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Making a "More Integrated" Convention Center and Performing Arts Complex in Downtown Denver

The Colorado Convention Center could increase its economic output by $50 million with a modest expansion; a cost-benefit analysis is underway.

Boettcher Concert Hall is in need of a renovation.

Lawrence Argent's "I See What You Mean," a.k.a. The Big Blue Bear, peers into the convention center.

The $40 million "Better Boettcher" design features more flexible seating and projection screens.

The Denver Performing Arts Complex and the Colorado Convention Center next door are in line for updates. An "urban framework design plan" is in the works to serve as the template for two separate master plans.
The Colorado Convention Center pumps $500 million into Denver's economy every year.

The Denver Performing Arts Complex is second in size only to Lincoln Center in New York.

Superlatives aside, the consensus is that it's time for an update. What are described as "tweaks" for the convention center could well be complemented by more pronounced changes at the performing arts complex.

The bigger picture encompasses a number of different projects on the entire 12-acre campus, says Kent Rice, executive director of Denver Arts & Venues. "Our whole goal is to make the convention center and the performing arts complex much more integrated into what goes on downtown," he says.

That means a more diverse cast of characters at the latter facility. "One of the themes that has come up is we need more people in the arts complex, and different types of people," Rice says "How do we get other people engaged?"

California-based MIG is currently working with several groups of stakeholders to develop an "urban framework design plan" that encompasses both the Colorado Convention Center and the adjacent Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC) in downtown Denver. A master plan for the convention center is due in July, and the DPAC plan is slated for completion by the end of 2015.

One of the broader groups involved in the process is an "executive leadership team" (ELT). Rice calls the team "a Noah's Ark committee" of representatives from arts organizations, city departments and other stakeholders who have been meeting once a month for two to three hours since November 2014 and will continue to do so through October 2015.

MIG is also working with a smaller committee of officials from the city and other organizations has met five times since fall 2014, and briefed the mayor's office twice.

"There's been a lot of individual studies and plans around individual facilities," says Jay Renkens, MIG's Boulder-based director of Denver operations.

The plans have varied in terms of schedule and timeline, but there's an obvious need for collaboration. Renkens says Denver Community Planning and Development Executive Director Brad Buchanan and other city officials "said, 'Hey, you need to take a step back. How do those facilities interact with each other? How do they interact with their surroundings?'"

Arapahoe Street and Speer Boulevard "dead edges," adds Renkens, noting, "They're kind of detracting from the urban experience, not contributing to it."

The plan should "encourage an outward focus -- turning the facilities inside-out, so to speak," argues Renkens, "and we create a real thriving district." That would in turn catalyze private investment, he adds.

MIG is currently conducting internal reviews of a preliminary draft of the urban framework design plan; the public release is slated for March 9. Renkens says the firms that will craft the subsequent master plans were selected in February after a six-week selection process, and will be announced soon.

Defying convention

Home to more than 250 events a year, the Colorado Convention Center opened in 1990 and more than doubled in size in 2004. The adjacent Hyatt Regency Denver followed in 2005, the same year as the installation of I See What You Mean, now perhaps the city's most iconic public artwork.

Richard Scharf, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, a.k.a. Visit Denver, says Denver's convention business has exceeded expectations since the expansion. "We've been punching above our weight for a very long time," he says. Both the city and the convention center routinely make meeting planners' top 10 lists, he notes.

Lawrence Argent's "I See What You Mean," a.k.a. The Big Blue Bear, peers into the convention center.About 3,000 new rooms have been added downtown in all since the expansion and public-facing annual events like Denver Comic Con and the Great American Beer Festival bring tens of thousands of people to the convention center.

"Every year, we book and host $500 million in direct economic impact," says Scharf. "We see it as the goose that lays the golden egg. It's a pretty clean business."

Scharf says the CVB targets conventions with about 25,000 or fewer attendees, noting that only about 5 percent of events are larger than that. Las Vegas and Orlando can claw over that business, he adds, while Denver feasts on the bigger market of smaller events. "A lot of times, those mid-sized groups are perfect for us."

The Colorado Convention Center currently has 584,000 square feet of exhibit space and 2.2 million square feet in all. For comparison's sake, Vegas has a total of 3.2 million square feet with 2 million of exhibit space, Seattle has 414,000 square feet of flexible space, and the Salt Palace has 675,000 square feet in downtown Salt Lake City.

