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A rendering of the proposed redevelopment of the National Western Center campus. Courtesy of MIG

Will the National Western Center Development Benefit the Surrounding Neighborhoods?

That remains to be seen.

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Big projects have rarely been kind to the residents of the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. A metals refinery that arrived in the 1880s brought jobs—and heavy doses of pollution. (It was declared a Superfund site in 1993.) Then, in the late 1940s, the Valley Highway (now I-25) began cutting through the area. It was followed a decade or so later by the construction of I-70, which only carved the neighborhoods into even more disjointed parts.

But the city promised the estimated $800 million expansion of the National Western Center (NWC) complex would be different. Approved by Denver voters in 2015, the project will turn the home of the annual National Western Stock Show and Rodeo into a year-round agricultural and entertainment mecca. To prove to residents they wouldn’t again be the casualties of progress, the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center, the entity overseeing construction, provided them with unprecedented input: The National Western Center Authority Board, whose 13 representatives manage the NWC, includes one voting member and one nonvoting member from the area. This marks the first time a neighborhood has received a say on a Denver authority board, according to the NWC mayor’s office.

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Spots on the board, though, haven’t resulted in the influence locals expected. Mayor Michael Hancock, for example, picked both the voting and nonvoting community members to serve on the board, leading some to question whom they represent. And this past August, the announcement that Denver planning director Brad Buchanan was the sole finalist for the board’s CEO position left residents upset they hadn’t been consulted about the pick. Community members had also hoped to name the NWC’s light-rail station the “National Western Center at Historic Elyria.” But RTD stuck to its custom of naming stations after intersections and nearby activity centers: The new stop on the forthcoming N Line will officially be called “48th & Brighton at National Western Center.”

John Zapien, a longtime area advocate, is the community’s voting member on the National Western Center Authority Board. Photo courtesy of Brent Lewis/the Denver Post via Getty Images

RTD’s refusal to pay homage to history plays into residents’ fears that they’ll eventually be pushed out of the area if the project leads to gentrification. “It’s very working-class,” says Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, “but people really like the neighborhoods as they are.” The city is aware of the potential for gentrification: In October, outgoing state Senator Irene Aguilar was named director of a new task force charged with ensuring that development benefits, rather than displaces, longtime residents of Denver neighborhoods, including Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

Since the first two phases of the NWC won’t be finished for six years—the demolition is about halfway done—there is plenty of time for the sides to become neighborly. The most important peace offering may be a community-benefits agreement, which will outline what developers must contribute to the neighborhoods. Potential requirements—mandates for hiring workers from the region, sidewalk repairs—will be discussed during special community meetings. In the end, though, the authority board will make the decisions.

For its part, RTD is considering erecting a plaque within the light-rail station plaza to recognize Elyria-Swansea—a small step toward addressing residents’ big concerns.

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