During the wee hours on Tuesday, Denver City Council approved one its largest deals ever: a $1.8 billion project to renovate Denver International Airport with the help of Great Hall Partners (GHP), a private entity comprising investors, contractors, and developers. For city council president Albus Brooks, the key goal of this 34-year deal—which includes four years of renovations and 30 years of management—with GHP will be to improve the airport’s security and safety.

Once the renovations are complete, security checkpoints will move from the Great Hall to level 6, where check-ins occur. The new DIA will boast more checkpoints and rely on greater use of technology, such as body scanners. Brooks says that renovations should allow TSA to process about 100 more people through security lanes per hour—an increase of about 66 percent from the current pace.

Denver International Airport
A security checkpoint at DIA. Photograph courtesy of Denver International Airport

Renovated waiting areas will replace the TSA checkpoints in the Great Hall for people to kill time before their flights. City council projections say revenue should increase from $1.20 per square-foot to $3.50 per square-foot. Not bad, considering concessions will take up 35,000 square feet of the Great Hall.

Although the city will retain 80 percent of that revenue, Ferrovial Aeropuertos, a Spanish transportation company and the lead developer in this deal with GHP, will take control of managing the Great Hall concessions and retail. This loss of control is part of what makes public–private partnerships—such as this one—so controversial.

Normally, says Councilwoman-at-Large Debbie Ortega, public–private partnerships are used when a city is strapped for cash or when interest rates are high—neither of which, she says, are true for this deal. Ortega, who was one of the council’s two no-votes, believes the city could’ve financed the project and collected 100 percent of the revenues.

Moreover, these companies don’t always have the same concerns as city council. For example, anywhere from 200–400 concessions and retail workers will lose their jobs as shops close in the Great Hall due to construction. Ferrovial has made no guarantee that these workers will be rehired once renovations are complete, says Councilman Rafael Espinoza, the other no-vote. It was only after members heavily pressed Ferrovial that it agreed to resume talks with the union representing concessions and retail workers.

Brooks added that Denver has the ability to back out of the deal if it opposes the way Ferrovial manages the concessions. The agreement also includes ordinances such as wage and minority protections.

The city council projects DIA will serve more than 60 million travelers next year, and by 2039 that number is expected to increase to 89.5 million people. Brooks noted that DIA is the second-largest airport—in terms of land-mass—in the world. In fact, our airport is larger than the city of San Francisco. In the end, all council members seemed to agree that renovations of some sort were necessary to make DIA a top international airport.

“We’re not competing with Colorado Springs or Montana,” Brooks says. “We’re an emerging international city, and DIA has to be competitive with Atlanta, Zurich, Dubai—the biggest airports in the world.”