The story of the Colorado Convention Center begins in the 1970s. Built in 1969, the 100,000-square-foot Currigan Hall was Denver's prime downtown convention space for decades, but it wasn't big enough.
Cathy Reynolds, who served on Denver City Council for 28 years, became a champion for a new convention center at the same site. "I was there when Currigan was there and when it came down and lived through all of the wars," she remembers.
By the early 1980s, Federico Peña was pushing infrastructure investment as part of his campaign for Denver mayor. After he took office in 1983, the need for a new convention center was apparent: There was a regional void, and Denver was in the middle of the donut hole. "We were not able to compete because of lack of space," he says.
“Millions of delegates have seen Denver and Colorado for the first time through conventions, and many of them return for vacations, or to even relocate businesses here. The convention center is Colorado’s ‘welcome mat’ and for a quarter-century, it has helped improve the prosperity of our state.”
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
The plan to build a new convention center coalesced throughout the decade. Headwinds from a regional recession proved more of a catalyst than a hurdle, says Peña. "That was the impetus for the new convention center. Because of our location, because of our mountains, and being a friendly, welcoming city - we knew building a new convention center would be a good investment."
Reynolds says that she fought to keep the convention center downtown. "Strong cities keep their facilities close together," she explains. "Moving it would have taken the energy out of the area."
The decision looks prescient today. "It truly has had an exponential impact on downtown," says Peña. "What happens is they want to come back to build a business, or bring another convention here, or on vacation."
With funds allocated by the Denver City Council, the Colorado Convention Center opened in 1990 and enjoyed success from the minute the doors opened.
"The construction of the Colorado Convention Center demonstrated a bold conviction to pursue tourism business, that Denver could provide the best facilities to host many high profile events," says Hon. Elbra Wedgeworth, who previously served on Denver City Council and was president of the host committee for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
By the mid-1990s however, the Colorado Convention Center had dropped from the 10th largest convention center in the U.S. to 34th.
Brad Robinette, senior VP of operations at Sage Hospitality in Denver, chaired the 1997 VISIT DENVER advisory committee that recommended a convention center expansion study. He subsequently served on VISIT DENVER's board in the 1990s and was chair in 1999 when the center expansion went on the ballot.
“Just like DIA, the Colorado Convention Center has put Denver and Colorado on the map. There is no question that these two complexes form a significant part of Colorado’s economic engine and provide the synergies that make Colorado the powerhouse of the Rocky Mountain West.”
A. Barry Hirschfeld, A.B. Hirschfeld & Sons
The bond-funded project was approved by voters in 1999. "It was a significant victory for the city," says Robinette.
He credits strong mayoral and City Council leadership, as well as his fellow board members. "It's a very diverse and broad board," says Robinette. "That's part of the power of Denver's hospitality community - the strength of the board."
The vision for the expansion: make it possible for one convention to set up or tear down during another event at the facility. "The expansion allowed us to do conventions back to back and drive more room nights," says Robinette. In essence, by doubling the size of the convention center, the expansion tripled the number of events it could handle. "That certainly has panned out for Denver."
"The decision to expand the convention center was based on input from meeting professionals across the country as well as Denver's potential to emerge as a major destination city," says Eugene Dilbeck, president of VISIT DENVER from 1993 to 2003. "The result was a substantial public investment in downtown meeting facilities that spurred both significant private investment and cultural development that has elevated Denver to become one of America's elite destination cities."
Another critical element was the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center, which opened in 2005, a year after the expansion opened in 2004. "If you're bringing in a convention and you've got 10,000 delegates," says Robinette, "You're going to need a hotel that can serve as your headquarters."
The opportunities for exploration in all directions make Colorado ideal for "pre- and post-convention activities," Robinette adds. And the Colorado Convention Center continues to serve as an anchor for downtown. As Reynolds puts it: "It's not just an exhibit hall with an auditorium attached. It's a huge piece of the downtown economy and downtown life."
Albus Brooks, former Denver City Council member, views the center not only as a major component of the local economy, but also an important contributor to Denver's international business. "The Colorado Convention Center places Denver on the world stage, serving more than a million visitors each year, as well as acting as an international first step into the Rockies and a gateway to our communities and our unique culture," he says.
"When I was elected mayor in 1991, I was constantly asked the question 'What city do you want Denver to be like? New York? Chicago? San Francisco, Atlanta or others?' I said none of the above. I want people in those cities and others to wish they lived in Denver. Part of what makes a city great is being a top tier convention destination with a state-of-the-art convention center. To achieve that, we had to add the Hyatt Regency hotel, which brought more business to Denver, spurred growth in construction of other hotel rooms and created many new jobs. To be a great meeting destination, you also need a great airport, a city of diversity and a city that offers sports, arts and culture and great destination appeal. I think we have now accomplished the goal that I had in 1991."
Wellington E. Webb
"For 25 years, the Colorado Convention Center has been an economic driver and job creator for the city, the state and the region. It has given both the U.S. and the world reasons to visit The Mile High City. Our plans are to ensure that Denver continues to be regarded as a top convention destination for at least another 25 years. We have completed a year-long study to show us how to keep the center competitive and are now in the process of creating an innovative master plan to enhance this building and generate more revenue – and more reasons to keep coming – than ever before."
Michael B. Hancock