Coming Home: Mile High United Way Returns to its Roots in Curtis Park

Maybe Thomas Wolfe couldn't go home again, but the Mile High United Way disproves the old adage as it settles into its new headquarters in Curtis Park, mere miles from where the national organization's story began 127 years ago.
There were two priests, two ministers, a rabbi and a woman, Frances Wisebart Jacobs, who came together under the simple belief that working together could solve great problems.

That's how Mile High United Way President and CEO Christine Benero describes the modest inception of an organization that has grown to become a Colorado fixture, and continues to unite people, ideas and resources to advance the common good and collectively solve community-wide problems in Denver, Douglas, Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties.

Last year alone, Benero's organization reached 278,293 people, creating sustainable community change by targeting the three interconnected areas of school readiness, youth success and adult self-sufficiency. And, last month, Mile High United Way opened the doors of its new headquarters -- the Morgridge Center for Community Change -- kicking things off with a massive celebration that welcomed over 1,000 attendees. 

The original organization -- the first United Way in the country -- began in Curtis Park in 1887. The Charity Organization Society, as it was originally called, was the first local association that met community needs by funding charities. Since inception, the organization has been referred to as Community Chest, Red Feather Drive, United Fund and, beginning in 1964, Mile High United Way.

Its mission intact, the return to Curtis Park brings the organization full circle. "In a way," says Benero, "it does feel like we are coming home." 

Time for a changeMile High United Way's new home was financed entirely by proceeds from the sale of its previous building, which cost $1 million in 1985, and sold for $10 million last year.

For 29 years, Mile High United Way operated out of the Lower Highlands. Who would have thought thirty years ago that LoHi would become one of the hottest real estate markets in the city? 

United Way's Board of Directors, Benero says, take very seriously the fulfillment of their mission and the investment of resources into the community. When folks realized they were sitting on an asset that could be sold and reinvested into the community, they decided to redeploy. 

 "The new headquarters will be much, much more than a new building. It will be a community asset -- a long-term investment in the redevelopment of this unique area and in our ability to continue to partner with the Denver community to improve the lives of children, families and individuals," says Benero.

Measuring in at an expansive 63,000 square feet and encompassing an entire city block, the space is a "mission-driven building," as Benero puts it. Along with the 10,000 square feet of meeting space, there's also room for Café United, a full service café operated by Work Options for Women, and offices for Goodwill Industries and the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

CenturyLink's Mile High United Way 2-1-1 Center, which took 140,000 calls in 2013, will use a portion of the building for its free and confidential community referral service that connects callers with resources which provide food, shelter, rent assistance, clothing, child care options and legal assistance. 

Other tenants include the Comcast Digital Literacy Community Center, giving local citizens and nonprofit organizations access to state-of-the-art technology and free training opportunities, and the CoBank Leadership Center, a 6,300-square-foot training space available for nonprofit use. 

Neighborhood involvement 

Curtis Park residents have been particularly excited about relocation efforts, and about the building itself -- a project that took 13 months to complete after a year of planning. Targeting a LEED silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the new center emphasizes transparency and connectivity. 

The design team of PCL Construction and Davis Partnership Architects worked closely with Mile High United Way and community stakeholders, including the Landmark Preservation Commission, Arapahoe Square and Curtis Park Neighbors, to arrive at a design that is aesthetically and historically connected to the neighborhood. 

"Because it takes up an entire city block, we wanted it to fit with the cadence of the neighborhood, and we are very proud of how it turned out," Benero says. The goal was to build something representing the history of the neighborhood and, also, its future. Three distinct materials were used to accomplish that: Brick that's identical to the brick comprising nearby Ebert Elementary School captures the neighborhood's history, the glass anchoring the building illustrates the transparency of United Way's work and modern zinc panels highlight the colors and materials of Colorado. 

Curtis Park residents are pleased with the result, and are glad to have found an organization that jives with their 'hood. In the 1970s, explains long-time Curtis Park resident and Neighborhood Association President Joel Noble, the neighborhood and then-Councilman Elvin Caldwell fought to stop United Way's block from becoming a Greyhound bus maintenance facility. "We always thought of that as a very important site, and a gateway to neighborhood that shouldn't be squandered," Noble says. 

When the Denver Housing Authority approached Noble and the other Curtis Park stakeholders about conversations they'd had with Mile High United Way, the feedback was positive, and the association was happy to help with the design review process. "You can't recreate a building from the 1880s, but [architect] Joe Lear picked out all of the key elements," says Noble. 

Advancing the missionCenturyLink's Mile High United Way 2-1-1 Center, which took 140,000 calls in 2013, will use a portion of the building for its free and confidential community referral service.

Funding is another point of pride. "We are walking into a new building, and it is completely paid for," beams Benero. Mile High United Way's new home was financed entirely by proceeds from the sale of its previous building, which cost $1 million in 1985, and sold for $10 million last year. 

In addition to real estate sale proceeds, the United Way received $4.5 million in new-markets tax credits, a forgivable loan from the federal government. The remaining $9 million that the organization needed to finish its building came from a capital campaign from corporations and individuals, and includes a $4 million lead gift from the Morgridge Family Foundation.

"Mile High United Way's new headquarters will yield a tangible return on investment catalytic in revitalizing our diverse community from grassroots to grass tops," says City Councilman Albus Brooks of District 8. 

"We all want to see Arapahoe Square develop," Noble says. "Sometimes it seems like it will slowly develop from the downtown side, but here we see a beautiful building skipping over, letting people know it's okay to do great things here." 

Brooks thinks Mile High United Way's relocation will aid redevelopment efforts on Welton Street, a part of town the city is actively trying to develop. 

"Between fourth quarter this year and fourth quarter next year, we'll have over $150 million dollars of redevelopment started on Welton," says Brooks. "After all of this redevelopment happens, people will look back and say United Way was the catalyst for that."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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