When I arrived in Denver nearly 50 years ago, the Denver Coliseum was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Yet even then this facility had a vaguely WWII, out-of-date feel about it. My first visit was to attend a January stock show rodeo, when “stock show weather” routinely delivered single-digit temperatures and blowing snow. The Coliseum was built with no real ventilation system, so it is often arctic cold in winter and insufferably hot in the summer. It also lacks truly modern lighting and sound systems. Nonetheless, it’s middling size with 10,000 seats and a large floor area has proven sufficient for perennial visits from circuses, Ice Capade shows and Latino music concerts — including ever-popular Tex-Mex and Norteño bands.
Similar to the recent nostalgia for Casa Bonita’s Cheez-Whiz Mexican meals, generations of Denver kids carry fond memories of cotton candy, buttered popcorn and eye-popping entertainment shared with friends and family at the Coliseum. As Denver has expanded and modernized its other convention and theater venues, there has been a recurring expectation that a new arena would replace this 1950 relic. Somehow that project has kept slipping to the bottom of the list of civic priorities. With substantial uncertainty about the future of the Stock Show itself and without an assurance of this anchor, it didn’t necessarily make sense to replace the Coliseum at the National Western Center.
The time for debate is past. Denver voters can approve a replacement arena for the Coliseum on this November’s ballot. A $450 million bond proposal includes $190 million for the construction of a new performance facility as an integral part of a billion dollar redevelopment at the stock show complex in partnership with Colorado State University’s proposed second veterinary campus. As has become predictable in recent years, this worthy project is encountering the cynicism of BANANA politics (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone). A handful of opponents claiming to represent residents of the nearby neighborhoods in Swansea and Elyria has suggested these dollars would be better spent on additional social and homeless services. Fortunately, this decision lies with voters.
It’s worthwhile to revisit the history of the stock show and the purpose for the original Coliseum and its proposed replacement. More than a century ago the Denver Chamber of Commerce organized and funded a winter rodeo, stock sale and breeding competition as a showcase for Colorado’s farming and ranching families. The National Western was intended to provide an opportunity for Colorado to brag about its agricultural economy at a time of year when the men and women who contributed to its market success had the spare time to display their animals, crops and wares.
Denver’s business community understood the central role it played as the warehouse and provisioner for the seeds, planting and harvesting implements, and fertilizers that nurtured Colorado’s family farms. Agricultural products remain a multi-billion dollar mainstay for the state’s prosperity and quality of life. As the Front Range has exploded, rural towns have frequently wondered whether they have been overlooked by the digital residents crowding alongside I-25. Yes, it will be nice to have a modern arena with all the bells and whistles that today’s technology can provide but, more importantly, this facility offers a chance for Denver voters to express our genuine appreciation for the families who produce the foodstuffs we purchase at the grocery store.
The proposed arena will pay for itself over time. Crowds attending as many as 200 events each year will spend on tickets, hotel rooms and keepsakes. This economic stimulus will translate into additional revenues for the city. I’m of the opinion that we owe it to our fellow citizens across rural Colorado to replace the Coliseum with a state-of-the-art showcase — one that can also serve as a space where the region’s diverse communities can schedule and enjoy cultural performances that would otherwise search for an appropriate venue. Even if you never expect to attend an event at the arena, there is value in supporting the National Western project. It will fill an entertainment void, employing hundreds without raising taxes.
Not every election can be about “What’s in it for me?” There are reasons for voters to build stadiums and performance spaces. As I told friends when we publicly funded Coors Field 30 years ago, “I pay taxes for a lot of things I never use, some that I barely approve of, but I love baseball so I’m voting, yes!” I also like the stock show, so I plan to vote yes again this year. There’s something heartwarming about watching teenagers crawling under blankets to keep their animals warm in their concrete stalls. That alone is worth the price of admission. Turning the National Western Center arena down would send the wrong message to Colorado’s rural communities. After all, we’re in this together.