Guest Columns


Denver International Airport — steeped in politics from the start… and into the future

It has been thirty years since Denver’s mayoral campaign served as the political incubator for DIA. Stapleton had been evidencing constraints for at least a decade. Park Hill neighborhoods had recently won their lawsuit against the city, which was draining substantial airport revenues to provide soundproofing against the larger, noisier passenger jets that were beginning to dominate the industry. To the east, Aurora residents were beating a path into court for similar consideration. And, another runway was needed to accommodate a rapid growth in flights while the aging terminal required additional gates.

Bill McNichols, who had served as mayor for 14 years, proposed to expand the existing airport onto the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. District Attorney Dale Tooley, who was challenging the Mayor for the third time, also supported an expansion of Stapleton, as did Wellington Webb and Federico Peña, former state legislators. Also in the contest was attorney Monte Pascoe, a former state Democratic Chairman, who was best known for his legal work in support of busing in the Denver Public Schools. Pascoe argued that no expansion of Stapleton was workable and that a brand new airfield should be built in Adams County.

Pascoe, although articulate and well prepared, failed to connect with Denver voters. His wife Pat, in contrast, served several well-regarded terms in the State Senate some years later. Pascoe’s proposal to build an airport from scratch was attacked by all his opponents and never took center stage during the campaign. Snow removal, or rather the failure to remove snow following the Christmas blizzard of 1982, received far more attention. On Election Day in May, Pascoe established a Colorado record that likely still stands for campaign futility — spending nearly $30 for each vote he received. In a perverse gift from the weather gods, and well before the widespread reliance on mail ballots, it snowed heavily throughout Election Day, reminding voters of McNichols’ failure to clear Denver streets for weeks in December and January. The Mayor placed third, propelling Peña and Tooley into a runoff. Again, the airport question proved a tangential issue.

Once elected, Peña turned his attention to what could actually be done to improve and expand air service in and out of Stapleton. It became apparent that Pascoe had been right all along. Not only was the clean up of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal going to prove astronomically expensive, but it also appeared likely that it would require decades to complete. Squeezing more runways onto the existing site was impractical, and would only aggravate the noise complaints that were already plaguing air operations. So Peña surprised everyone with his announcement that the city would replace Stapleton with a new airfield located northeast of Denver. Simple in concept, this was to prove a heavy political lift.

Although direct airport revenues have to be recycled into maintenance of the airport itself, the ancillary warehouses, commercial office parks and hotel taxes generated by surrounding businesses had poured into Denver’s general fund for decades. Neither the Mayor nor the City Council was inclined to surrender these moneys without a fight. Needless to say, Aurora and Adams County entertained covetous dreams of economic development. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) had to be negotiated that would permit Denver to annex the new airport, thus keeping it in Denver, while offering a bone large enough to convince Adams County voters to authorize the de-annexation. The deal that was struck and which would become an enforceable Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) if Adams County voters approved it, permitted Denver to locate only those enterprises that were directly related to the provision of air service on airport grounds. The IGA also stated that for 75 years all other commercial development was to occur outside the airport envelope in Adams County, Commerce City and Aurora.

It would take three elections to put these pieces in place. When it became evident that Federico Peña’s popularity in Adams County was somewhere beneath that of a root canal, Governor Roy Romer picked up the campaign cudgel and commenced his ‘oatmeal circuit’ of breakfast diners where he championed the project as good for Colorado and a great economic opportunity for Adams County. Without the MOU, voters would almost certainly have rejected the new airport. This all occurred 25 years ago when Michael Hancock and my son were classmates at Manual High School in Denver. Neither of them, I suspect, was paying much attention to what was included in the consequent IGA.