The West's convention center business is in the midst of something of an arms race. Seattle is in the process of adding more than 400,000 square feet, Anaheim is adding 200,000 and Vegas is pouring $2.5 billion into a million-square-foot expansion. Dallas and Austin are also looking at big expansions.

In Denver, "There is an additional opportunity," says Scharf. The Strategic Advisory (SAG) report from a feasibility study conducted in 2014 concluded the city's convention business could easily increase by $50 million with an expansion of 60,000 to 85,000 square feet, a tech upgrade and additional hotels in the immediate vicinity. "What we're about to do now is the old cost-benefit analysis," he says.

Finite developable land in the immediate vicinity means "conscientious" development is another key, says Scharf.

The area serves as the face of the city to many visitors, he adds. "It's really a learning campus. You have these world-class doctors and scientists coming to the convention center. It's really a gateway in a lot of ways."

Arts & Venues' Rice recounts a recent visit to the New Orleans Convention Center. It's much larger, he notes, but "they don't have everything that Denver's convention center has."

In other words, it's not next door to a world-class performing arts district, in the middle of one of the country's more vibrant downtowns. As Scharf puts it, "Once the conventioneer is done for the day, he has the opportunity to be a tourist."

Scharf says the site selection by the Urban Land Institute in 1987 has proven "fortunate," he says. Also under consideration at the time: behind Union Station and next to the Denver Art Museum in the Golden Triangle.

Architecture is another factor that's contributed to success. "We were very fortunate to have a world-class convention center designer in Fentress,"Scharf says.

Questions next door

At DPAC, the planning process involves many more moving parts than the convention center. The future of Boettcher Concert Hall is a big if. There should be about $25 million in bond money to spend on renovations, but the project likely needs more. Unless that gap is bridged by city or private donors -- and the city agrees to reduce the rent -- the Colorado Symphony Orchestra could conceivably leave after 2016. The idea of demolishing Boettcher and building an outdoor amphitheater in its place was even floated, though that concept appears to have lost steam.

"What's the opportunity here?" says Rice. "Is investing in a partial renovation of Boettcher the right thing to do?"

Boettcher Concert Hall is in need of a renovation.There are several other improvements that need to be integrated into the plan. The 35-year-old parking garage is outdated, with only a few oddly placed entry and exit points. The bridge between Boettcher and the convention center needs to be replaced or removed. The future of 1245 Champa is uncertain.

And compared to the convention center, there are many more stakeholders and thus more potential for disagreement -- not that there has been much reported acrimony during the ELT meetings.

"I'm not sure there are disagreements," says Colorado Symphony Orchestra CEO Jerry Kern. "There really hasn't been an opportunity to disagree."

Kern says the day the CSO presented its vision for the $40 million "Better Boettcher" by Semple Brown Design in September 2014, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the formation of the ELT. "I think it's great," Kern says of the big-picture strategy. "Why look at a single building?"

The problem, Kern says, is that six months have passed and there still hasn't been much of a discussion. "At the first meeting of the ELT, the mayor said, 'I want you to think outside of the box,' but the group hasn't even started thinking yet." The meetings to date have focused on education, not collaboration, he says, and "MIG knows nothing about the various organizations' functions other than the convention center."

Plus, having the necessary dialogue to finish a master plan by year's end represents "a pretty ambitious timeline," notes Kern, alluding to his experience as an attorney who negotiated several big mergers and acquisitions. The plan for the National Western Complex "has taken years." ("From our own biased perspective, it would have been nice if the downtown area was addressed first," he adds.)

Kern thinks the process likely requires years, not months. "Can it move more rapidly? I'm not sure, with that many people involved." He calls the ELT "an unwieldy group."

"If you're motivated to get something done, you're going to meet more than once a month," he says. "And no one is addressing the money issue. There isn't enough tax money or bond money to do this without some sort of public-private partnership -- like Union Station, and that took 10 years."

No matter the outcome, Kern hopes the CSO remains a pillar of the performing arts center. "The Symphony has taken the position Boettcher has been our home for 35 years. We'd like it to remain our home."

"It's a testament to us that two of our largest supporters are Arrow Electronics and DaVita," Kern adds. The two recent high-profile corporate transplants to metro Denver proves the CSO's "attractiveness to out-of-state interests."

But that doesn't mean much, he adds, when it comes to the elephant in the room. "The orchestra has never sounded better and it's never had a greater reach, but, at the end of the day, we need a place to play."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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