Ruby Hill's Big Chance: It Could Be Denver's Next Music Hub -- If Promising Pieces Come Together

Ruby Hill has some interesting ingredients to emerge as an unexpected hub for Denver music: Levitt Pavilion Denver opens in July, the city rezoned Colorado Public Radio's land atop the hill and a big music festival at adjacent Overland Golf Course is moving forward. Could the city leverage these developments into a greater whole?
Denver tourism marketers like to point out the fact that Denver has more concert venues than music capitals such as Austin and Nashville. It's a great stat, but there's no Sixth Street in Denver, and no Music Row.

But in Ruby Hill, the city park and the surrounding neighborhood of the same name, the city has all of the pieces to become an iconic place at the heart of the buzzing music scene.

In the park, Levitt Pavilion Denver is opening on July 20 with a triple bill co-headlined by local legends Slim Cessna's Auto Club and Halden Wofford & the Hi*Beams. "I can't think of a better way to start the season," says Chris Zacher, executive director of Levitt Pavilion Denver, the local arm of national nonprofit Levitt Foundation.

Zacher says he's excited to offer "opportunity in our music community, a platform for local artists that brings crowds to them rather than being expected to bring the crowds to themselves. We're creating a hub for people."

While the official capacity is 7,500 concert-goers, about 2,500 people will fit within the main area where alcohol is allowed. "The good thing about the venue is we have a movable fence line," says Zacher.

Levitt's sister pavilions in other states average about 2,500 attendees a show. In Denver, Zacher's goal is to average 1,500 for 2017.

The schedule includes three free concerts a week in the summer season (50 shows in all), typically starting at 7:30 p.m., and 15 to 20 ticketed shows a year. "It's so much different from what you see at the Bluebird or the Ogden," says Zacher. Free family-friendly shows "are hitting a market I think has been ignored. Now [concert-goers] have an opportunity to bring their kids out."

He points to a recent CBC radio broadcast on the topic of moving showtimes from night to evening.  "If you want to create a sustainable music ecosystem, you have to start shows earlier," he says.

Another need: better compensation for musicians. "We believe in fair pay for arts," says Zacher. "We want to get away from paying bands $100 and a six-pack of beer." Opening bands for free shows will get $300, and headliners will take home $600 or more, and pay won't be tied to ticket sales or the bar's take.

Local public-access station Denver 8 TV is building a control room at Levitt Pavilion Denver to film and broadcast shows, community involvement. "All of the bands get free, non-watermarked copies of their show," he says. "That's a huge value-add."

Levitt Pavilion is also partnering with Youth on Record, Love Hope Strength Foundation and other local nonprofits on a host of engagement and education initiatives. "We're trying to do things outside of just being a stage," says Zacher.

Los Pingas performs at Levitt in Pasadena.

Looking ahead

Colorado Public Radio (CPR) has owned the tower atop the hill -- one of the highest points in Denver -- since 2001. They launched their music station, OpenAir, from the tower and broadcast it to 1340 AM before moving to a different antenna and 102.3 on the FM dial. Now they lease the tower to another local station.

After successfully petitioning for rezoning from residential to commercial in February 2017, the organization's leaders are considering moving the headquarters from suburban Centennial to Ruby Hill.

Lauren Cameron, CPR's vice president of communications, says that the plan is a definite maybe, but it won't happen overnight. CPR moved from its birthplace at University of Denver into a donated building in Centennial in 2004. "We've since grown exponentially," says Cameron. "We were looking down the road and Ruby Hill came back into play."

The first step was the rezoning application. Now that it's out of the way, the option to move back to Denver is on the table in the coming years. "Do we want to build there?" says Cameron. "We're very not sure yet. It'll be a joint decision between our board of directors and senior management." While such a move would involve a "huge" fundraising campaign, she adds, "We're really excited to have it as an option."

OpenAir (102.3 FM) is already partnering with Levitt to promote shows. "Most of our local artists and a lot of our touring artists I hope will appear on CPR the week of their show," says Zacher. There's also the possibility of live simulcasts.

