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Embrace the Cow: Reinventing the National Western Complex

The National Western Complex is in need of a major overhaul to regain financial viability.

After the threat of a move, the facility is staying in Denver for the long haul.

An aerial view of the National Western Complex.

The annual parade runs from Union Station to the National Western Complex.

Held each January, the world's largest stock show has called Denver home since 1906.

After the possibility of a move, the National Western Complex is staying put in Denver for the long haul. But the facility is in need of an update, and ambitious plans are starting to materialize.
Denver began as a cowboy kind of town, a shoot-first, ask-later piece of the Wild West, and evolved into a thriving city with high culture, low crime, and a booming economy.

While Denver has undoubtedly grown up and out, its maverick spirit still shines at the annual National Western Stock Show.

Held each January, the world's largest stock show -- in terms of sheer number of animals -- has called Denver home since 1906. The Western Stock Show Association, the nonprofit behind the show, flirted with a possible move to Aurora, but officials bucked the idea once and for all in 2012.

The historic National Western Complex has hosted the stock show and accompanying rodeo since 1909. But with more than a century under its big-buckled belt, the facilities are in need of a major overhaul to regain financial viability, compete for new events and rebrand the venue as a must-see, year-round destination.

Held each January, the world's largest stock show has called Denver home since 1906. Time for a change

"Right now, Colorado still has a really strong equestrian heritage," says Kelly Leid, director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative (NDCC). "But Coloradans are leaving Colorado and going to Texas and Kentucky and Oklahoma. We need a reason to keep them here."

And so comes the massive redevelopment plan for the complex.

"Together, we and our partners [Colorado State University, the City and County of Denver, History Colorado and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science] have a collective vision of what this area can be," says Paul Andrews, president and CEO of the National Western Stock Show. 

Sweeping suggestions from a feasibility study published earlier this year include a new 10,000 seat multi-purpose primary arena; a new 5,000 seat multipurpose livestock stadium arena; a 4,500 multi-purpose events center along with a 500-seat equestrian arena; relocated, flexible stockyards; 1,000 new horse stalls; a new expo hall and potentially an ice rink, that could make Denver more attractive for a Winter Olympic bid in years to come.

"Horse shows and the arenas they're housed in have advanced so much since the '90s [the last time the facility was rebuilt]," Andrews says. "At a certain point, facilities become non-competitive and difficult to book." 

The Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) Feasibility Study further estimated that by expanding the event from 16 days to 23, attendance could grow from about 750,000 to 920,000 a year. The annual economic impact from attendees and exhibitors could rise to $179 million from $106 million after a redevelopment, planners say.

With the new space, the complex would add another 88 events annually, according to the feasibility study. Currently, the space holds about 230 events per year, including more than 30 rodeos, 40 horse shows, concerts, motorcycle rallies, mixed martial arts performances and more.

However, with all the positive potential predicted from the shiny new facilities, "You don't want this complex to exist in a vacuum," says developer Kyle Zeppelin, who with his father, Mickey, has been responsible for such RiNo projects as The Source and TAXI with Zeppelin Development.

Zeppelin recommends embracing the authenticity of the historic buildings, as opposed to "scrape and bulldoze" development. Calling the neighborhood "a bit more edgy," he says, "If it's just the old stadium model of a single-purpose destination, they'll be back for another bailout in 20 years. It needs to be part of the fabric of the city, with a variety of year-round features that serve the surrounding neighborhoods."

Transit-oriented boom or bustAfter the threat of a move, the facility is staying in Denver for the long haul.

Regardless of the design direction, public transit will without question serve the neighborhood to boost accessibility and economic viability. The NDCC is slated to open three new RTD stations in the north Denver area, including the North Metro line set to be situated on the National Western's property. The North Metro Line is scheduled to be in full swing in 2018.

"Looking at the commuter rail line from Denver Union Station to 49th and Brighton Boulevard, that line needs to be embraced as a celebrated asset for the new complex," Andrews says. In the meantime, however, the expansion of commuter rail is "a major impediment," he adds. 

Among the immediate impacts, the National Western Complex will lose about seven acres of space, parking, storage, horse stalls, cattle tie-outs and loading and unloading accessibility for exhibitors. "We're going to be in a very challenged operational pattern while in our current configuration," Andrews says.

Intentionally absent from the SAG study is a cost estimate, though a similar report conducted in 2011 projected $500 million. Sources might include bonds, grants, tax-increment financing and funding from the state and federal government.

Cost estimates and master plans for the extensive recreation of the landmark complex are scheduled for completion by the end of this year. Adoption of the plan by City Council is expected in spring 2015.

"There is an opportunity here to strategically align the planning and implementation of these projects to leverage this historic opportunity," Leid says. "That said, just to bring this part of the City to a basic level of service, not gold-plated anything, is going to be expensive. But we're looking at this over the course of 20 to 30 years. It will be a crucial infrastructural investment in this city."

A whole new cowtown

According to Andrews, National Western officials are currently crossing their fingers to complete the project entirely by 2020 or 2021.

In the meantime, he says, "We have to embrace our past as we develop the future. There are so many opportunities with the new complex. There could be education seminars, a western heritage center, a campus celebrating agriculture education, a home for the leading businesses in the world of ag. We're talking about sports, concerts and family shows year-round. None of these things can happen in today's facilities."

Paul Washington, executive director for Denver's Office of Economic Development, is hopeful that the National Western facility will be an attractive retail opportunity as well as an agriculture-heavy institution. "We feel like there is an enormous opportunity to emerge as an agribusiness cluster," he says.

Echoes Leid: "I joke all the time that we should have shirts made that say, 'Embrace the cow.' There's a real importance to livestock and horses and agriculture to Denver's global position -- it's a huge business for the state, representing a $41 billion industry."

And that kind of number makes a cowtown comeback a tantalizing prospect. "With the National Western, Denver can 'rediscover' its agriculture roots in a modern way and be a significant player in conversations regarding 21st century agriculture," Leid adds. "It's going to be messy for awhile. But we're a part of history-making."

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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