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DIY Events Take Flight in Denver

Denver Derby guests.

Denver Derby revelers.

The Denver Derby is a fundraiser for a Colorado State University scholarship fund.

Runners in the Denver Triathalon.

Cyclists compete in the Denver Triathalon.

With plenty of drive and motivation, not to mention a dash of luck, young event producers have become a new kind of innovator. Whether it's an Olympic-sized race or simply a day showcasing creativity, these events are quickly filling up Denver's social calendar while giving back to the community. 
Denver's young event producers aren't biding their time. They're turning their event ideas into reality, and the results range from craft fairs to zombie crawls.

Whether it's the community hitting critical mass or a case of creative cross-pollination, locals should consider themselves lucky. This doesn't happen everywhere.

Trying a TriCyclists compete in the Denver Triathalon.
When seasoned Ironman competitor Chris Laskey, 33, was brainstorming a new Denver event, the subsequent cerebral lightbulb seemed obvious -- almost too obvious.

Shockingly, Denver, the city obsessed with all things fit, was without a triathlon. 
 
"All of the triathlons were in the outskirts, such as Aurora or Boulder, but there was nothing in the city of Denver," says Laskey, founder of the Denver Triathlon. "I felt Denver was missing out and that there was a real opportunity to show off what the city has to offer."
 
While bringing a triathlon of Olympic proportions to one's home city may sound daunting, Laskey, who worked on endurance events in Florida and California, got the event rolling by talking to everyone who would listen.
 
The strategy worked. In July 2011, the city of Denver finally had its first urban triathlon. Approximately 700 athletes participated in the first race. In 2012, the Denver Triathlon saw a growth of roughly 35 percent over the first year's numbers. Laskey hopes to see 30 percent more growth in 2013. 
 
"We worked extremely hard to make sure that we didn't hit any low notes and came away from the inaugural year with close to perfect marks from the athletes that raced with us in 2011," Laskey says. "The Denver Triathlon has always been on a three-year plan to success and we feel that with the patterns we are seeing the race will reach that goal."
 
While Laskey sees a trend of people creating their own events in Denver, he's quick to say it's not something that is easily accomplished. For instance, he says he was able to build a good relationship with folks who manage events in Denver because he came to the city with a great deal of experience putting on triathlons.
 
"I can't say that everyone will have the same welcome," he says. "I think they value experience and like to utilize those individuals to get good, quality events in the city and avoid having one that will be a bust. That's not to say that if someone without the experience comes in with their ducks in a row with an idea for an entertaining event can't still produce something and do it right."
 
Just Do It (Yourself)
Gregg Ziemba, 26, loves the ethos of do-it-yourself (DIY). He helps run Unit E, a creative space and performance venue in the Art District on Santa Fe that is all about DIY. When the Denver Theatre District was looking to create a new event, leaders approached Ziemba and Unit E.
 
"They've been working on events around town to make Denver more exciting and help out the art scene here," he says. "They gave us a budget and free reign."
 
Cash in hand, Ziemba and company founded Blacktop Festival. First held in September 2012, the festival celebrates musicians, artists, writers, comedians and other creatives. The concept behind Blacktop Festival was to create a melting pot for all things creative by allowing attendees to listen to live music, create their own art, play an interactive video game, or listen to a mini opera. 
 
Ziemba says the biggest issue was putting together the event in just three months. Despite the limited time frame, word of mouth brought about 5,000 people to the first event.
 
"We're showing people that if you want to create a festival, you can," he says. "We are just regular people, but I think we show that give someone an opportunity to do what they like, they can make events happen." 
 
Denver Derby revelers.Going All Out
With annual events, the key is to not only get people to come, but to get them to return.
 
The Denver Derby, founded by Scott Anderson, 38, and Terrance Hunt, 40, began as a fundraiser to support a Colorado State University (CSU) scholarship fund they created to honor their friend Sean Lough, who passed away in a mountain biking accident in June 2001. 
 
They didn't want their fundraiser to be the typical black tie snore fest; it had to be something different. After Hunt attended the original Kentucky Derby, he suggested a Derby-themed Denver fundraiser. 
 
"Tay and I had one rule when we discussed forming the scholarship fund from the very beginning, and that was that we would not be the kind of people that just talked about doing something, we were going to be the type of people that actually do it," Anderson says. "And if you are going to do something like this, you better go all out." 
"If you are going to do something like this, you better go all out," says Denver Derby Founder Scott Anderson.
 
The annual Derby Party features southern style culture and cuisine including a Dixie and Blue Grass band, local DJs, a wide assortment of beverages, contests and door prizes, including the ever popular best hat contest. The four-year, full-ride scholarship to CSU, Sean's alma mater, is awarded to a student each year at the Derby Party. All net proceeds are donated to the scholarship.
 
The first Derby event, held at the Washington Park Boathouse, took place in 2001 with 130 people in attendance. In 2012, the event had more than 5,000 people.
 
Anderson says the purpose of the event is twofold: to raise money to fund scholarships for first generation minority students in Denver who wish to attend CSU, and to provide the best possible experience for attendees. 
 
"We really needed Denver to support this event, and they bought in immediately after the first event was held more than 10 years ago now," Anderson says. "Denver loves a social event, and when you can dress up in your finest southern attire and support a worthy cause, they are all for it."
 
The only problem is space, or lack thereof. The event's continual growth means it needs a larger venue almost every year.
 
"But fortunately, we are working with some really good people now within the city of Denver, as well as the Denver Theatre District, that really support what we are doing as a foundation," Anderson says. "I have heard of new Kentucky Derby events that sprout up each year attempting to replicate our success, but you know what they say, imitation is the nicest form of flattery."

Read more articles by Heather Caliendo.

Heather is a Denver-based journalist and Confluence contributor. 
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