Denver Is on a Building Spree
A new airport, baseball stadium, library, and other big projects are shaping the business climate - and the quality of life - of a western United States city well into the 21st century
DENVER — DENVER still feels like a western town, and the mystique of the Wild West is part of its charm.
Many citizens are engaged in trying to preserve its history, and it does, in fact, boast one of the largest historic districts in the country. A big event each year is the Stock Show and Rodeo. Cowboy hats and boots are sold and seen all over town. One can find fine restaurants here that serve buffalo and assorted game daily.
Colorado is heavily dependent on the tourist industry, and the considerable beauty of the nearby Rocky Mountains draws tourists by the car-, bus-, and planeload for skiing in the winter and sightseeing or hiking in summer. And the arts often celebrate cowboys, miners, mountain men, and the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute peoples, as well as a host of colorful historical characters like Bat Masterson, Baby Doe Tabor, and Molly Brown.
Many Denver citizens want to hold onto that history, and they see keeping the city a moderate size as part of the answer. The city's population is actually down from 492,694 in 1980 to 467,610 in 1990, although the six-county metropolitan area has ballooned to 1.8 million. But others want to see Denver take on the 21st century like gang-busters, court world recognition, develop more industry, and grow up to a sophisticated, big-city size.
Growth spurts - and dips - are nothing new here. Denver boomed in the 19th century when gold was discovered in the nearby Rocky Mountains. It went bust when the mines petered out. It boomed again with silver mining, only to bust a few years later. It boomed with oil discoveries, and busted when oil prices dived in the mid-1980s.
Right now, the city is in the middle of another minor boom. But this time, instead of natural resources, man-made construction projects are fueling the boom.
Denver is on a multi-billion-dollar building spree that just may ensure its long-term growth, if everything goes according to plan. The centerpiece of this activity is the new Denver International Airport, scheduled to open in October 1993. A lot of economic eggs are being placed in this basket.
It is by far the most expensive of the building projects (cost projections range from $2.7 billion to nearly $4 billion), but it is by no means the only one. A convention center was finished two years ago. The new Buell Theater, built as part of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, makes that facility the second-largest performing arts complex in the country after Lincoln Center.
Construction of a new baseball stadium, future home of a major-league expansion team, the Colorado Rockies, will begin soon in the Central Platte Valley near lower downtown. Nearby, a large amusement park will go up. The new Denver Public Library, which breaks ground in February of next year, will triple the library's size (to 540,000 square feet and eight stories). Several ambitious revitalization projects are also in the works.
But while baseball, the theater, and the amusement park will serve tourists, the airport will be the key to luring business here. When finished, Denver International will be the largest airport in the country, 53 square miles (twice the size of Manhattan Island). It is designed to serve needs well into the 21st century, including an expected increase in international trade.
"For Denver to be positioned for the future for national and global business competition," says Mayor Wellington Webb, "it was clear that Stapleton [airport] did not provide for international jets to land....
"Building a new airport allows for economic growth and allows us to plan for our future in terms of trade," the mayor says.
John Huggins, director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, adds that the new airport will help establish Denver as a wholesale trade center and as a hub for regional services, making it easier for service professionals (such as lawyers and architects) to live here and work elsewhere.
But the airport has its critics, too. When building halts next year, many construction workers will be out of work, even though other building projects will help take up the slack for another two years. The chief economist for the state legislature, Nancy McCallin, says Denver is headed for a minor bust when the major building halts, exacerbated by the fact that nearby Lowry Air Force Base will close around the same time.
Critics say Stapleton Airport is adequate to Denver's needs. It is convenient, only seven miles from downtown. The new airport will be 23 miles and a $40 cab ride from downtown. While advocates of the new airport say there was no available land to allow Stapleton to grow, critics say Stapleton could have been expanded, when needed, into the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
CONSERVATIONISTS worry that the soil at the new airport site is inappropriate for runways and that there will be frequent and expensive repairs. And more visitors, they say, means more air pollution from planes, cars, trucks, and buses.
But the major concern of critics is the airport's price tag and who will actually pay for it. Theoretically, airlines will pay through landing fees. But the costs per flyer (some project $18 to $20 a head) may deter some airlines. And Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole recently pointed out that there is no money in the public till to pay for highways to and from the airport. Voters appear to be in no mood for tax increases. They taxed themselves to pay for the baseball stadium and library, but they
just voted down an increase to help ailing schools.
"The projections about what the new airport will do, must necessarily be long range," says Gordon Yale who, as a bond analyst for Boettcher and Company in 1990, correctly predicted the down-grading of airport bonds. He points out that air traffic here is down from 1986.
"It remains to be seen whether the new airport in and of itself will stimulate additional traffic," says Mr. Yale. "The new airport ... is also going to be substantially more expensive for the airlines to operate out of. Whether that deters traffic in the future or encourages it remains to be seen...."
Mayor Webb, who inherited the airport and other building projects from his predecessor, Federico Pena, points to the necessity of completing them as responsibly as possible. But he sees Denver's future in investing in "human capital."
Part of this agenda lies in revitalizing downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods. He also sees job training, education, and employment opportunities as important. The mayor recently lured two moderate-sized, high-technology businesses here by touting the high quality of life, the quality of the work force ... and the promise of increased business activity the new airport may provide.