Business execs focus on healthier kids at roundtable

The Colorado Statesman

A group of Denver-based CEOs told Mayor-elect Michael Hancock to focus his administration on the health and education of the city’s children at a roundtable discussion last week. That’s in addition to familiar pleas to cut red tape at city hall, abolish nuisance taxes and treat residents like customers — all suggestions offered at a meeting Hancock held on July 7 with some of the biggest names in the city’s business community.

Asked what the bosses most want to see accomplished during Hancock’s upcoming term, Colorado Health Foundation President and CEO Anne Warhover said, succinctly: “Healthier, more educated kids.” One after another, most of the others — including local heads of First Bank, King Soopers, Kaiser Permanente and Public Service Co. of Colorado — agreed, though some proposed other goals as well.

Denver Mayor-elect Michael Hancock, right, listens to advice from business leaders at a roundtable discussion on July 7 at Sage Hospitality’s downtown offices as Telemundo station manager Andres Chaparro looks on.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Wasn’t it pleasantly surprising?” Hancock said after the meeting. “We’re at a business roundtable, and they want to talk about how to create a healthier population of children. This is something we can work together on, and, while we do that, we create a better city and a healthy business environment.”

The roundtable, held at the downtown offices of Sage Hospitality, was part of a series Hancock has conducted after pledging to meet with 100 business leaders in his first 100 days in office as part of a plan to jump-start the local economy. Hancock will be sworn in on July 18 along with city council members and Auditor Dennis Gallagher and Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson.

Included in the group of business leaders were two who considered running for mayor earlier this year, Sage Hospitality CEO Walter Isenberg and Linda Alvarado, who heads Alvarado Construction. In addition, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill, the Hancock campaign’s chief financial backer, and a number of directors of the business consortium Colorado Concern sat at the table. Earlier in the week, Hancock named the organization’s executive director Janice Sinden as his chief of staff and later that day announced that Sinden was taking over his transition operation from its executive director John Huggins.

Mayor-elect Michael Hancock, center, repeats a phrase from the campaign trail to make the point that “the school door swings both ways” during a forum with business leaders on July 7 in downtown Denver. Joining the discussion, from left: Andres Chaparro, station manager at Telemundo; Anne Warhover. president and CEO of the Colorado Health Foundation; and Walter Isenberg, president and CEO of Sage Hospitality.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The city’s children are a barometer for the entire community, the business leaders noted, as well as a problem for employers if they need too much remedial work out of high school.

“How can we have unhealthy, uneducated kids when we have the healthiest, most educated parents?” Warhover said with evident frustration. “It’s inexcusable.” She later added, “The key here is to do all we can to make sure that kids are healthy and school-ready from day one.”

It’s a challenge Hancock talked about at every opportunity in his run for mayor, he recalled, invoking an agreement he termed the Denver Education Compact during the campaign.

“That’s what I see as my vehicle to engage the private sector, colleges and universities, the community and stakeholders, in a collective strategy to help improve our education system in Denver,” he said, noting that the entire community needs to get involved solving problems with the graduation rate, workforce productivity and a growing achievement gap in Denver Public Schools.

Chief executives Walter Isenberg of Sage Hospitality, left, Pat Hamill of Oakwood Homes and Ron Williams of Gary-Williams Energy Corp. and the Piton Foundation talk shop following a roundtable discussion with Denver Mayor-elect Michael Hancock on July 7 at Sage offices downtown.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We have to understand that the school door swings both ways, and the city’s greatest impact can be on the outside of that school door, so that when kids walk in the school door, all the other things they worry about are eliminated or reduced,” he said. Toward that end, he said, his administration plans to centralize resources devoted to children under a Children’s Affairs division “to take a comprehensive approach from cradle to college.”

After the meeting Hancock repeated a pledge he made during the campaign that he plans to back candidates in this fall’s DPS board elections but declined to make any endorsements on the spot. Still, he said, “there will come a time very quickly where I take a look at the field of candidates and ultimately help where I can to get some good candidates elected.” He added that he is “excited” about the candidacies of at-large hopefuls Allegra “Happy” Haynes, a former city council president, and northwest neighborhood activist Jennifer Draper Carson.

The discussion covered a range of other topics, including familiar bugaboos of too much red tape and difficulty working with city agencies that don’t communicate with each other — forming “silos,” in the current nomenclature — all of which stymie efforts by businesses to expand.

Hamill said he has to spend considerable effort brokering deals between various city departments. He added that surrounding cities have tougher standards than Denver but are easier to work with because “they execute it better.” Throwing up his hands, he said, “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘I’ll just wait ’till you retire.’”
It’s going to take a wholesale revamping of the way city employees deal with the public, including businesses, said Isenberg.

“In order to do that, we have to change the culture inside the city,” he told the group, adding that city workers need to realize that most of their revenue comes from businesses that are able to operate in Denver.

“That would be a huge, huge change that, frankly, all of the great mayors of Denver in my lifetime have not been able to achieve,” he said. Ultimately, he added, “There’s just been this culture of not recognizing, at the end of the day, who the customer is.”

The complaints are part of a familiar litany, Warhoven pointed out. She recalled that she heard grumbling about the same problems with Denver’s bureaucracy decades ago when she first joined a downtown business organization.

“Everything you all said was said 20 years ago,” she said. “It’s confounding to me why we continue to keep having that dialogue every time.”

Hancock acknowledged that calcified city operations won’t change overnight but predicted that, with a determined approach, he can turn things around.

“The things they talk about are not rocket science. These are things we can work on as a city,” he told The Colorado Statesman after the meeting. “I think by working with city employees, we can begin to break down silos, we can eliminate unnecessary red tape, we can be more customer-friendly and not forget who the customer is.”