You, Denver citizen, own Denver’s parks. You take a walk to your park one day, and you discover a temporary chain-link fence blocking you from your normal path. A portion of your park has been leased to a promoter to conduct a for-profit event from which you are barred, unless you are willing to pay. The event features one of your favorite bands. Great! Oh wait, it costs $75/day to get admission to the other side of the fence. How did that happen?
Hickenlooper's Plan: Public Parks for Private Profit
by Dave Felice
Despite widespread neighborhood opposition and a reevaluation by the Colorado's preeminent concert promoter, Denver’s Parks and Recreation Department (DPR) is forging ahead with a new Admission Based Events policy. For the first time since the City was founded, public access to public parks will be allowed only to those who are willing to pay admission to attend exclusive, fenced off, commercial events.
Ultimate responsibility for this misguided public policy belongs to Mayor John Wright Hickenlooper. When in 2007, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) Live, Rocky Mountain CEO, Chuck Morris, proposed to stage the Mile High Music Festival in City Park in August of 2008, the Mayor immediately gave the go ahead. The proposal by Morris to close the western two-thirds of City Park for up to two weeks for his 3 day inaugural Festival then became a the source of severe controversy. Having already given permission in violation of a long held City policy deemed to be in violation of the Charter, Hickenlooper ordered his then Manager of Parks, Kim Bailey, to come up with a new policy that would cover his “assessment” and apply to everybody else in the future. A“Task Force”, heavily populated with City employees, event promoters and lobbyists, sprinkled with a few neighborhood representatives was given the charge of developing a policy that would validate the idea of “Admission Based Events”. The Department continued to spend money and time pursuing the admissions-based events policy until Bailey unceremoniously left in 2008.
The City cites the proposal by Morris as the impetus for an Admissions Based Special Events Policy (ABSEP) Task Force which has been meeting since November 2007. Morris may have actually been encouraged by Hickenlooper. Public documents obtained under a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request show that Morris was in private communications with Bailey several months before the proposal was made public.
Despite many opinions from City Attorney's in previous administrations saying that closing off parts of parks would require a vote of the general electorate, Hickenlooper's cause was bolstered by a new legal opinion out his own City Attorney's office. Assistant City Attorney Patrick Wheeler proclaimed such a major shift in managing Denver's parks did not violate the Charter and is within the rule-making authority of the Parks Department.
Ultimately, forced by public pressure and opposition from the Denver Zoo, Morris successfully moved the event to Dick's Sporting Goods athletic field complex in Commerce City. In published comments in May 2009 (Denver Daily News), the well-known president of the AEG Live Rocky Mountains, Chuck Morris, said he respects opposition to commercial events which would result in the closure of public parks. Morris was quoted as saying he understood how neighbors would be frustrated by having the Mile High Music Festival in City Park. He said growing opposition encouraged him to look for what turned out to be an advantageous alternative site. “There were some very astute, some very smart comments about parks being open to the public,” said Morris, who himself lives in Park Hill, only about a mile from the east side of City Park.
District 8 Councilwoman Carla Madison was an early and enthusiastic supporter of what AEG called “a rock music festival of world class proportions.” Madison, who received campaign contributions and took junkets to “research” the issue on AEG's lobbyists dime, appeared in a video produced by Anschutz to promote the City Park notion. During the deliberations of the task force, Madison was a member of the Fees Subcommittee. Her appointment to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB), Keith Pryor, has continued to strongly support the idea of closing parks for commercial events.
Opposition to the commercial closure of public parks was expressed by neighborhood representatives throughout the Task Force process. INC and other neighborhood representatives repeatedly insisted that any such policy leasing land to the private commercial interests should be voted on by the electorate.
Neighborhood representatives advanced an alternative proposal to build a new, year-around, festival park in the heart of Denver that would not negatively impact any neighborhood, where admission could be charged and access to public transportation, proper infrastructure and parking would be available. Many American cities have moved in this direction with great success, including Milwaukee and Seattle.
Bailey's replacement, Kevin Patterson, made short order of the Task Force process, calling two poorly attended meetings, basically summarizing the work of the individual committees, which worked in isolation of each other and an overall vision, as proclamations of support for a comprehensive policy. The Department's long awaited policy, absent any dissenting opinions, was publicly unveiled in October for presentation to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in December along with another policy entitled “Public Notification and Civic Engagement Policy” which would legitimatize the aforementioned slanted public process and give credence to the rushed approval of the Admission Based Special Events Policy before the vast majority of the public are aware their parks will become a playgrounds for profit for the rich and famous.
Hickenlooper and Patterson virtually ignored a resolution from Greater Park Hill Community (GPHC) in May, opposing park closures for commercial events. “Access to named public parks should be free and open, consistent with the City’s Charter,” states the resolution. The GPHC resolution further called a public referendum if such a policy were to be proposed.
The Parks and Recreation Committee of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC) organization approved a similar Resolution in August 2009 and that Resolution was overwhelmingly ratified by the INC General membership in September 2009. The Resolution, which was never acknowledged by the Parks Department, also called for a public vote.
Even now, the city continues to put forth the fiction that there is widespread interest. “Increasingly…citizens and event organizations have contacted DPR to clarify the implementation of admissions based events,” states the latest policy draft. And yet, neither the department nor event promoters have ever cited any specific expressions of interest.
Furthermore, the city will not profit greatly from commercial events in parks. The charges for leasing public property are specifically designed to be low to encourage promoters to stage commercial events. This is a classic example of the “rip it out of the ground and sell it” approach to public property.
It is wrong to prevent free and open access to public park land. It is wrong for private business to close park land and charge admission for special events such as music and beer festivals. Commercial enterprises have no claim to use public park property for profit. Parks are public property, not sources of revenue. No amount can compensate residents around parks for neighborhood disruption caused by commercial events. No trendy entertainment or glamorous celebrity can justify taking away the citizens' right to enjoy what little open space is left in the City.
Oppose exclusive commercial use of taxpayer-owned park properties! The issue could be resolved with one simple statement: Denver public parks are free and open; Denver public parks cannot be closed for private profit-making enterprises. That's what the Charter of the City of Denver intended. Call, e-mail, or send postal mail to Mayor John Hickenlooper, Parks and Recreation Manager Kevin Patterson, City Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann Chair of the Public Amenities Committee, and your city council representative.
A copy of the draft of the Admissions Based Events policy can be obtained by contacting the Mayor's liaison to the Mayor's Manager of Parks and Recreation, Chantal Unfug, email@example.com, or telephone 720-913-0670. A Public Hearing on the Admission Based Special Events Policy and the Public Notification and Civic Engagement Policy will be held December 10 at La Alma Recreation Center, 1325 West 11th Avenue at Navajo.
(The author is a long-time resident of Park Hill and an At-Large Delegate on the GPHC Board of Governors. He is also active in the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation Organization and the Denver Area Labor Federation. For additional information on park issues, see: www.savecitypark.org.