By Tim Covi
Photography by Ross Evertson
What do you think will really define Denver—what are the important issues people need to be thinking about—in 2011?
Money. I mean, the budget cuts will continue to be really critical. And in a city that really works fairly well, that’s gonna mean we might have to pay for some services we haven’t paid for before. Or get rid of some services. So that’s going to be a big issue for people—will streets be swept less often than they have been? Will parks be cleaned up less often than they have been? Will people have to start paying for trash? And I know there [were] some ideas floated that you would have to pay for recycling. So, on one level I think people will get very concerned about that. And then statewide, the cuts to education are going to be huge.
Do you think that’s going to define the incoming mayoral candidacy at all?
Well it should. That and I would say police issues should be the big issues people are really talking about, but you don’t know which are the ones that are going to catch fire with voters yet.
Talk to me a little bit about police issues. Last year was no exception. There’s always some police scandal in Denver.
The ratio of police beatings and complaints about police beatings is higher per capita in Denver than in any other city in the country. This is for complaints. So that might mean that people in Denver are just more content; they feel more secure complaining than in other cities. So maybe our cops aren’t bad; maybe it’s just our citizens are more active. But certainly we’ve got a lot of outstanding complaints about brutality that haven’t been dealt with. And interestingly Bill Vidal says he wants to deal with them before he leaves office…he’s got 6 months and he’s not running again. So, that’ll I think be one of the most interesting stories—to watch what he can do in six months.
Let’s talk about the nayoral race. It’s definitely going to be a defining aspect of the coming year. There are thirteen people on the ticket. Having seen several races in Denver, is this significantly different than past mayoral races?
We’ve had close to this many [candidates] before. I mean when you think about Hickenlooper, there were at least seven fairly strong, viable candidates. Or big enough to be on panels that year. The year Peña was elected it was probably as many. So, it’s the same for a decade when there haven’t been a lot of openings. I don’t see this one catching fire yet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we still see another candidate come forward.
I do think you’re right, that the mayoral race in some ways will be really defining. What was interesting is that, eight years ago I got a briefing from old time political pundits and they’re like, “Okay this is a confidential briefing, but here’s how we see the mayor’s race going, and Ari Zavaras is clearly the leader.” And I said, you know, you’re crazy if you don’t think Hickenlooper’s gonna win. That is Denver today. You know? And no one had noticed, in the old guard, that that’s what Denver is now. It is these entrepreneurs. It is people like John Hickenlooper. Now that’s what it was eight years ago. What is it gonna be now? Is it what Michael Hancock represents, or Doug Linkhart? I don’t have a feel yet for it. That’s also why I think somebody else might still jump in.
Do you think that Hickenlooper is leaving much of a different legacy to whoever takes over office next, relative to mayors before him? People really appreciated him in office.
They appreciated how fun he was. Did he do a better job say than Federico Peña? I don’t think so. So I mean, Federico Peña really changed the way this city looked and in a lot of ways hasn’t gotten the credit for how people really looked at a more modern city and revisited and re-thought about design and how important urban planning was going to be. So, I think Hickenlooper, in the sense of trying to run it more like a business than a government—people will remember that, but city employees I think will tell you they’re pretty happy Hickenlooper’s gone. A lot of them. I think Hickenlooper did a far better job than anyone thought, but more than anything else he made the city feel good about itself. And that’s good.
Denver, even through the recession, has been developing really rapidly. What do you think the priorities should be for development in the city in 2011?
Well certainly you want to be sure you’ve got some infill, so that you don’t have a lot of empty shells. And I think that’s going to be part of the problem—that places that were built [and] weren’t done by really great developers, which could be falling apart fairly quickly…You don’t want to those turning into slums.
Do you have things in mind as you’re talking about this?
Oh yeah. There are some projects right along the Platte—there are apartments now that, you know, would never have been allowed to be built probably in the last ten years. They were built maybe a dozen years ago. And I’ve heard nothing but complaints about that. So that’ll be interesting because now it’s such a prime piece of real estate. But everyone who lives there just says it’s a mess.
