Officials leading Denver’s National Western Center campus overhaul have a 17-acre void on their project map — with a glaring funding gap that threatens one of the marquee components of the city-led undertaking, now years delayed and significantly beyond its budget.
While a new 357,000-square-foot livestock center is rising around the longtime home of the Stock Show in northern Denver, a second major event facility — a cavernous equestrian center that would sit across a plaza from it — exists only on paper. The city can’t afford both massive buildings, which were supposed to be finished by the end of this year under a 2015 master plan that won city voters’ support for tourism tax extensions.
It’s a major setback for a project that’s already marshaled more than $1 billion in city, state and private money. The plan’s aim was to keep the Stock Show in Denver while transforming its dusty outpost into a year-round exhibition, agricultural education and entertainment campus.
After quietly deciding to punt on the equestrian center last year, project leaders went before the City Council this spring for support on a rescue plan of sorts to bring that building and a parking structure back into the fold. It hinges on the creation of a new public-private partnership in which outside contractors not only would design and build the equestrian center, but also would build and operate a hotel and attract new events to the campus.
Income from those latter components would be used to defray the costs of the new project, which are likely to land well north of a $185 million estimate for the equestrian center back in 2020.
This partnership idea is the latest gambit for project and city leaders as they’ve worked to make the campus vision a reality. They previously weathered voters’ rejection two years ago of a bond measure to pay for a new 10,000-seat arena.
Now the National Western Center project stands at a crossroads. Key promises to the surrounding community are unfulfilled, due in part to escalating costs and an unforeseen pandemic. It’s unclear if the city will be able to fully complete the master plan’s first two phases as intended — not to mention the more speculative later stages that could bring that arena or other major facilities that have always been unfunded.
The latest pivot comes as new Mayor Mike Johnston takes control of the legacy project launched by his predecessor, Michael Hancock. He will have the chance to make his own mark on its future.
“I view this as one of the really exciting opportunities for the city over the next generation,” Johnston said in a recent interview. He sees the potential to build out a campus “that honors the legacy of the city and the Indigenous cultures and history in the neighborhoods and builds a bridge to Denver’s future. This is a great chance for us to do that.”
Project and campus officials say they should be able to complete the equestrian center in the next four years. They hope to snag a partnership deal that brings outside money to the table. They also would have to persuade the council that the arrangement makes sense. Other public-private partnership proposals have attracted criticism both inside and outside city government in recent years.
For now, there’s other unfinished business to tackle on the 250-acre, city-owned campus.
Pedestrian and vehicle connections are a priority for project leaders and nearby residents alike. Bridges would link the new features on the west side of the campus, including stockyards and an event center, the new livestock center and buildings constructed by Colorado State University, with the RTD N-Line commuter-rail station as well as oft-overlooked neighborhoods east of central railroad tracks.
A $25 million pedestrian bridge over the rail lines and a second new vehicle bridge over the South Platte River both show to-be-determined completion dates on the project dashboard. Construction leaders say those are funded, though they plan to request $10 million in federal support for the pedestrian crossing.
Until those connections are in place, some of the perks of the construction remain hard to reach for many neighbors. The CSU campus has free programming on the second Saturday of every month, but Elyria-Swansea residents have found there’s no safe or convenient way for children and older people to get there on foot.
For neighborhood advocates, it’s another example of a campus benefit that looks good in a news release but provides little tangible value.
“I know the city needs to make a significant amount of sales tax and a significant amount of revenue,” said Nola Miguel, a longtime leader with the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice. “But as long as the neighborhoods are in disarray, it’s not going to be successful. All of our destinies are intertwined.”
$5 million set aside to seek solutions
Project leaders say they hear those frustrations. They hope a $5 million seed planted recently — in large part to cover costs of the new bid process — will grow not only to deliver the promised equestrian center but also drive much more campus activity.
That, in turn, would draw more money into a still-tiny investment fund, fed by a round-up option on campus purchases, that neighbors control.
That $5 million was plucked from a frozen effort to develop plans for unfunded projects within the southeast “Triangle” area of the campus, where the Stock Show’s older buildings now stand, along with empty lots.
The money is in the hands of the National Western Center Authority, an entity created by the city with its project partners. It is diving into efforts to find teams for public-private partnerships that would deliver a hotel, the equestrian center, a parking structure and events programming on the campus.
A request for proposals is expected to go out before the end of October, according to officials with that entity, a nonprofit tasked with managing, booking and keeping up the sprawling city-owned campus for the next 100 years.
If the pivot works out as campus leaders hope, the equestrian center could fuel events — and generate lots of new spending — across the campus.
“The hotel operations piece, we think, creates the opportunity for more people to come here to see events and stay in the hotel,” Brad Buchanan, the authority’s director, told City Council members in June. “The events create opportunities for people to stay in a hotel, so they feed each other.”
