Denver Development

How the Walton Family Got Denver in the Bag

Getty Images/Westword Photo Illustration
At the first Denver Broncos pre-season game, Carrie Walton Penner and her husband, Greg Penner, stood on the sidelines to watch their acquisition in action. The sale of the team had been finalized just days before, on August 9; a group led by Carrie's father, 77-year-old Robson Walton, the son of Walmart co-founder Sam Walton, that includes the Penners as well as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Starbucks chair Mellody Hobson and Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, had conquered the competition to purchase the Broncos for $4.65 billion.

The appearance of the Penners elicited an enthusiastic cheer from Broncos fans, excited for a future that now includes quarterback Russell Wilson, coach Nathaniel Hackett and owners with deep pockets. As of this month, Forbes estimates the net worth of Rob Walton at over $57 billion.

Now that Rob Walton and his partners have bagged the Broncos, someone linked to Walmart is in charge of every major sports franchise in Denver, save for the Colorado Rockies. Stan Kroenke and his wife, Ann Walton Kroenke, daughter of Walmart co-founder Bud (brother of Sam), own the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, the Colorado Rapids and the Colorado Mammoth. Stan Kroenke also owns the Los Angeles Rams and the Premier League’s Arsenal.

The two Walton groups also control prime downtown real estate that ties together two of the city's major sports arenas, including most of the land between Ball Arena and Empower Field at Mile High Stadium. Kroenke Sports and Entertainment (KSE) has big plans for the land around Ball Arena, which it owns outright, as well as the nearby River Mile project, which will stretch along more of its property to near the edge of Mile High Stadium. That facility is owned by the Metropolitan Football Stadium District and managed by Stadium Management Company, a subsidiary of the Denver Broncos. Built in 2001, it was funded through a 1 percent sales tax first approved by voters in 1990 to construct Coors Field and then extended through 2011 for the construction of a new football stadium.

According to Greg Penner, the Broncos are the only professional sports team that the group would want to own, and it had eyed the team for a decade. At the official August 10 introduction of the new ownership group, he noted that the team's lease on the stadium and surrounding land lasts another ten years.

By then, though, this part of downtown could be changed almost beyond recognition.

While cousins Ann Kroenke and Rob Walton don't seem particularly close (none of the family members responded to requests for comment), Stan Kroenke told 9News that it wouldn't be unusual if Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, the company through which the Kroenke family conducts most of its business in Colorado, were to work with the Walton-Penner ownership group on development projects in the area — where together they control over 150 acres.

And a river of Walmart money runs through them.
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The 55 acres around Ball Arena could be developed.
Evan Semón
The Walton family struck gold when Sam and Bud Walton founded Walmart in 1962 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Sam eventually decided to make it a retail store for the masses; by 2014, twelve years after he died, profits from the store had made the Walton family the richest in America, according to Forbes.

Ann Walton reportedly met Stan Kroenke in Aspen, a town where both Rob Walton and the Penners have homes, and their business interests soon extended to Denver. In 2000, KSE bought the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche from Ascent Entertainment Group, along with the privately funded Pepsi Center, built in 1999 and the first sports stadium in the country to be funded with asset-backed securities. Ascent had used the rights to corporate sponsorships, luxury suites and arena naming rights as collateral for the nearly $140 million it would need to build the stadium.

Today the naming rights belong to Ball, and Ball Arena is home to the Avs, which just brought home the Stanley Cup, as well as the Nuggets, with back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Kroenke also owns parking lots around the arena, 55 acres of rare open property downtown that the company has proposed developing.

In March, KSE submitted plans to the city for the potential development. Combined with the massive River Mile, announced four years earlier, the projects would expand downtown Denver by 40 percent.

In 2015, Kroenke had partnered with Revesco Properties and Second City Real Estate to buy Elitch Gardens Amusement Park from Six Flags for $140 million. Under earlier ownership, the park had moved to the banks of the South Platte from north Denver, where it had opened back in 1892; in 1989, Denver voters had approved helping pay for the relocation with a $14.9 million bond issue that would aid in putting required infrastructure in the area. "Vote for Elitch's — It's Denver," the campaign urged.
Given the area's status as a floodplain with potential environmental issues because of its use as a train yard, it was rezoned exclusively for an amusement park.