In 2011 who are the rising stars?
You can read about it in our issue…February 17th. We’ve got this MasterMind program. We’re working on that right now for the issue of the 17th, so I don’t want to give those people away!
The MasterMind Awards focuses on the arts community. Denver is in this transition between a city that is looked at as becoming more sophisticated art-wise, but it’s not quite there yet. Can you reflect on that at all and where you see it going?
Well, part of it is, a city has to maintain (unless you’re New York or Los Angeles or some international destination), you have to be able to sustain your own artists. You’re not going to have people coming—huge numbers of people coming for tourism to see Denver shows. It’s just not going to happen. People in the region might, because geographically we’re still fairly isolated, but it’s our own fault if we aren’t supporting the local visual arts enough. I mean, we are the ones who have to support it. We can’t count on other people coming in.
I actually think in some ways the local visual arts scene isn’t as strong as it was years ago. And partly it’s because there aren’t as many co-ops as there were. I mean co-ops were just huge 30 years ago here. It’s getting a little better.
Interesting. Most people talk up the gallery strips and the new Rhino district.
Right. Some of them are coming along really nicely. But you know, Navajo, that area was hoppin’ 30 years ago. And one of the other problems with booming economies is you lose some of those strips. You know the artists are almost always the precursors of what will become the next hot part of town, and then they have to go. Now there’s enough area in Rhino that they should be able to stay there for a pretty long time...
I love the local art scene. But in some ways the institutions maybe aren’t as exciting as they were 30 years ago. … On some of the gallery scene, the underground gallery scene has always been great here. And I think that will always be the strongest part of Denver’s art scene. Because it’s the next level up of galleries that don’t seem to be able to make it.
There isn’t the educational support for really viable artists either. So the mid-level-high-end galleries don’t have a lot of meat to work with.
Right. And especially now if people aren’t getting art educations. We probably have now the first group of people who’ve gotten out of school and have had no art education at all, and do they even think to go out and buy stuff? And with the lower, the underground galleries, you can make it kind of cultural and hip and they think they’re gonna do it, but it’s moving up to the next level [where it becomes difficult].
What do you think will really define Denver—what are the important issues people need to be thinking about—in 2011?
Well obviously the economy continues to be huge. When I look at 5280’s business, when I look at our clients, when I’m just out talking to people in general, I think that we’re slowly getting to a point where there’s confidence creeping back into the system. There’s not that sense of panic that there was two years ago or even a year ago. And I think that’s key.
So, the economy, jobs—obviously that’s at the top of everybody’s list. I think directly related to that of course is the mayor’s race. And both as someone who watches politics and as someone who lives in the city, I think it’s gonna be a fascinating couple of months, you know? There are some really interesting candidates out there. …They’re all people who are qualified. And so, I think we have this opportunity to have a really intelligent discussion about what the future of this city [holds].
There is an interesting cross section of candidates. Who do you see as the major players in it right now? The people who are pretty serious out of those thirteen?
I think it’s a really crowded field at this point. And well, let me step back. First of all I do want to say, I’m disappointed that Walter Isenberg chose not to run. And that’s not to say that I think he would have won. That’s not to say that he would have been who I personally end up voting for. But I think he would have brought an interesting dimension to the conversation. You know I think John Hickenlooper showed that a businessman can bring certain things of value to the job. That’s not to say that career politicians can’t, but I think John brought some great things to the table. And I think Walter would have been in that mold.
Obviously anybody whose last name is Romer you can’t discount in this state. You know that’s just a given. And Chris is a really smart guy, works really hard, so he’s gonna be a force.
Michael Hancock has gotten off to an early, fast start and is raising money in ways that I don’t think people thought he was going to, so he’s definitely going to be a force.
James Mejia I think is somebody who has the potential to be a surprise candidate in all this. I mean, very well liked, very connected to—I need to come up with a good term for this, but—the family and children community. The mommy-bloggers and women that support the Colorado Coalition for the Children’s campaign. That’s a strong voting block. And he’s paid his dues in that world.
