Mayor Michael Hancock

Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration presented the first look at Denver’s post-pandemic economic recovery vision Wednesday, providing a major emphasis on ensuring equity and investing in infrastructure.

In the coming months, Denver leaders expect to receive a windfall from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a state stimulus plan, city investments and a $400 million general obligation bond program that Denver voters may see on the ballot in November.

“We need to dig ourselves out of this hole and pull every lever we can to get back to pre-pandemic level,” said Eric Hiraga, executive director of Denver Economic Development and Opportunity, at a press conference. “The goal is to recover as one of the strongest economies in the nation.”

The RISE Denver plan, which stands for Rebuilding for an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy, has five core priorities: job creation, support for individuals and businesses, neighborhood-based improvements, government-driven investments and enhancing support for companies operating in Denver.

“We need to leverage the federal government’s investment,” Hancock said. “We need to seize this opportunity to kickstart our recovery and sustain it.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment in Denver hovered at just under 3%. In 2020, Denver’s unemployment peaked at a whopping 13.4%, but it now rests below 7%.

According to DEDO, employment among low-income workers is down 20%, while 30% of small businesses have closed during the pandemic. Black and Hispanic residents also experience disproportionately high unemployment rates, at 18.7% and 14.1%, respectively.

To return to 3% unemployment by the end of 2022, the administration estimates Denver needs to add 40,000 jobs. The anticipated $400 million bond program will help spur some of that job creation while addressing Denver’s $4 billion infrastructure backlog. While there is no list of specific projects to be funded at the moment, the city is considering a total of 5,000 possible improvements.

“Investing in infrastructure is really important to us and it helps support recovery around our construction industry,” said Brendan Hanlon, Denver’s chief financial officer. “Denver is one of the top five metro areas that saw the worst job impacts in the construction industry."

Anticipated money from the federal government is a key assumption for the RISE Denver plan. Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration are hoping to pass the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion proposal to fix and modernize transportation infrastructure, as well as other energy, housing and education-related goals.

Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, already has a wish list assembled of projects she hopes the city will undertake.

“If a federal infrastructure bill brings new transportation dollars to Denver, we'd love to see that funding support investment in building sidewalks on the 40% of Denver's streets that have missing or substandard sidewalks,” Locantore said.

She added that completing the bike lane network, increasing transit frequencies and addressing dangerous corridors pursuant to the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan and Blueprint Denver were additional priorities.

The Denver Regional Council of Governments, which is the planning organization for metro area jurisdictions, has also put out a call for proposals in order to put together a ranked list of near-term projects that a windfall of federal funds could address. According to DEDO, 70% of municipal jurisdictions canceled infrastructure projects over the past 12 months due to the pandemic.

In addition to funding more infrastructure projects, the city is looking to establish robust workforce programs and expand on the existing Construction Careers Pilot Program, which trains workers and connects them to city projects averaging wages of $25 per hour.

Money for infrastructure is also still available from the Elevate Denver Bond through 2027, with $100 million having been added to the bond last year. The city is also hoping to use additional federal and state investments for more infrastructure projects.

Michael Gifford, president of Associated General Contractors of Colorado, said these investments in infrastructure would lead Denver out of its economic troubles.

“Construction starts in 2021 are down 35% in Denver metro from a year ago, so we have capacity for this work,” Gifford said. “Construction led the previous economic recovery because there are a lot of jobs in major infrastructure projects, including jobs for diverse populations.”

Elsewhere in the RISE Denver Plan, the city hopes to institute a range of programs under the umbrella of targeted neighborhood revitalization, including mortgage and utility support, technology access, façade improvements and community events.

Neighborhoods eyed for inclusion are East Colfax, Elyria-Swansea, Globeville, Montbello, Northeast Park Hill, Sun Valley, Valverde, Villa Park, West Colfax and Westwood.

Although Denver has not yet received money from the American Rescue Plan, which the Democratic-controlled Congress passed and the president signed this year, Hiraga said the city is working to determine project needs to assure a fast distribution of funds.

Depending on Denver’s designation as a city, county or consolidated government, it could receive $140 million, $170 million or $310 million from the federal government. The funding amount and guidelines are expected to be announced by May 11.

The Hancock administration acknowledged that its Wednesday announcement is only beginning of the conversation, with community engagement planned in the coming weeks through meetings and surveys.

Beyond plans to spend anticipated money, the city hopes to begin rebuilding its reserves and allocating leftover funds from the CARES Act, which Congress passed at the beginning of the pandemic a year ago.

“We’ve faced these challenges before and come back stronger,” Hancock said. “And you know what? We’re going to do it again.”

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