The scale of the National Western Center plan has always been immense — and it’s faced big challenges from the start. After the city acquired homes and businesses around the Stock Show’s existing footprint, it had to untangle railroad tracks running through the site and bury two large, above-ground sewage pipes that ran along the South Platte.
The property required nearly $400 million worth of infrastructure improvements, including relocations of those tracks and sewage pipes, before most of the new buildings could go up. The city also has finished 6 acres of new public open space along the river.
Construction inflation presents new challenge
More recently, the challenges have come from inflation and other setbacks, leaving the project partners to scrounge for more resources to complete the remaining key facilities.
City officials came together last year to assess the impacts of runaway labor and material costs on the project’s budget. Cost inflation has been a challenge for builders of all stripes. A recent report from advisory firm Oxford Economics forecast that construction material costs were likely to settle at a “new normal” of at least 15% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Based on officials’ assessment, the National Western project’s steering committee decided to punt the equestrian center and parking garage off the list for what was supposed to be the fully funded first two phases of the project.
While CSU wrapped up work on its adjacent three-building Spur campus, the city’s $799 million budget was getting stretched. Michael Bouchard, the director of the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center, which is leading the construction for its facilities, said that money wasn’t sufficient to construct both a new equestrian center and a new livestock center in a way that lived up Denver and its partners’ vision for turning the campus into a global destination.
A majority of that money — $688 million — has come from bonds backed by the indefinite extension of the city’s lodging and car rental taxes. City voters signed off on that funding stream in 2015 when 66% of them supported Referred Question 2C.
“We looked at options and said, ‘OK, how can we take the budget and do two buildings?’ ” Bouchard said. “Which we still could have done, but neither of them would have been as competitive as they ultimately need to be for the campus.”
Johnston, who toured the campus with project leaders earlier this year, reappointed Bouchard to continue leading the city construction effort last month.
The new mayor’s message: “Finish the mission,” Bouchard recalled.
Johnston says he has no plans — at least for now — to go back to voters to ask for more money to carry the project forward. The mayor and city finance officials expressed hope that the city could rely on robust 2C tax proceeds in coming years to help pay for equestrian center work, depending on the outcome of the search for private partners.
Still, there’s a Plan B noted in recent city presentations: Officials could ask the City Council for approval to issue certificates of participation, a form of borrowing that pledges city assets and doesn’t require going to voters.
As for the long-coveted 10,000-seat arena that partners have argued the campus needs to replace the 72-year-old Denver Coliseum? Johnston suggested a new entity might be interested in being a partner on such a venue.
He has been in touch with an investment group considering launching a WNBA franchise in the city.
“That could be a great potential shared site that could include both the WNBA and the Stock Show,” Johnston said.
Livestock center, legacy building, bridges on tap
Bouchard’s office is focused on finishing what officials view as the most pressing needs on the campus.
Those include the bridge that will carry an east-west street, named Bettie Cram Drive after the late Elyria-Swansea neighborhood advocate, over the river to connect to North Washington Street. And the pedestrian bridge, which could rise as high as five stories to clear the rail lines.
Construction of the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Livestock Center also horned in ahead of the equestrian center. Crews broke ground in February under a $205 million construction and management contract. Once open, ideally ahead of the January 2026 National Western Stock Show, that structure will add 185,000 square feet of exposition hall space and an arena that can seat 5,000 people, to the campus’ inventory — accommodating many stock show events but also exhibitions, trade shows, concerts and other events throughout the year.
The partners didn’t budget for luxury. Bouchard emphasized that the livestock center was still “value-engineered” to fit the city’s remaining budget. Its flexibility and potential for year-round use bumped it to the front of the line over an equestrian center that would be designed around horse stalls and a smaller range of events.
“We anticipate the livestock (center) completing in 2025 … and the pedestrian bridge right now is scheduled to be completed sometime in ’26,” Bouchard said.
Work on the equestrian center may have been deferred, but it’s not sunk.
Campus partners voiced optimism that the $5 million effort to dig into market opportunities and entice bids from private sector contractors will get that missing piece back on the project schedule.
With or without the hotel, project partners are champing at the bit to see the 17 acres of vacant land on the campus’ northwest edge, along the South Platte, fill in.
CSU opened the third and final building of its Spur campus in January. That $200 million micro campus, funded entirely by an allocation from the state legislature, finished work on time and on budget, CSU officials said at the time.
One of the university’s buildings features a horse therapy clinic that is oriented to face the future equestrian center.
“CSU Spur needs the neighboring components of the NWC to be completed to reach its full potential,” Jocelyn Hittle, the university’s associate vice chancellor, said in a statement. “The integration of our facilities with the offerings of the campus is critical for some of our programs.”
The National Western Stock Show, too, is fulfilling its end of the bargain on the campus redevelopment, said Paul Andrews, the president and CEO of that organization.