For better or worse, you know, politics even on a local level like this are still about money. And in such a crowded field, I think there’s going to have to be a lot of money spent to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately I don’t think a whole lot of it is going to be spent on magazine advertising (laughs).
You had mentioned that a businessperson brings an interesting angle to the race and to office. And considering where we are as a city—we’re poised for more huge growth. How do you think that plays into the race, and into office once someone takes it?
Well, I think that if you go back and you sort of look at the continuum of Peña, Webb, Hickenlooper, you know, it is this idea of imagine a great city, build a great city, and what John did I think is continue upon that. I think John was a big part of marketing the city. You know, promoting that idea. And that’s going to need to continue. We need to continue forward. But it’s hard to do that in this kind of economy. So I think, someone who can come in and find and eliminate waste, and is also going to look at things a little differently and is going to come up with different twists on how to do things…you know, business people tend to do better on that front.
Do you think that Hickenlooper has left a legacy that is any different from past mayors? Someone’s going to have to fill that role in a different way?
I mean I definitely see it as a continuum of the last three mayors. They were all not afraid to think big. You know? None of them were status quo mayors. Sometimes, during the Peña and Webb years we were dragged kicking and screaming with things like DIA and whatnot, but I think Denver’s become more accustomed to change. … It’s a whole different world. And the Union Station project’s only gonna be the next step in that. I mean, look where we are right now—15th and Wazee. Well five years ago Wazee was the western edge of downtown. Five years from now, it’s dead center. The whole town is changing and morphing because of these projects.
Considering how quickly we are developing and that that’s a major aspect of the city, what do you think the priorities should be for development in the city in 2011?
I think that as a city we’ve done well in developing the kind of big picture amenities that would make someone say, “Oh I want to move into the city.” Bike paths, cultural [fare], great restaurants, new library, Pepsi Center, Coors Field, all these big, big projects. I think now, and I hope this will be an issue in the mayor’s race, [there] are sort of twin issues that could scuttle all of this, and that’s education and safety. If the schools suck, families will stop moving here. And the ones who are already here will move away.
I think we have sort of a grace period going right now where, the families who are moving here are willing, to a certain extent, to be pioneers and to try to support something and try to pick something up, that we all admit is not what it should be, and bring it up. But, you know, there needs to be results and there needs to be results in a reasonable time frame or that patience will go away.
And [by] the same token, safety. t So, to me, those are the two elephants in the room that I hope these candidates address or get forced to address on the campaign.
Denver’s at a crossroads in the art world, where some people look at the city as having a tokenizing art scene that can’t be taken seriously, while others say there is a lot of sophistication coming in. What do you think about the arts in Denver in 2011?
I absolutely agree. … And, you know, I think we as a city, and I’ll be honest, we as a magazine, need to figure out some ways to help nurture that and push it along. Because I think you’re right. It is at that cusp, that tipping point between only a few people know about it and becoming something big that a lot of people can participate in and celebrate.
In terms of people, who do you see as the rising stars in Denver?
We’ll be revisiting [our top 50 edition] this year. I guess my short answer is: wait for that!
What do you think will really define Denver in 2011—what are the important things people need to be thinking about?
There are some really key public infrastructure projects that are underway or are in the planning process. One being the 16th Street Mall. The community’s worked for a couple years now to create a plan. The plan is completed and now the key will be to identify funding sources.
The other exciting piece of public infrastructure that will be completed is 14th Street. That entire street starting at the Webb building will be redeveloped to become a true gateway street for downtown. It’s going to be beautiful. … New trees, wider sidewalks, better lighting. And all of that is important because, when the environment is attractive and conducive to pedestrians and inviting, it attracts businesses. So that goes to the next point. How do we continue to attract businesses to Denver as well as to downtown Denver?
Denver is very good at making these deliberate development plans and being conscious of the way we grow our city. What do you think are some of the challenges coming our way in the coming year or couple of years?