In 2018, the city voted to change that zoning to allow for a massive residential and retail development  that KSE and Revesco had planned stretching south from Confluence Park along the South Platte River: the River Mile.

Like the River Mile plans, the new proposal for a 55-acre development around Ball Arena calls for residential, retail and office buildings, as well as parks and open space. In June, Josh Kroenke, son of Ann and Stan, and governor of both the Nuggets and the Avalanche, said that updates to Ball Arena and the team's facilities could also be part of the final redevelopment plan. A decade ago, a major apartment was added to the top of the facility for Stan to use when he was in town.

But right now, proposals for both the Ball Arena and River Mile projects focus on creating new neighborhoods that are walkable, with plenty of open-space pedestrian access to the area. There are a few hurdles in the way, though.

The current Ball Arena plan would require that the city alter the protected Old City Hall view plane, which limits building height on some of the site to preserve the view of the Rocky Mountains from the city.

And the River Mile has a different snag: the river that runs through the property.
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To Av and Av not: Josh Kroenke (from left), Joe Sakic, Gabriel Landeskog and Stan Kroenke.
Evan Semón
Elitch’s is in a floodplain adjacent to the South Platte, which last flooded in 2013. In order to accommodate the River Mile, the river must be reworked. Revesco CEO Rhys Duggan says that the developers have been following the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' lead regarding the restoration project, which includes deepening the river, restoring native habitat and adding bike and pedestrian paths.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers' 2019 Final Environmental Impact Statement, the project is designed to restore riparian, wetland and aquatic habitat lost when the Chatfield and Cherry Creek reservoirs and Bear Creek Lake were created in the wake of the disastrous 1965 flood of the South Platte River.

That flood caused $325 million in damages at the edge of downtown Denver and led to the creation of the Auraria campus, among other projects. In 1974, then-Mayor Bill McNichols appointed legislator Joe Shoemaker to the Platte River Development Committee. That was later transformed into the Greenway Foundation, which has been working for more than four decades to restore and protect the waterway.

The transformation of the Platte where it passes through downtown Denver is just part of the project, but it's a critical one.

"This need is so great that the City and County of Denver, the study’s Non-federal Sponsor, in cooperation with other local stakeholders have invested tens of millions of local dollars into the South Platte River corridor over the past decade," the Army Corps statement says, adding that the project also aims to safeguard the area from floods and promote recreation, connectivity and accessibility along the river.

The total price of the Army Corps of Engineers plan for the river will run more than $52 million, according to the EIS. The section impacting the River Mile is called Reach 5, and covers the part of the South Platte between Speer Boulevard and Zuni Street, the same area that runs between the Kroenke and Broncos land.

In Reach 5, the goal is to protect the area around the river from a 200-year flood. The project will make the river deeper and narrower there, in order to strengthen the banks separating it from future development.

The entire Army Corps of Engineers project isn't scheduled to be completed until 2053, but Bert Matya, project manager for the Army Corps' Omaha District overseeing the project, says it is collaborating with the City of Denver to fund some of the work through the Civil Works Private Partnerships Pilot Program, a trial that is testing whether combining private and public funds can help projects be completed more quickly.

Private funds from the River Mile developers are definitely helping in Reach 5. According to Duggan, rechanneling of the Platte in the area could be done within two years, and the next phase of the River Mile project could start within twelve to 24 months.

One of the first phases opened last September, to rave reviews. Meow Wolf Denver is actually part of the River Mile’s initial offering, at the south end of that project. Revesco partnered with the Santa Fe arts conglomerate to build the facility, throwing in $50 million. In just a year, Meow Wolf has become a landmark in Sun Valley, like Empower Field at Mile High Stadium to the west.
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The River Mile stretches for 62 acres along the Platte almost to Empower Field at Mile High.
Evan Semón
The Walton-Penner ownership group beat out several other bidders for the Broncos, none of them as diverse — or well funded.

