16th Street Mall renovations begin

Denver Mayor Michael B Hancock (center) and other city officials shovel dirt to mark the start of the 16th Street Mall renovation project Thursday, April 14, 2022 at the corner of 16th and Welton Street in Denver, Colo. (Evan Semon, Special to the Denver Gazette)

With its downtown and famed 16th Street Mall still hurting from the pandemic’s blow to the economy, Denver said it’s about to spend a hefty chunk of recovery dollars aimed at enticing crowds back to the area, with an eye on improving safety, too.

City Council voted, 8-1, on Monday to award a $2.4 million contract to the Downtown Denver Partnership to oversee an economic recovery program for the 16th Street Mall and downtown area. The $2.4 million comes from the American Recovery Plan Act.

The city's contract with DDP will run from now through the end of 2023. Its chief goal is to boost daytime foot traffic throughout downtown to support businesses — both by increasing the sales of existing operations and bringing vacant storefronts back to life with popups and startups.

The money will be broken down into five main areas: retail, entertainment, resources for entrepreneurs, promoting businesses and safety.

Although some council members praised the plan in past meetings, not everyone was on board ahead of the final vote.

District 9 Councilmember Candi CdeBaca said she wanted to go on record voting against the resolution, saying she does not believe the Downtown Denver Partnership has been equitable in its past initiatives.

“I don’t think it’s a good way for us to invest our ARPA dollars,” CdeBaca said.

Deborah Cameron, the city’s chief business development officer in the Department of Economic Development and Opportunity, told The Denver Gazette that staff recommended awarding the contract to the DDP rather than going through a public bidding process because of the organization’s long history working with area businesses and the city. The DDP also manages the local business improvement district, another draw, Cameron said.

“We didn’t think there would be any other organization in the downtown area that had the kind of reputation and be a trusted partner like the DDP has been through the years,” Cameron said.

At an Aug. 17 committee meeting, Cameron told councilmembers the economic recovery efforts remain necessary for downtown. Pedestrian traffic for May 2022 was down 31% from May 2019, Cameron said.

“Unfortunately, while we’ve seen some great strides in recovery, we are also seeing some continued weaknesses,” Cameron said.

DDP’s past collaboration with the city included the PopUp Denver program, which was launched in 2021 and offered startup grants, discounted lease rates and speedier permitting processes to fill vacant space at the 16th Street Mall. Roughly 150 businesses applied to participate in the pilot program.

Part of the $2.4 million approved on Monday will go toward expanding the PopUp Denver program. The first round of the program launched five popups and DEDO wants to launch just as many with this next batch of funding, Cameron said.

Other goals include attracting national companies and anchoring tenants to support local businesses by marketing the downtown.

National retailers will be planning two to three years in advance while they scout locations, Cameron said.

“This is the time to get on their radar,” she said

Entertainment projects will include efforts to showcase 16th Street Mall restaurants, outdoor events, a concert series, children’s activities and play areas along the mall, and large events at the Civic Center projected to draw 120,000 people to downtown.

To work with entrepreneurs, the program will provide technology upgrades to The Commons on Champa, a hub for business owners providing co-working space, meeting space and other resources.

A recent impact report produced by the DDP said the Commons has served 65,000 visitors, 11,000 entrepreneurs and helped launch 105 businesses. City staff are also asking the DDP to provide desk space at the Commons for international businesses that visit Denver while they consider locating here.

The city’s Department of Public Safety will contribute some funding, alongside the Department of Economic Development and Opportunity, to implement elements of the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design philosophy. That might include upgraded lighting and the installation of security cameras.

At the committee meeting, Councilmember Debbie Ortega said downtown residents tell her one of their main concerns is safety. She asked staff to engage with people living in the area, saying “they are part of the people that are going to help reactivate” the downtown economy.

“I think this is awesome,” Ortega said. “I really think that this is important for our downtown to have a safe downtown for residents, for our employees, for businesses to feel that they don’t have to keep walking their employees to their cars.”

Cameron told The Denver Gazette that although the contract ends in 2023, ARPA dollars are available through 2026. The city, which received a total of $308 million in ARPA funds, is deciding how to spend its next round of funds.

Funding past 2023 might come from that pot of money, but DEDO hopes to use the $2.4 million allocated on Monday by the end of 2023, Cameron said.

“We are trying to get the dollars out as quickly as we can,” Cameron said.

Reporter Dennis Huspeni contributed to this report.

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