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Airport City in the making
(Graphic by Tiffany Wood)

By Ernest Gurulé

It rises out of the plains like a futuristic monolith; man-made ivory mountains jutting out of earth tone shades of high plains desert. It is the distinctive profile of Denver International Airport. But except for hotels and car rental lots, few landmarks stand out between the interstate and DIA. But change is coming.

If city planners, investors and entrepreneurs can figure things out — and that is only a matter of time — Airport City will boom with economic opportunity and vitality.

Airport City, the name given the industrial/commercial zone separating DIA from local municipalities, may become an essential economic engine powering growth in the region well into the 21st century.

Traffic patterns attest to the dynamic growth of DIA and what it represents. And while the primary traffic delivery system for people and goods to DIA remains Peña Boulevard, it is fed by a number of healthy tributaries.

Streams of traffic feeding into the ‘river Peña’ are growing in importance. One example is 56th Avenue. A recent study shows that while more than 60 percent of its traffic is headed to DIA, the remaining is aimed toward other airport-related businesses as final destinations.

Clearly, says Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, DIA is not only a place where Denver can grow, but also a place where it should grow.

“Denver is primed to compete,” Hancock says. “There is only one other airport in the world — in Dubai — that has the landmass that we have.” Development up to and around DIA, he says, represents the future.

Hancock says just a cursory look at what now exists on the drive toward DIA is just the beginning. Prologis, a Denver-based industrial real estate company, is an example the mayor uses as a company that sees value in a DIA-area zip code.

The reason people see value in laying down roots along this essentially undeveloped part of the metro area can be summed up in a single word: location.

Airports are today’s equivalent of river ports that throughout time have fueled economies. Where goods were delivered, by ship or barge, services soon followed. Growth and commerce flourished. Airports are the modern day equivalent of the great rivers that brought growth in earlier times.

The mayor says the implementation of the FasTracks spur to DIA will also play a significant role in the development of Airport City. Modern rail will create a quick and simple link for people to travel to and from the city to DIA whether to work or play. But even before FasTracks carries its first payload to the airport, activity is already percolating.

“You see hotels, the Plaza at DIA; that’s the first phase of Airport City,” the mayor says. These are the kinds of things that mean jobs. And with a long-term plan and a world that shrinks bringing people closer together each day, the role DIA plays also grows. “The airport is the greatest economic tool we have. This is going to happen.”

But, the mayor promises, as development takes place, it will occur in a thoughtful and well-planned way. And that includes respecting the environment. Resources will be used respectfully, especially water, which will always be a finite commodity in a high desert region.

While Denver may be the biggest player in Airport City, it is by no means the only municipality with an interest in this undertaking. Intergovernmental agreements will ensure that the benefits of Airport City will flow proportionately. All will benefit. And all will pay.

In order to provide incentives for companies to consider residency in Airport City, municipalities and even the legislature will have to think seriously about lending a hand. Tax credits, land deals and infrastructure will all be part of the equation. But it is simply the way business is done when planning for the future.

Despite the attractiveness of getting in at or close to the ground floor on Airport City, investors will need to have a better idea of what they are getting in on, says David Cole, a lobbyist who has represented clients with local governments.

“People may not know the actual plan,” he says. Once that is known they may be willing to do projects. “It’s attractive,” says Cole but perhaps a little too early to know its full potential.

Certainly if Airport City is to take off as the Mayor hopes it can, Cole says Peña Boulevard would probably need to be reconfigured. “Infrastructure, roads, utilities,” all need to be addressed.

The main road to DIA now handles up to 100,000 vehicles a day. Major expansion around the airport would put a huge, perhaps overwhelming burden on the four-lane highway. Also, major changes would probably be in store to I-70 where the bulk of the airport’s traffic is generated.

While there might be some criticism over doing business this way, it is not uncommon. In almost every state, lawmakers at all levels routinely provide incentives that will entice new economic growth.

In almost every state, lawmakers at all levels are being asked to create legislation that will entice new economic growth. While this concept is not new, in locations facing uncertain futures, it is not only good business but essential for survival.

Hancock sees the 21st century as one in which Denver will raise its brand in a new and dynamic way internationally. He sees DIA as the vehicle for establishing economic footholds and relationships from Seoul to South America. “We built DIA with the idea that we could expand. We have a wonderful location and can draw on a well-prepared workforce.” Denver, he says, is primed to compete around the world.

There are scores of developers who are already seriously looking at staking a claim near DIA. The recent election may have provided a degree of clarity that they were waiting on before laying down their bets.

If, as the mayor suggests, DIA becomes the most attractive location in the region for new business, it could also serve as his legacy just as the 1990’s boom of the city served as legacies for former Denver Mayors Federico Peña and Wellington Webb. During those two administrations, Denver added things like DIA, Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, a new public library, light rail and more to the city’s list of amenities.

While not shying away from the connection, Hancock says that it is the city he cares about and the legacy, if it comes, is simply a by-product. “We are not going to get stuck behind the eight-ball,” he says. “Cities that prepare are the ones that are going to win.”





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