Greg Penner, who's currently chair of Walmart, has been named CEO of the Denver Broncos, though Rob Walton is the controlling owner. On August 11, the Broncos announced that Damani Leech had been hired as team president. Leech was previously the CEO of NFL International and will lead business operations for the team and Stadium Management Company, which is the entity through which the team leases Empower Field at Mile High.

Even as the new owners were preparing for the next football season, speculation focused on whether they would want to move the team outside of Denver. That was considered, and dismissed, back in the late ’90s, when then-owner Pat Bowlen warned of what might happen if voters didn't approve extending the stadium tax to pay for a new football stadium to replace the original Mile High.

Kroenke's Colorado Rapids play in Commerce City, next to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. KSE and Commerce City split the cost of building the Rapids' home, Dick's Sporting Goods Park, contributing about $65 million each. The decision to put the soccer stadium there was partly based on the idea that a light-rail station would go there and development in the area would pick up, but that stop has yet to materialize. As a result, some critics say, the Rapids lose out on fan attendance.

Building a football stadium nearby would certainly help with critical mass. Commerce City has also been suggested as a future home of Elitch's, since the amusement park will have to move in order for the River Mile to be completed.

The Broncos could consider asking taxpayers to pony up the funds for a new stadium in the metro area, but with the defeat of a bond proposal in November 2021 that would have funded an arena at the National Western Complex, Denver taxpayers seem less open to funding sports venues than they used to be — and they would certainly not be happy about losing a stadium.

Still, financing is another area where the Walton-Penners could follow Kroenke's lead: He privately funded construction of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, where the Super Bowl-winning Rams play, after moving the team out of St. Louis.

Plans for the area around Empower Field at Mile High have been built around the stadium staying. According to the Stadium District Master Plan, adopted by the city in 2019, land to the south of Empower Field could be redeveloped as a mixed-use neighborhood hub with transportation options and other amenities that would serve fans on game days and the neighborhood the rest of the year. The planning area includes land owned by the stadium district as well as other property, particularly the interchange between Federal Boulevard and West Colfax Avenue. It does not include the stadium district property to the north of Empower Field, although some have suggested that could be a potential site for a new stadium.

Old sports facilities have given way to newer ones before. When McNichols Arena, the former home of Denver's basketball team before the Pepsi Center replaced it, was destroyed to make room for the new football stadium going next door to the original Mile High, concrete from the old arena was buried underneath what became the north parking lot.

Sun Valley residents and other stakeholders formed the Westside Stadium Community Coalition to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement to go along with the city's master plan for the area, ensuring that the neighborhood would benefit from any developments. Such agreements exist for San Diego's Ballpark Village Project near the Major League Baseball stadium; Los Angeles for Crypto.com Arena, formerly the Staples Center; and Nashville for its Major League Soccer stadium.

Creation of the Sun Valley CBA was delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; according to Jeanne  Granville, president of the Sun Valley Community Coalition, the neighborhood wants to work with the new Broncos ownership group once it has time to settle in. But while Granville says the community hopes the Broncos will remain in the area, it also recognizes that growth will continue with or without the team, and its concerns will remain the same: developing affordable housing at the same rate as other housing, orienting entertainment options toward families and those with lower incomes, and including green space in any development plans.

The neighborhood is currently undergoing redevelopment by the Denver Housing Authority, too, which is adding more affordable housing and businesses to the area. When those projects are completed, many Sun Valley residents who have been displaced plan to return.

Selena Ramirez, who's now in her twenties and grew up in Sun Valley, comes back to the area to work at the Decatur Market, an affordable grocery store. "Everybody talks about it and wants a piece of Sun Valley," she says, "so it's very different now."

Ramirez's childhood memories are filled with ties to the team, including a Broncos football camp for neighborhood kids, and she hopes the new owners embrace the community rather than regard it as simply a real estate opportunity.

"Historically, this has been a Bronco-oriented community," Granville notes. "When there’s a game, the whole neighborhood has been shut down. Kids learn percentages and math using Broncos statistics. There’s just a lot of fans here, and I think, like anybody does who's in the surrounding area, they’ve always been part of the neighborhood, maybe not as involved as we’d always like. ... We’d be sorry to see them go."
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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