The defunct Park Hill Golf Course has been a veritable battlefield for the past few years. All of the controversy will come to a head on April 4, when Denver voters weigh in on a ballot measure proposing to lift the conservation easement that rests on the property, which would clear the way for development.
In the meantime, though, the property has been the focus of a couple of lawsuits. And one has dragged a high-profile investor into the spotlight: Robert Smith.
"We took in an investment, a little over $8 million, for the golf course development," Ty Hubbard, a former employee of the Holleran Group, one of the firms working on the development project, said in a January 31 deposition. "It was an investment that we got from Robert Smith."
Smith — a Denver native who's the wealthiest Black man in America, with an estimated net worth of $8 billion, according to Forbes — is the founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm. He's made well-publicized investments in his childhood neighborhood of Five Points. Until now, though, his involvement with the Park Hill Golf Course developers has been under the radar.
Eight million dollars would represent a large stake in the project. Westside Investment Partners purchased the 155-acre property from the Clayton Trust for $24 million in 2019; the Holleran Group joined the project in the fall of 2020.
The Smith revelation appears in a deposition for a lawsuit filed by the Sisters of Color United for Education against Westside and Holleran in May 2022. The Sisters of Color, a Denver organization promoting health, wellness and education, had been leasing space in the Park Hill Golf Course clubhouse. But the group, which was founded in 1989, got into a dispute with the developers over its use of the clubhouse, which resulted in a falling out and, ultimately, a lawsuit.
"We just want to make sure that people know that sometimes actions speak louder than words," Adrienna Corrales Lujan, executive director of the Sisters of Color, previously told Westword. "Even as a people of color-run organization, we were still not treated very well."
Westside and Holleran declined to comment on the case because of pending litigation. A spokesperson for Smith did not return a request for comment, nor did Hubbard.
Westside wants to build a mixed-use development on the property that would include some affordable housing, land for a grocery store and 100 acres of open space. Supporters of its efforts point out that Northeast Park Hill, the neighborhood where the golf course is located, has struggled with a lack of investment for decades; this project would bring the exact type of investment that is needed to revitalize the community, they say. It would also bring more housing to a city that needs it...badly.
Save Open Space Denver, which counts Denver City Council at-large candidate Penfield Tate and former mayor Wellington Webb as members, argue that the Park Hill Golf Course is an important piece of open space in a rapidly developing city. In fact, while Webb was mayor, the City of Denver placed a conservation easement on the property to prevent development at the golf course. Save Open Space Denver and other opponents say this land would best serve Denver if the city turned it into a municipal park.
The fight between these two sides turned particularly acrimonious in the run-up to the November 2021 election, during which voters approved a ballot measure that called for a citywide vote in order to lift the conservation easement. A competing ballot measure bankrolled by Westside failed; it had sought to exempt the Park Hill Golf Course easement from a vote if the competing proposal passed.
In January, Denver City Council referred a measure to the April ballot that proposes to lift the easement, giving voters the final say.
Although Smith's name had not been dragged into this particular fight before now, he's been active in Colorado real estate, buying up acres of property on the grounds of the former Lincoln Hills resort, a vacation mecca for Black families from the 1920s through the mid-1960s that marked its hundredth anniversary in 2022. He's also supported the investments of Matthew Burkett's Flyfisher Group in Five Points. Those investments were once touted as helping out businesses in the heart of Denver's historic Black community, but some people have recently argued that the Flyfisher developments are hurting, not helping, the area.
In 2020, Smith admitted to his involvement in an "illegal scheme to conceal income and evade millions in taxes by using an offshore trust structure and offshore bank accounts," according to a Department of Justice announcement. As part of that agreement, which got Smith off the hook from a potential indictment, he agreed to provide information on a former business partner. He also agreed to pay $139 million in taxes and penalties and abandon $182 million in charitable contribution deductions.
In addition to outing Smith as an investor, Hubbard's deposition includes revelatory information about how the Holleran Group got involved in the development project. In his testimony, Hubbard described how Kenneth Ho, the Westside lead on the Park Hill Golf Course project, came to Norman Harris, CEO of the Holleran Group, "with an opportunity looking for a real estate or development company that was of color that could partner with them in some capacity." Northeast Park Hill has a large Black community.
"A cynic would say this is a sham. Westside was just looking for somebody Black to front. They found the Holleran Group," says Tate.
According to Hubbard's deposition, Holleran did not directly put up any money itself, but was paid $3,000 a month by Westside to be involved in the project; Holleran was promised more money if the venture came to fruition.
The investment by Smith, whom Hubbard noted is a cousin of both Harris and another Holleran member, Wayne Vaden, came through a subsidiary of Holleran, according to the deposition.