The already controversial proposal to construct a massively subsidized convention center complex outside Denver has become even more divisive following an announcement by the city’s long-running National Western Stock Show that it was considering relocating to the site.
The new hotel-convention center complex in Aurora County, currently under development by Gaylord Hotels, is located near the Denver International Airport. It is receiving up to $300 million in development subsidies via tax increment revenues from Aurora, whose City Council just approved a blight designation for the 125-acre site, now completely vacant land. The company has also applied for a raft of state subsidies that include $170 million in sales tax rebates over a 30-year period.
Concerns that the 1,500-room complex will leach convention center and hotel business and tax revenues away from Denver are turning out to be well-founded in light of the National Western Stock Show’s announcement that it is considering a site adjacent to the new development for its annual events. The show, which is celebrating its 106th anniversary this January, is considered a Denver institution. (Its Centennial celebration drew 727,000 people.) Denver voters will need to approve $150 million in general obligation bonds to finance the show’s move to Aurora. Complicating matters further is the fact that the show benefited from $30 million worth of voter approved bonds in 1989 to upgrade its current facilities at the Denver Union Stockyards. Under the terms of that contract, the organization is required to stay at its current address in Denver until 2040.
The stock show’s announcement has roused a series of accusations from Denver electeds that the organization is in breach of its existing bond contract. The contract stipulated that the stock show must maintain the upkeep of its facilities, which have fallen into disrepair according to city council members. The stock show was additionally required to submit annual reports to the city. Stock show officials state that these were submitted annually to the city’s Theatres and Arenas Department, but this has not stopped City Auditor Dennis Gallagher from accusing the organization of failing to provide his office with financial reports.
Gallagher recently released a statement lambasting the organization: “I refuse to see our city, our downtown business, our convention center, our historical heritage and the welfare of Denver taxpayers sold down the river because of over-arching greed.” Other officials have reacted in kind. City Council President Chris Nevitt accused the show of “fail[ing] to live up to [its] end of the bargain.” The heart of the issue was best expressed by Aurora resident Shirley Ney: “As I look at this land out there, I do not consider this land as blighted,” she said. “I think it’s very valuable land … valuable agricultural land is being eaten up by urban sprawl across this country. This proposal adds to that sprawl.”
Sadly, the wisdom of this sentiment may be lost on the National Western Stock Show, which represents an entire industry dependent on agricultural land. The problem of subsidizing the development of greenfields is twofold. It exacerbates the problem of sprawling growth and its associated regional costs, while simultaneously providing an unnecessary financial incentive for businesses to withdraw from the urban core. A stampede of Denver’s urban businesses to Aurora may become unavoidable when such extravagant development subsidies are involved.