For nearly fifteen years it didn’t much matter because development was slow to take root at DIA. A few motels were built along Tower Road south of Peña Boulevard and Denver approved large residential projects in Green Valley Ranch, but that was about the size of it. Ten years ago, one of those new residents was elected to the Denver City Council. His name was Michael Hancock. Councilman Hancock was a zealous advocate for his district, pushing RTD to prioritize the Air Train line to DIA and securing parks, improved schools and recreational facilities for his constituents. When he ran for mayor in 2011 he regularly talked up the notion of an Airport City and larger Aerotropolis as the economic development anchor for Denver’s future. His opponents more or less nodded in agreement, understanding that he was ‘playing to his base.’

But, it isn’t just Denver that has benefited from DIA. If you haven’t explored our Northeastern ‘burbs’, you should take the time some weekend. Commerce City now hosts the Colorado Rapids and Reunion is only the first of a string of classy, yet affordable, communities that string out beyond Brighton. If you are looking for 2,000 square feet of spanking new home, a yard and open space amenities for less than $300,000 this is where you can find them. Adams County has moved its county offices out on I-76 in an edifice that rivals the Taj Mahal. State demographers predict this is where the state will be cooking for years to come! But, despite this apparent success, Adams County retains a profound inferiority complex. They were the ‘bad seed’ younger brother for the better part of a century — the place where Colorado’s refineries, waste dumps and heavy industries located. The county’s elected officials can’t stop searching for respect.

When Mayor Hancock started trumpeting his plans for Airport City, the claxons sounded across Adams County and Aurora. The DIA/IGA was dusted off and brandished before the media. Hancock, who may well not have even known about this agreement, and who seems motivated only by a desire to create jobs and gin up the regional economy was caught flat-footed. He and his staff expressed sentiments that the original MOU might well be outdated, outmoded and antiquated in the 21st century. Bad move. Adams County resuscitated the Airport Consultation Committee provided for in the IGA, but which hadn’t convened for years, and commenced complaining about equity and keeping your word. For a few weeks, it appeared that the entire conversation might careen off the tracks into a valley of mutually assured destruction. This would, of course, be colossally stupid. Everyone has far more to gain by pulling together than they do in conducting a tug-of-war.

DIA is the largest airport in North America, larger than the next three airports combined — 54 square miles. It is huge because Denver never wanted to have its air operations threatened again by encroachment from residential and commercial development. It’s only natural that businesses thinking of relocating near the airport would approach Denver first. They have no idea that an MOU/IGA exists — who else would they talk to? The question now is how to fairly distribute these benefits. Other metropolitan areas have created independent airport authorities in which all neighboring communities have a stake, but it is too late for that at DIA. It does not, however, preclude the creation of a special district to install infrastructure both on the airport and adjacent vacant, developable tracts — roads, water, sewers, etc. There is ample room to work together, sharing these costs and eventual revenues.

Fortunately, everyone seems to apprehend this opportunity. Tom Clark, economic development guru at the Denver Chamber and a 30-year Adams County resident has been brought in as a mediator. Despite a blunt May 1 letter to Mayor Hancock from the Adams County Airport Coordinating Committee, a careful reading discovers more than a few olive branches. Nonetheless, it is clear that Aurora, Commerce City and Adams County don’t view cooperation as a matter of simply helping Denver resolve its issues. Political veteran and Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan is quick to point out that residential development alone will not pay for itself. He wants to see additional airport access (entrances) for developments south and east of the airfield. Whatever happens during the next few months it’s unlikely to result in the closure of access roads for construction vehicles as occurred to Wellington Webb when he was attempting to construct DIA.

There is one more player in this drama and that is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While they are usually not at the table, they are constantly mentioned. In many respects, they regard the airport as their domain. Whether Denver has been hiding behind them, as some critics allege, or they are actually bullies — Colorado will find itself on a more equal footing when all the adjoining jurisdictions are singing from the same choir book. Remain tuned.

Miller Hudson served two terms in the Legislature and was also executive director of both the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses for Mayor Federico Peña and the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority (CIFGA) that studied the feasibility of a high-speed monorail between the Denver and Eagle County Airports along I-70.