The associated Western Stock Show Association’s commitments included contributing $50 million towards the construction work and donating the land it already owned. Last year, the Stock Show’s 117th edition attracted 702,000 people to the campus over its 16 days of rodeos, livestock auctions and other events, in a return to pre-pandemic levels, Andrews said.
“We are now full equity partners and have met every obligation — and we are looking forward to the city continuing to meet their obligations on site,” Andrews said.
But his organization is also feeling the effects of construction cost increases in recent years. The projected budget for its Legacy building, a 100,000-square-foot facility that’s set to border and connect to the livestock center that’s now under construction, has risen from $50 million to closer to $90 million, Andrews said.
The Stock Show has the exclusive power to sell naming rights on new campus facilities. Andrews expects to start marketing the equestrian center naming opportunity in the weeks ahead for $35 million, he said.
With that project in flux and campus partners looking to pivot, Andrews said he wouldn’t mind seeing a hotel come to the campus.
“We’ll fill it every January. I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Margaret Danuser, the city’s chief financial officer under Hancock, explained to City Council members during a spring meeting the financial rationale for adding a city-owned hotel component to the equestrian facility and parking structure. Hotel and event revenues would help offset project costs, she said — and the hotel itself would generate more 2C tax collections, through lodging taxes, to support the whole endeavor.
Nearby neighborhoods “are all falling apart”
In June, the council approved the transfer of the $5 million to underwrite the project study and solicitation efforts in a 12-1 vote — with the dissent coming from then-Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. The born and raised resident of the Swansea neighborhood pleaded with her colleagues to heed neighbors’ requests to retain some of that money to focus on the generation of plans for the unfunded future phases.
She lost her runoff election against challenger Darrell Watson the day after the hearing.
But her comments underlined longstanding community frustration over efforts to draw in outside partners or develop plans for the Triangle zone, which stalled during the pandemic and then faltered again with voters’ 2021 rejection of Hancock’s arena pitch. That zone also has been eyed for the renovation of the Stock Show’s historic Stadium Arena into a community food market.
Denver’s growth in the years since the National Western project got underway has only worsened fears of economic displacement for the people in those majority-Latino neighborhoods, said Miguel, from the GES Coalition. The median household income in the 80216 ZIP code is 12% lower than that of the city as a whole, according to census data.
“The neighborhoods around the National Western all are falling apart,” Miguel said.
The NWC Authority’s Buchanan, a former Denver city planning director, foresees a campus that hums with activity year-round, benefitting the entire city — and most of all the neighborhoods nearby.
He is promising a unique bidding process for the larger equestrian center project, noting that more than 250 unfiltered, unedited community priorities have been added to the draft of the solicitation package for bidders to consider. Two community members will sit on the selection committee when it comes time to pick a winner, he said.
“They are the most impacted by the campus being here — they should be most benefited from that campus being here,” Buchanan said of the surrounding neighborhoods.
But some neighbors are focused on more immediate needs, such as safe ways to get around their freeway-bound area. Adding insult to injury is that the properties acquired in the Triangle to accommodate the campus expansion largely sit vacant, except for when they’re being used as parking lots.
“Of course, the new campus gets sidewalks and lighting. We have not. They get sustainable energy options. We have not,” said Ana Varela, a co-director of the GES Coalition group. “I do not feel that a boutique hotel or equestrian center would serve the GES neighborhoods in any meaningful way.”
Varela represented the neighborhoods on a transition committee convened by Johnston’s campaign to advise him on the future of the National Western Center. The committee’s report is short, just four pages. Its recommendations focus on some practical needs, such as clearing up confusion in the community on just who controls what, as well as speeding up the completion of roadway connections and the addition of transit and mobility options.
The report goes further in recommending the reactivation of “city-owned land for public benefits.” That includes working with Tierra Colectiva, a GES Coalition sister organization that uses the community land trust model to keep housing costs down.
Johnston expressed support for the idea of community-owned land on the campus.
“There is also a desire to have housing out there that would be affordable for neighbors and residents, so that is a priority for us,” Johnston said.
Varela says neighbors are interested in seeing the mayor’s follow-through on such comments.
Terrance Carroll co-chaired the transition committee alongside Varela. The former speaker of the Colorado House was a big supporter of Johnston’s mayoral campaign. He also sits on the Stock Show’s board.
Leaving the equestrian center out of the campus expansion would be like building a house with a partial foundation, he suggested. But he also was keenly aware of the concerns that permeate the neighborhoods. Neighbors make a fair point when they ask what good the project does for them, he said — and he hopes further collaboration can close the trust gap.
Carroll sees maintaining housing affordability in that part of the city and ensuring that infrastructure improvements extend past campus borders as ways to do that.
“It doesn’t make sense to have a really nice Brighton Boulevard,” he said of upgrades to the thoroughfare, while “you go two, three blocks over, and the neighborhoods are not well maintained and there are no sidewalks.”
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