National Western Center project proposal opens old wounds for Globeville-Elyria-Swansea

A $190 million bond proposal to build a new arena at the National Western Center and renovate an old one would bring cash and jobs into Denver but Globeville-Elyria-Swansea residents say they don’t expect any of it to come their way.

“Nobody knows of anyone in 80216 that has ever had a career job at the National Western,” resident Carol Briggs told the Denver City Council this week. “It has not happened in decades and yet continues to be talked about.”

The National Western work is the largest portion of a $450 million measure proposed by Mayor Michael Hancock as a way to slingshot Denver’s economy back from the pandemic. But it needs the blessing of the city council before it can go on the November ballot.

Four council members opposed the measure on Aug. 16 on the first of two required votes. The second and final vote will be held Monday. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose district includes the National Western campus, cast her vote against the measure with a “hell no,” a sentiment echoed by many members of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The proposal came about too quickly, Councilwoman Robin Kniech said, and without enough community input or consideration for unintended consequences.

Neighborhood residents agreed and told The Denver Post that they feel any of the jobs and prosperity the projects might bring will likely exclude them. For the money, they said they’d rather have a new library (another piece of the five-part bond proposal includes just that for Globeville), a grocery store, street repairs or even just more regular visits from city crews to clean up the neighborhoods.

“Globeville’s gonna Globeville”

Before Monday’s council meeting, the Globeville-Elyria-Swansea Coalition, which advocates for the three neighborhoods, announced its opposition to the $190 million proposal.

“The development of this area will further dispossess our community of its land and homes, and continue a legacy of exploitative development that fails to provide services that our community actually needs, like affordable housing or economic opportunities,” spokesman Alfonso Espino said in a news release.

Even neighborhood residents unaware of the proposal voiced their opposition.

The metal tines of Dave Trujillo’s rake scratched the gutter of East 47th Avenue near High Street on Tuesday morning. He picks up odd jobs, like clearing streets and sidewalks of debris, to pay rent.

The 78-year-old said he moved into Elyria-Swansea in 1968 and about as far back as he can remember, city officials have ignored him and his neighbors in favor of the National Western Center and other projects.

Each January when the stock show starts, Trujillo said he needs a permit to park in front of his own home. He shook his head at the prospect of a new arena, which he said neither surprises him nor will it benefit him.

“The only job opportunities I see are the ones I create on my own,” Trujillo said.

He’d rather have repaved streets or cleaned up alleys and sidewalks that currently are littered with trash and tree trimmings.

Or, he said, they should bring a grocery store to the area. Because there isn’t one nearby, Anna Romero said she must drive at least 10 minutes away “depending on the traffic” to a Walmart.

She sat on her porch just west of the National Western Center, a cigarette in her hand and a small dog in her lap. Romero acknowledged that jobs might be available for her Globeville neighbors if this project goes through, but they’ll be hourly jobs, sweeping floors or serving fast food.

Not careers.

“Not unless you’re a cowboy,” the 57-year-old said.

Having lived in the area since fourth grade, Romero said this is just the most recent proposal to ignore the needs of the neighborhoods.

“Globeville’s gonna Globeville,” she said.

A few blocks away, Fred Orr sat at his desk at The Standard Group, a “niche, non-bank private lender” business of which he is the president. He said a grocery store could be on the way for the neighborhoods — if the market detects a need, that is.

Orr is a trustee for the stock show, and said he supports the proposal, expecting it will improve not only the neighborhoods but also bring cash to Denver and the rest of the state. He leaned back near a photo on the wall of him and Hancock smiling and wearing orange foam cowboy hats.

The new arena could be used year-round and, if it’s renovated, the 1909 Building could host even more events, Orr said.

“It should be a tremendous economic driver and it will bring way more jobs than what were there,” said Orr, who lives in Adams County and said his family has a long history with the stock show, where they used to show cattle. “It could be a very special place.”

“Politically opportunistic”

The National Western Center has already lost out twice during the pandemic. City officials in May 2020 paused the public-private partnership meant to fund an estimated $528 million worth of upgrades and renovations to the campus.

Then in September, the National Western Center’s executive team canceled the annual National Western Stock Show, marking the first time the show hadn’t been held in Denver since 1922.

To make up for the lost partnership, Hancock included $190 million for his massive bond proposal.

At the outset, the entire bond measure and the National Western Center component sparked concern and controversy.

But council members balked at the notion that the National Western Center work was attached to other proposals for new libraries, theater renovations and a new youth empowerment center. So they split the projects from four categories to five.

Kniech still questions whether city officials fully considered other funding options for the work and the “ripple effect” such a large investment would make throughout Denver.

She voted Monday against placing the National Western Center projects on the November ballot, but said she does support the work generally and noted that it also could have been proposed for the 2022 ballot.

As it is, Kniech called the proposal “politically opportunistic” and said it likely arose from the administration taking notice of a historically generous voter base.

Most of the money voters approved in Denver’s last bond package — 2017 — hasn’t yet been spent, Kniech added. Denver has proposed bond measures about once a decade since about 2007 and Chief Financial Officer Brendan Hanlon told The Denver Post in June that the latest request shouldn’t interrupt that schedule.

Representatives for Hancock did not respond to interview requests.

Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, who also voted against placing the National Western upgrade measure on the ballot, said the notion could have benefited from more conversation.

“We all understand it benefits the National Western Center,” Sandoval said. “But at the same time we need to talk about … community benefits.”

That’s exactly what’s on nine-year Globeville resident Lauren Finesilver’s mind.

The 34-year-old spoke of broken trust with the city, adding that “it seems like the neighborhood has been forgotten.”

More residents might be open to the proposal if city officials provided more information about it. But despite her skepticism, she doesn’t outright oppose the measure. Instead, she said, she’ll consider it and the four other bond measures as more information about them comes out.

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