The Colorado Convention Center on 14th Street in downtown Denver is one of the country’s busiest meeting venues, hosting more than 400 events annually—more than one a day. The facility’s 2.2 million square feet (204,000 sq m) of meeting and exhibition space includes 584,000 square feet (54,000 sq m) of exhibit space on one level, six individual halls, outdoor terraces, and a 5,000-seat theater.
The work of a ULI Advisory Services panel played a significant role in Denver’s decision to build the convention center, and also laid the groundwork that guided its growth and success as a major economic engine for the city. But it had a humble and fractious start.
In the late 1970s, leaders of the Mile High City noticed the convention, exhibition, and meeting industry experiencing phenomenal growth, but due to the physical limitations of Denver’s existing facilities, the city was missing out convention business. When former Denver Mayor Federico Peña ran for the office in 1983, his campaign slogan was “Imagine a Great City.” One of the cornerstones of his platform, in addition to building a new airport, was to build a new convention center. After the election, Peña appointed a committee to study whether Currigan Exhibition Hall could be expanded. For the next four years, committees and task forces weighed in, and finally the city decided it needed a new convention center.
The state government supported this business development move and passed House Bill 1382, which promised financial assistance and authorized a ULI Advisory Services panel to recommend a convention center site from among five proposals received in July 1987. Governor Roy Romer threw his support behind the concept of the ULI panel to provide an objective, outside view of the convention center’s location.
The ULI panel reviewed the proposals and made recommendations concerning site, location, design, access, financing, operation, and management to the Selection Criteria Committee. The recommendation: a new convention center to be built at the Silver Triangle site, the most centrally located, pedestrian-oriented site near the heart of downtown among those being considered, as proposed by Baltimore-based real estate developer French and Company.
The selection was controversial, with the Rocky Mountain News running a story under the headline “Dark-horse pick stuns city officials.”
“The decision drew gasps of surprise from an audience, including Gov. Roy Romer and Mayor Federico Peña, gathered to hear the verdict,” reported the Denver Post, which also quoted council member Cathy Donohue: “I’m in such shock, I don’t know what to do.” City officials had favored another site outside the central business district and had negotiated with the developer of that property for more than a year.
The ULI panel’s reasons for supporting the Silver Triangle site now constitute a list of “missions accomplished” for the city.
In presenting its findings to a packed meeting of the City Council, the panel presented a strong case that the proposal would both enhance urban quality of life and have a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhood, which at that time was a blighted area of mostly empty lots and flop houses.
The ULI panelists said building the Colorado Convention Center at the Silver Triangle would provide multiple benefits, such as reinforcing and rejuvenating the central business district, and take full advantage of existing and planned urban amenities such as light rail and the 16th Street pedestrian mall. The site also was close to downtown hotels and within walking distance or a quick shuttle ride of numerous attractions, such as the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado State Museum, and the Tivoli mixed-use project.
A free shuttle serving the 16th Street Mall corridor and the convention center would be located just off the center point of that retail/entertainment spine. The panel believed that placing the convention center near the midpoint would provide an important boost of vitality to bridge the distance between city hall and the civic center at one end and the popular Larimer Square complex at the other. Having spent several days in the field reviewing sites, the ULI panel concluded that these and other amenities attractive to convention-goers would all be accessible within a five- or ten-minute walk of the proposed site.
The new facility opened in June 1990. Its opening act: the NBA draft for the Denver Nuggets.
The convention center has been an economic powerhouse for the city, leading to a $340 million major expansion that was completed in December 2004. The expansion doubled the size of the facility to the current 584,000 square feet (54,300 sq m) of exhibit space, 100,000 square feet (9,300 sq m) of meeting rooms, and 85,000 square feet (7,900 sq m) of ballroom space. The expansion also included the 5,000-seat Wells Fargo Theatre, which has hosted performers as varied as Bruce Springsteen and comedian Jamie Foxx.
The expansion also led Hyatt Hotel Corporation to build the 38-story Hyatt Regency Denver next to the convention center. The number of hotel rooms in the area more than doubled to 8,400 from 4,100. In addition, at least two dozen outdoor cafés and numerous shops are within a mile of the convention center.
To accommodate the expansion, the old Currigan Exhibition Hall and a nearby office tower were demolished, and Stout Street and the light-rail tracks were rerouted to curve through the facility.
The expanded convention center allows the city to host all but the largest 5 percent of gatherings, keeping Denver competitive in the convention business. The Colorado Convention Center also has spurred substantial private sector investment in the area and, along with investments made next door at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, has greatly contributed to the overall revitalization of downtown Denver. With its integration of public art and architecture, the expanded convention center strikes a balance between functionality and aesthetics, meeting the needs of conventioneers and the community while adding a striking new image to the Denver skyline, says Rich Grant, communications director for visitdenver.com, the city’s convention and visitor bureau.
The Colorado Convention Center hosted 82 national groups in 2011, made up of 264,497 delegates who spent $526.9 million in the city. In addition to those large events, the center has welcomed hundreds of thousands of people at local events, such as auto and garden shows. ULI has held several meetings there. Tourism is the second-largest industry in Denver, supporting 50,000 jobs and generating $3.3 billion in spending each year, Grant reports.