it (and one guy against it)

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Frank Gray is president of the Castle Rock Economic Development Council in Douglas County. Yet at a public hearing yesterday on six projects vying for big-bucks state tourism incentives, Gray eschewed his county's own project and, like many of the 23 people who testified, spoke in favor of Gaylord Entertainment's proposal to build a 1,500-room hotel in Aurora.

That favoritism was pointed out by Howard Gelt, one of nine members of Colorado Economic Development Commission, which is tasked with awarding sales-tax rebates under the Regional Tourism Act to up to two projects that demonstrate a capacity to bring new visitors and tax dollars to the state. Gelt asked Gray why he's supporting the Gaylord project and not Douglas County's bid to build a youth sports complex-and-archeological preserve they've dubbed the Colorado Sports and Prehistoric Park.

Gray answered that Castle Rock supports both. He said he chose to talk about Gaylord at the hearing, however, because of its potential as a "great catalyst" for business.

Who else came out in support of Gaylord? We've compiled the following list: Mayor Tom Norton of Greeley Norton is a high-profile guy. A former Colorado Senate president, he served eight years as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation under Governor Bill Owens and is in his second term as mayor of Greeley -- which is an entire hour north of Denver International Airport, near which the Gaylord hotel would be located.

So why does he care so much? "It's about jobs," Norton told the commission. He, like other speakers, emphasized that the Gaylord would bring numerous construction and hospitality jobs to Colorado, and he added that having a world-class hotel and convention center next to the airport could draw additional airlines to DIA. The Gaylord, he said, "will bring in a new tax base, which we so desperately need."

Barry Gore President, Adams County Economic Development In addition to his day job with Adams County, Gore serves on the Economic Development Council of Colorado, Progressive 15 and the Adams County Education Consortium.

Aurora is partly located in Adams County, and Gore called the project's potential impact "beyond significant." When commission member and former Denver mayor Wellington Webb asked if Gore could see anything wrong with Gaylord's proposal, Gore said no. He called the project a once-in-a-lifetime "multiplier;" that is, once its built, it will draw other businesses that want to be located around it.

Rod Bockenfeld Arapahoe County Commissioner The Aurora Chamber of Commerce's 2011 Man of the Year, Bockenfeld was described by those honoring him as "the go-to guy for his organization on a broad range of issues including water, transportation and airport, as well as government finance and government performance management."

While that list doesn't include tourism -- or fun, for that matter -- Bockenfeld sang the Gaylord project's praises yesterday. Even though the hotel would not be in his district, Bockenfeld said he's sure his area would be positively impacted. The hotel "is going to give the Denver market curb appeal," he said, and "leave a substantial impression that Denver is a world-class market."

Jack Lewis Black Hawk City Manager Lewis is fairly new to the gamblin' town of Black Hawk; he previously served as the city manager of Salida. Yesterday, he told the commission that the Black Hawk city council voted in February to support the Gaylord project, whose future guests they hope will drive an hour west to try their luck in Black Hawk's casinos. "We have one thing," he said. "We think we do it well." Michael Gifford President, Associated General Contractors of Colorado AGC of Colorado represents 350 construction-related firms. Unsurprisingly, Gifford testified about the boon Gaylord would provide to the state's construction industry. "Commercial construction creates great-paying jobs," he said. He spoke about the high rate of unemployed construction workers and added that, "We want to see our industry brought back to health." Flip the page to see who else testified for -- and against -- Gaylord. Duane Senn, Aurora resident Senn was the lone person to testify against the project. President of the Laredo Highline Neighborhood Association, Senn was described in a Denver Post story as "a retired Aurora employee who ran for City Council in 2005 and frequently criticizes city actions."

Yesterday, he argued that Aurora's designation of the 125-acre parcel of land where Gaylord wants to build as "blighted" was an expensive move. The city council voted to do so back in August in order to afford Gaylord about $100 million in property tax breaks. But Senn said it could end up costing the state $7 million per year; that's the amount Colorado will have to pay to the Brighton 27J School District in order to make up for a loss of property tax revenue from the land, he said. He asked the commission "to prevent bags of cash from leaving the treasury."

Erik Hansen Adams County Commissioner Hansen formerly served on the city council of Thornton and then as that city's mayor. He noted that the piece of land where the Gaylord would be located is currently generating less than $10,000 in property taxes. "It's basically doing nothing out there," he said.

Though Adams County is not providing any cash incentives to Gaylord -- whereas Aurora has pledged a package that could be worth up to $300 million -- Hansen said the county is allowing the "blighted" designation under the state's urban-renewal law to go forward.

Jeff Wenaas President, Hensel Phelps Construction Company If Gaylord wins the incentives it says it needs to build its behemoth in Aurora, Hensel Phelps will be the company to do it. Wenaas said the construction would create 1,500 construction jobs -- jobs that are badly needed considering the state has lost about 60,000 such jobs since 2006. He noted that Hensel Phelps would likely hire between 500 and 600 subcontracting firms, more than 90 percent of which would be Colorado companies. "It'll stay local," he promised. Debbie Tuttle Economic Development Manager of Northglenn Tuttle worked for Adams and Jefferson counties before taking the job in Northglenn. Yesterday, she was full of cliched praise for the Gaylord project, calling it a "win-win," "a dream project," and "a major home run." She and others emphasized their commitment to regionalism. "This is a partnership," she said. "This is a regional partnership." Steven Klausing Vice President of Transportation, South East Business Partnership The South East Business Partnership represents the interests of the southeastern I-25 corridor, and Klausing, who spent part of his career as an attorney, looks out for the area's transportation interests. How is the Gaylord project relevant to his work? "These kind of projects lift all economic boats," he told the commission. Michelle Claymore Vice President, Jefferson County Economic Development Corporation Claymore, who once worked for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, also emphasized regionalism. She told a story about how a packaging company headquartered in Golden merged with an Atlanta company and, after a few years, moved its operations to Georgia. The reason, according to Claymore? DIA didn't have enough international flights. Claymore said she believes the Gaylord project could lure more international airlines and flights to DIA, which she called a "shining asset."

In addition to the folks who testified about Gaylord, four people spoke in favor of Pueblo's proposal to expand the city's convention center and riverwalk, and build a new aquatic center, along with three new mixed-use development projects that will include housing.

Two people spoke in favor and one spoke against a project in Estes Park that would renovate the historic Elkhorn Lodge and build a ski area, museum and history center in order to boost the area's lagging winter tourism.

And three people spoke for and one spoke against Douglas County's proposed Colorado Sports and Prehistoric Park. One person who spoke in favor of that project also praised Glendale's proposal to build a riverwalk.

The commission will hold another public hearing at 1 p.m. on April 23 in the Hershner Room at the Wells Fargo Center, 1700 Lincoln Street in Denver. Its nine members are scheduled to make a decision on May 18.

More from our Business archive: "Gaylord Entertainment makes pitch for tourism incentives to build hotel in Aurora."

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