Cameron says that the potential synergy between CPR and Levitt "could be really exciting" if the station moved to the neighborhood. "If it does turn out that way, it could be a very cool partnership."

"At OpenAir, we champion local music," says Cameron. "It's pretty cool Levitt is on the same wavelength."

A festival next door?Historic Overland Golf Course could be the site of a new music festival starting in 2018.

Just across the Platte River at the foot of Ruby Hill, historic Overland Golf Course could be the site of a new music festival starting in 2018 -- if Denver City Council ultimately approves a contract. The promoter behind the yet-to-be-named event, New York-based Superfly is the company behind Bonnaroo in Tennessee, San Francisco's Outside Lands and other festivals.

"We're thrilled to be at this point in the process," says Superfly co-founder Rick Farman. "There's still a long way to go before it's reality."

Farman says work on the contract is underway and much of it will be based on community input from neighborhood residents. "This is something we are very familiar with doing," he says. "We use public property for events all the time. We're very particular about being good stewards."

Besides Outside Lands, Superfly is producing a pair of urban festivals in San Francisco and Phoenix in 2017. "These things only work when you work closely with the community," says Farman. "For people that are skeptical . . . we understand. There's a lot that goes into these things. We're committed to making sure we work through all of the issues."

Farman says he and his co-founders at Superfly were inspired by the "iconic" New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "That's really our goal here: to do a similar thing in the Denver metro area."

In Denver, the multi-stage, multi-genre event could draw 50,000 to 60,000 people with a spotlight on local arts and culture, not just music. The central location is ideal,  accessible by bike on the Platte River Trail and about a mile from light rail, says Farman, noting that sustainability "is part of the DNA of our business."

But the proposal remains controversial: decries the event as bad precedent, bad for the community, bad for the environment and bad for golfers. But advocates hold that the city dedicates hundreds of acres to golf courses, and less than 10 percent of the general public golfs, according to the National Golf Foundation.

"We did our due diligence to go through the community process to see if this is something people were interested in hosting," says Grace Ramirez, community affairs liaison for the Denver Office of Special Events.

Superfly chose Denver over other sites, including Westminster, notes Ramirez. "We have a vibrant music scene that's growing," she adds. "It's a big part of our brand. . . . We haven't had to ask people to come here. People have just wanted to come in the past five or so years."

While she says it's just a coincidence that the festival site is adjacent to Ruby Hill, she says there's an "interesting synergy" with Levitt Pavilion Denver and CPR. "This is a natural neighborhood off of South Broadway," says Ramirez. "It's definitely an interesting area of the city that's popping now."

Adds Farman: "We certainly want to work with all of our neighbors and work with the local scene. We want to be additive and in no way disrupt what they are doing."

Missing links

Whether Superfly can make a deal or not, Denver's music industry needs more organizations "to help artists to get to the next level of their career," says Zacher. "Local artists need help on the A&R side. We need agencies. We need more management companies."

Could the establishment of a "Ruby Hill Music District" help further the local community and catalyze economic growth? The pieces of the puzzle are in place.

Denver could look north for inspiration: The new Music District in Fort Collins, funded by the Bohemian Foundation, includes coworking space, offices for music businesses and KRFC, rehearsal rooms and retail.

Is Ruby Hill ripe for a similar concept? The commercial areas to the south and north of the park are dominated by industrial tenants, but the spaces could easily accommodate musical uses -- practice spaces, recording studios and the like -- as well. Residential areas adjacent to the park or CPR's land could be integrated into a campus.

There's also some notable music history in the neighborhood: Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Doors and Janis Joplin all played at Barry Fey's original Family Dog (now PT's Show Club) in the late 1960s, located just two blocks south of Ruby Hill Park at Evans Avenue and Pecos Street.

Sure, it's not a music venue anymore, but that's some serious rock 'n' roll legacy. The stars aligning in Ruby Hill could just build on it.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

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