Funding even in the best of times is a challenge. But on the really large-scale public projects, for example on the 16th Street Mall, Federal funding is essential. So, as much as we have private investment through the Business Improvement District to help maintain the mall, as much as the city and RTD invest, it’s still going to take more than that.
FastTracks, for our community at large, is probably one of the most significant projects that we need to ensure comes to fruition.
Can you talk about that? What does that mean for the city of Denver if that doesn’t get completed?
Maybe less about what it means if it doesn’t come to fruition and more about what it does mean if it does come to fruition. … If you think about the volume of people that will be able to access the center city, because transit all comes into one place. But furthermore, as time goes on, we’re not just competing against other parts of the region for economic development in Denver, we’re competing nationally, we’re competing internationally. When you look at cities that are excelling and attracting all the growing businesses—a high quality, effective transit system is essential. It’s a key component for the future workforce, it’s a key component giving access to employees, and for us not to have that puts us at an extreme disadvantage.
The Union Station build out fits into this. Talk to me about that.
A really critical project for the future of the city is going to be the redevelopment of Union Station and that surrounding area, because it will attract more retail. It’ll be kind of the welcome mat for FastTracks as people arrive into the city. It will also attract more residents. It’s going to be mixed use so there’ll be a lot of variety brought into the area. And then we really need to look at what we’re doing with Union Station itself, the train station. We’re really fortunate to have such a cool historic station. And there are a lot of ideas on the table right now with what to do with it. So ideally, within the next 4-6 months there will be a plan and somebody identified to come in there and do the project.
What else will happen with that area within the next year?
You’ll continue to see development. We’ve already broken ground on a building there. IMA [Financial Group] will be building a new headquarters there. And then you’ll start seeing other development even grow around it. Because there’s the project itself, but then you’ll start seeing other buildings around it attract different types of tenants based on what’s happening there. So the benefit is exponential.
Obviously a big thing that’s going to be on the stage this year is the mayoral race. Who are you behind in this?
Well, I think right now there are about 13 candidates in the race. We are going through a pretty thorough process to vet the candidates. As an organization we don’t take a position on a candidate. However, we have a very clear 20-year plan for downtown. Over 3,000 people helped develop that plan. That plan was then adopted by city council. We have a pretty good framework to talk to candidates to see: are you in line with the plan that the community and the stakeholders developed and city council adopted?
Do you think that Hickenlooper will be difficult to replace? He’s been so supportive of the business community.
You know I honestly believe that there’s always the right leader for the right time. And there’s no question that Governor Hickenlooper as mayor was absolutely the right person for the time period in which he served. And I think now the key is to look out in the future and see what we need based on what the circumstances are going forward. I mean, he was a tremendous ally. We worked very closely with him; he represented the city, he gave it energy, he gave it vision, and he was collaborative. So all of those traits need to carry over to the next mayor. At the same time we need to think about what we need from the next mayor.
What do you see as the big budgetary issues that are going to be a struggle in the city this year?
From a budget standpoint, I don’t know that the administration’s going to need to come in and say, “Okay now we’re going to cut here and now we’re going to cut here.” So much of that hard work has already been done.
Our future lies in growing revenue. And I think the way that we need to look at growing revenue is to look at growing businesses. Not necessarily by charging businesses more. That doesn’t work. It has diminishing returns.
Do you see any rising stars, either in the business community or at large in 2011?
John Schlagel. You guys would really like John. [He] owns Snooze. And John is also chairing, on behalf of the [DDP], the Arapahoe Square planning process. John has proven himself as a leader in his own right—not just in his respective business and in his industry. He’s led some innovative initiatives. He’s really worked to hire more disadvantaged people into Snooze and help them get back on their feet. He’s really been a focal point in that part of the community [in Arapahoe Square], because you know right there is where all the social service providers are, and he embraces the opportunity to make change. He’s been busy getting his business going, and now he’s really starting to emerge as somebody that will make a real difference in the community over the long haul. •