The Denver mayor on a 16th Street Mall facelift, working with Governor Hickenlooper, and legalizing marijuana. Interview by Luc Hatlestad
Earlier today you announced the National Western Stock Show is committed to staying in Denver. How did that happen?
When we came into office, we had the big flag raised about the stock show wanting to move to Aurora. It was important for us to not panic. We made some pivotal decisions that sent a strong message to the stock show that we were going to take our time to try to understand their case. And then it became clear that we needed to get some deeper review and analysis.
Ron Williams came in to lead the stock show after the untimely passing of Jerry McMorris. Ron is clear-eyed and collaborative. And so we had these two parallel efforts, which arrived at the same conclusion: We can do better, and if we bring the stock show into the fold of the conventions and special events, we can create a more sustainable path forward. We don’t know yet what the grand plan will be, but some good decisions have been made so far.
Related to that, potentially, is what to do about I-70 through the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
I think that’s separate. CDOT is undergoing its own review on a plan to bring I-70 just below grade. You have River North planning, and my vision to redevelop the Brighton Boulevard corridor, or at least get it to a more visually acceptable entry into downtown. All those things working together create opportunity for the stock show, as well as for I-70.
What are the plans for the Brighton Boulevard corridor?
It’s a great opportunity to shift the paradigm—it’s not so much how everything fits with the stock show, but how does the stock show fit with this overall vision? The Brighton corridor is one of the weakest links for our aerotropolis. There are quite a few plans for that area to create residential as well as commercial development. But what we haven’t done yet is maximize the river up there.
As for the aerotropolis, you’ve had some successes in opening DIA up to become more international.
From DIA, we can get anywhere in the world within 16 hours, and there aren’t many airports in the world that can say that. And if we can create a development community that attracts international companies, now you’ve got a reason for people all over the world to come here and do business. We got nonstop flights to Tokyo earlier than I would have projected, and Icelandair has had a 475 percent increase in flights between Denver and Reykjavik. And in December, DIA starts flights to Mexico City. The next stop is South America, particularly Brazil.
What are the goals of the Denver Education Compact (DEC)?
It’s focused on early childhood education, recognizing that if we’re really going to impact the achievement gap in Denver, we really need to get to it before it starts. The DEC comprises people from universities, professionals, and CEOs who get that we’ve got to make sure kids are ready to hit the ground running when they walk into kindergarten. In Texas they look at third-grade reading scores, and from there they’re able to determine in the next 13 to 15 years how many jail beds they’ll need. And they’re dead-on every time.
One of the more pressing things you’ve faced has been public safety and the city’s police department. What changes have you made there?
I’m awfully proud of chief Robert White [see page 50], as well as manager of safety Alexander Martinez, and the police department. Chief White brings such steadiness, leadership, and a sense of basic operations of a police department and how to put men and women in the best place possible to serve the public. Many officers have told me they’re proud of the changes being made; they’re excited about the opportunities. If I walked away from this office today, that would be my proudest accomplishment.
The 16th Street Mall is a mixed bag; in some ways it’s improving, in some ways it’s stagnant. What’s your plan for that?
We are working with the Downtown Denver Partnership and Tami Door. The passage of Measure 2A allows us to take a very serious look at law enforcement and physical improvements on the mall. It’s been 30 years since any major improvements on that mall have occurred. It needs it, quite frankly, and it’s probably a five- to seven-year process to do it. We’re going to sit down with them and figure out a joint public/private partnership. The mall is our number one tourist attraction, and its return on investment is exponential.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for the city and for yourself in 2013?
We want to be good stewards of the resources of the 2A initiative and work on fine-tuning the fiscal operation to restore the reserves of the city, as well as some critical services. We also will continue to improve our customer service and make this a more customer-friendly city. Whether it’s paying your taxes online, getting your permits online, permitting parks, paying parking tickets—all those things that are necessary to keep you from having to come downtown and stand in lines. You’ll continue to see us get deep into youth services; we’re going to unveil some exciting summer programming for kids that we’re doing in partnership with the private sector. And we want to get the development at Ninth and Colorado taken care of.
What can the city of Denver do to help see Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in this state, through to a reasonable arrangement for Denverites and the federal government?
The jury is still out on how the federal government is going to respond to the legalization of marijuana. To be honest, we don’t know yet. The people have spoken, and we’ll work with them. Right now we’re just looking at our policies, figuring out how we might regulate it. We don’t know yet, but the federal government’s going to have a clear voice in all this and we’re waiting to hear what they think.
What were the biggest challenges when you first started?
There hasn’t been a bigger supporter and partner than Governor Hickenlooper. He’s always available for me to call and say, “Give me some guidance on this.” He’s been very candid and open and honest. The transition wasn’t that challenging for me because I came from city council. My personal life changed dramatically, and my family’s life changed; it was a whole different set of demands and obligations. No one can ever prepare you for that.
On the professional side, it takes a while to settle into such a strong executive position, with a leadership structure that really allows the executive to make a difference. You have to figure out your bandwidth and what to focus on. The key is to focus on a few things. That’s why we were able to do things like capture the Tokyo flight. Focus, get it done, and let’s move on. Obviously, things come up that distract you, but when you get a chance you go right back to the plan.
Has anything really surprised you, either positively or negatively?
The very first half day I was in office, we had the incident at the Denver Zoo [in which a man died after being immobilized by a stun gun by police, who were investigating a domestic violence accusation against him]. Talk about a reality check. And the unfortunate shooting of officer Selena Hollis was tough. And then we went through the Aurora movie theater shootings, and though it wasn’t on Denver’s land, we are a region and we felt it just as painfully.
No matter how painfully we are impacted as individuals, the people look to you for leadership. You must gather yourself, show strength, and say, “We’re going to get through this,” while at the same time showing compassion for those who have been impacted.
I could not have been prepared for walking into the hospital and being immediately directed to the daughter of Selena Hollis and talking to that 12-year-old. Those are the tragedies you pray on and you hope don’t happen in your city or surrounding areas. Unfortunately they do, and we’ve got to get through them.
But then there are always the great times, too. You celebrate the Denver to Tokyo flights, the first presidential debate coming to Denver last year, the landing of the patent office, Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow. Those are the moments where you’re like, “Gosh, it’s great to be mayor of this city.”