national western center plan

An artist's rendition of the National Western Center campus currently under construction in north Denver. 

Denver officials presented the final project list for Mayor Michael Hancock’s proposed $450 million bond package Tuesday, receiving mixed reactions from the City Council's finance committee.

The $450 million bond would fund 80 infrastructure projects in Denver as part of the city’s long-term COVID-19 recovery plan. The bond must be passed by the council to be added to the November ballot for voter approval.

After the bond’s drafted project list received a lukewarm response from the council budget committee earlier this month, a shortened list was brought forward Tuesday. With this final list, the size of the proposed bond was also increased from $400 million to $450 million.

“The entire project list has strong alignment with the ... recovery priorities,” said Laura Perry with the Department of Finance. “Infrastructure is multi-generational. It creates structures with facilities that turn into jobs and enable prosperity.”

The most expensive projects on the list are the following:

  • National Western Center Arena construction - $160 million
  • Historic 1909 Building renovation - $30 million
  • May Bonfils Stanton Theater at Loretto Heights renovation - $30 million
  • Homeless shelter facility acquisition, conversion and/or construction - $30 million
  • Park maintenance and facilities construction in Districts 1 and 11 - $15.8 million
  • Americans with Disabilities Act improvements in city facilities - $14.23 million
  • Westwood Branch Library construction - $13.88 million
  • Morrison Road reconstruction - $13 million
  • Citywide transportation safety and pedestrian improvements - $13 million

Of the $450 million, 65.3% would go toward city facility projects, 14.1% to transportation projects, 12% for Parks and Recreation projects and 8.6% to housing projects.

The city estimated the projects would create 7,580 jobs and $1 billion in economic output.

The construction of the National Western Center Arena got the most criticism from council members Tuesday. The project would receive over 35% of the bond package and cost more than the eight next most expensive projects combined.

“My community is very concerned about $160 million going to an arena,” Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said. “We’re $700 million in already and there has been nothing that has gone back to the community. ... It’s very hard for me to see this being the largest chunk of what we’re asking for.”

The arena was to be funded by a tourism tax, which has taken a significant hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city decided to abandon that funding stream in the fall of 2020, Chief Financial Officer Brendan Hanlon said.

This presentation comes the day after Hancock announced the arena publicly during his State of the City address, receiving significant criticism online from politicians and community members about the funding being better spent elsewhere.

During the Department of Finance’s public outreach process, respondents prioritized the investment in housing and sheltering the most for COVID-19 relief funds. The bond plan covers two housing projects for $37.4 million — less than one-fourth of the funds going towards the arena.

Tykus Holloway, executive director of the Office of the National Western Center, defended the arena Tuesday, saying it would be a new economic hub for Denver.

“The project will create thousands of near- and long-term jobs and small business opportunities,” Holloway said. “It is the most economically stimulative project in the 2021 general obligation bond list.”

The arena would be a mid-sized venue with 10,000 seats, designed for year-round events like concerts, sporting events and expos, in addition to the annual National Western Stock Show. The arena was first envisioned in the 2015 National Western Center Master Plan but was not immediately funded.

In total, the arena would cost $210 million to construct, with the remaining $50 million coming from other sources, Hanlon said. Officials cut the funding coming from the bond package by $10 million since they first drafted the project list.

The construction of the arena would result in approximately 3,000 jobs with an average salary of $30 per hour, Holloway said. That would total $194 million in worker wages by the time construction concluded.

However, multiple council members including Council President Stacie Gilmore said it is important for Denver to invest in creating more long-term career positions for residents, like by starting a comprehensive workforce development facility.

“One of the issues, quite honestly, for myself was the amount of investment that is going to National Western,” Gilmore said. “This is going to generate construction jobs … but we want to do something differently beyond only hourly waged jobs. We saw how decimated, especially communities of color, were during the pandemic with hourly waged jobs.”

Outside of the arena discourse, Councilman Paul Kashmann raised questions about smaller projects being funded by the bond when other funding sources are available, like the $5.5 million construction of University Hills Park. 

“With Denver Parks and Recreation having a large fund of its own for park acquisition, why are we using the bond for this?” Kashmann asked. “It doesn’t make great sense to me.”

Officials with Parks and Recreation said, by using bond funding, the park will be built a lot faster and it will free up funds for other parks.

During the previous project list presentation, Councilman Kevin Flynn also criticized the list for using a bond to pay for maintenance projects, rather than creating assets like the Holly Gymnasium and Red Rocks Amphitheater that would provide ongoing community benefits for generations.

The bond will be presented to the council budget committee for its first vote on Aug. 3. If it passes, the bond will be sent to Hancock for approval on Aug. 10 and then to the full City Council for two final votes on Aug. 16 and Aug. 23.

If the bond is approved by voters in November, the first debt issuance for the bond would be in the spring of 2022, officials said.