The Chamber’s seventh annual Leadership Exchange to Denver, Colorado, took 110 enthusiastic elected officials, business, civic and academic leaders from our metro area on a whirlwind tour of this Rocky Mountain city. Who knew that studying best practices for three days could be so exhausting… but in Denver, there are plenty of good examples being set.
Anschutz Medical Campus and Fitzsimons Life Sciences District – We took a bus tour of a decommissioned Army hospital and nearly 578 acres of surrounding land that is being used for state-of-the-art health care, education, and research.
Denver Art Museum – Chamber President Pete Levi presented a $1000 check for the Museum, on behalf of The Chamber, to Mariner Kemper, Chairman and CEO of UMB Financial Corporation, who previously served as chairman of UMB Bank, Colorado. At the museum, our delegation heard from historic preservationist Dana Crawford, who pioneered the redevelopment of Denver’s Larimer Square in the mid 1960s, a project that stands as a prototype for urban revitalization across the country. (www.denverartmuseum.org)
The Denver Overview Panelists all agreed on a number of issues: it’s nice (for funding) to have a capitol in their city; the level of parochialism and conflict among the region’s leaders has diminished greatly over the past decade; and, there is lots of population infill and development being driven by the future of transit there.
Former Mayor Wellington Webb told us that Denver is “a Maverick City,” with a great appreciation for their Western heritage, and their New West image. He said that Denver International Airport is their port, and one of the best economic investments their community has ever made. He also said that regionalism is about “talk versus doing.”
Kelly Brough – Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s Chief of Staff takes on a new role effective October 1, as President of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. She welcomed us to the city and said that their area’s leadership has been most effective for three reasons: they are focused on serious challenges, they are inspiring new alliances, and they are pushing for transparency and openness to inspire greater public confidence.
Our next two speakers at the historic Oxford Hotel talked about Denver’s successful Democratic National Convention in 2008 and the current process of a Winter Olympics bid. Mike Dino of Patton Boggs said that their local costs to host the DNC were $60 million, but the economic impact was estimated at $266 million, with $133.5 million in direct spending. Add to that their philosophy that “we ALWAYS want to get more eyeballs on our city.” Rob Cohen of IMA said that the Denver metro has 7 of the 8 top pro sports franchises and five Division I schools, making it one of the top sports cities in the country. He reminded our delegation that in 1976 Denver was the only city in the history of the Olympic games to be awarded them and then vote to give them back. He acknowledges that history is only part of what they have to overcome, but said, “If Lake Placid, NY can do it, then Denver can do it.”
Economic Development – At the Denver Public Library, Tom Clark, Executive Vice President of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, talked about their Code of Ethics for Economic Development. The most important aspect is “Selling the Region First, and Our Communities Second.” Twenty-six communities signed on to participate! Clark said that by retaining existing companies in the region, if individual cities cannot accommodate needs for growth, they have saved thousands of jobs.
Denver area mayors – Over the course of this trip, we met with mayors of Northglenn, Centennial, Greenwood Village, Aurora, and the City of Denver. All of them spoke of their relationships as colleagues and not adversaries. They have a Denver Metro Mayors’ Caucus (MMC), now numbering 39 mayors, which has helped them to share ideas and concerns and many times reach consensus. Nancy Sharpe, current chair of the MMC and mayor of Northglenn, said, “Residents don’t always see how regionalism benefits them, but our mayors and business leaders do.” In fact, the work of the MMC has led to statewide initiatives. (www.metromayors.org)
We also heard about Denver’s light rail system, called FasTracks. The completed lines currently exceed 2020 projections for ridership (more than 70,000 passengers per workday), but the project is facing serious budget issues that may delay completion. Revenues are down and costs are rising. The estimated cost to build out by 2017 is estimated at $6.9 billion, which leaves a $2.2 billion funding gap.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory – The Chamber delegation took a bus tour of the NREL campus, where we saw an outdoor photo-voltaic (solar panel!) testing facility where panels and materials of all shapes and sizes were being tested for government and commercial use. We saw panels and materials that ranged from 4% return in energy to 40% return in energy. Before we left, we were allowed into a laboratory building and a very excited physicist explained the thrills of his research to the group. (www.nrel.gov)
Denver’s Road Home – Jamie VanLeeuwen of the Denver Mayor’s Office of Community Impact told us that instead of spending $40,000 a year on a homeless person in emergency room visits, jail, and other services, Denver is spending $16,000 a year per homeless person to house them and provide social services like job training. They are also reinvesting that savings into building even more affordable housing. (www.denversroadhome.org)
SCFD – Peg Long, Director of the Denver Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, told us how the regional sales tax approved by seven counties in 1988 has been reauthorized in 1994 and 2004. More than 300 arts and science organizations were funded in 2008. The three-tiered funding mechanism protects five iconic institutions, including the Zoo, the Denver Art Museum, the Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Nature and Science, and the recently-added Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and makes possible the growth of Tier II organizations and the existence of Tier III groups. (www.scfd.org)
Education – Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg talked about the success of their preschool expansion for 4-year-olds (which has grown from serving 500 to more than 2500 students). He also talked about a $50 million scholarship fund set up for graduates of the Denver Public Schools. He described ProComp, a mill levy tax increase, which is dedicated to incentive pay. ProComp offers pay increases for teachers demonstrating classroom achievement and for teachers in those disciplines that are most difficult to staff. (www.dpsk12.org)
Denver’s Mayor – Before the Chamber delegation boarded the plane for the return flight home to Kansas City, we were treated to a brief visit with Mayor John Hickenlooper, owner of Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver and other brewpubs across the country. He told us that they are building the habit or culture of collaboration in their region. He has been mayor for six years, and said he has learned along the way that there is never enough money, and the public is always mad about something. Hickenlooper said they are working diligently on the inaugural Biennial of the Americas, “something like a World’s Fair,” for the summer of 2010.