Eric Lazzari is a Chicago man who has adopted a Colorado state of mind. The native of the Windy City's western suburbs is the executive director of the Denver's Civic Center Conservancy, an organization that raises money to maintain the park, restore historical structures advocate for investment in the city's most used in-town open space.
Consider, he has a bachelor’s degree in leisure studies from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and his MBA from the University of Denver.
Lazzari joined the Civic Center Conservancy in 2011, starting out as the director of programs and events, before he promoted to director of strategic operations in 2018 and executive director in 2019.
Before serving the park, Lazzari was the program operations manager for USA Swimming in Colorado Springs and is the former director of special projects for the Metro Denver Sports Commission.
Colorado Politics caught up with the Illinoian to talk about the future of the park and his adopted city.
Colorado Politics: You've been with the Civic Center Conservancy for nearly a decade. What do you know now you wish you'd known in 2011?
Eric Lazzari: I came to the conservancy as an event planner back in 2011, so I wish I understood sooner how important daily use and programming are to the health of public spaces. I now understand how activation transforms Civic Center while keeping it feeling like a park.
I also do not feel like I fully grasped back in 2011 how beloved and treasured Civic Center Park is in Denver and Colorado. As we lead discussions with the community on Civic Center's future through the Civic Center Next 100 initiative, it is heartwarming to see how much people love and want the best for Civic Center. People absolutely want Civic Center to be a cultural and civic hub for years to come. Together, we will make that happen.
CP: Why are public-private partnerships a big deal? I mean, isn't Civic Center by definition a public park?
Lazzari: A public-private partnership like the Civic Center Conservancy is essential for a space like Civic Center Park because of the importance the place holds for our community. Denver's first National Historic Landmark has a reverent place in our community as a place to play, pause, process, and protest.
In an ideal world, government budgets and resources are enough to support Parks to the standard the community expects them to – but the reality is that Civic Center and similar public spaces throughout the world need more than what is allocated in government budgets. Not only do they need additional financial support, but the 24/7/365 attention a private partner can give Civic Center is vital to keeping the space active and thriving for all. We can spend the time engaging the community in the park's future and present. We can take the time to form the partnerships and collations needed. Our partners at the city must stretch their attention and resources throughout 250-plus parks; we have the ability and time to focus on one.
CP: Now that the pandemic and restrictions are easing up, what does that mean for in-person public events in Denver?
Lazzari: As we begin to gather again, places like Civic Center that are outdoors and have acres of space allow us to do that in a comfortable manner. We also get to decide what was working before in events and what needs to be kept and what needs reinvention. For the major festivals that have historically been in Civic Center, we are seeing a more dispersed model born somewhat out of economic necessity and timing.
There is absolutely a pent-up demand to gather together and be around people in safe environments. As a downtown community, we have some work to do letting people know that downtown is open, safe, and welcome to visitors. With questions on what percentage of the downtown workforce returns with shifting hybrid work models, we have to look at how else we attract people downtown, and active, attractive public spaces will play a large role in that.
CP: All the way back to at least Robert Speer, Denver has appreciated public spaces. Why do you think that is, and why does it matter?
Lazzari: We understand that green space and nature are finite — especially in the core of our city. We have a constant reminder to our west of the majesty of nature, but I know we crave bits and pieces of it in our daily lives. Parks and public spaces give us that daily access — while living in an ever-growing city.
As humans, we are coded to gather in community, and public spaces are the place to do that. One thing the last year has taught us is that most of us are wired with a deep-rooted need to connect with each other and the spaces around us. We are always in search of the commons and places to interact. Public space is the place where we can find those connections with others and nature.
Civic Center seems to be in the news for protests and issues with homeless camps. How do you protect the park's reputation as a public square when it's also a gathering spot for unrest?
The community asks Civic Center to be a lot of things, and a place to express voices and a place to find respite are two of its most essential functions. These roles are at the core of why Civic Center is still relevant today and should always be part of the park's future.
What is essential is maintaining a balance of uses and users of the park. We need to think about the activities we encourage and discourage with how the park is designed, programmed, managed, and operated. Frankly, because Civic Center serves so many purposes, it needs more resources and the attention of our community – it needs better staffing, more shade, restrooms, a place to get a drink of water. It needs to feel safe for all who visit and pass through – and that is accomplished by the community being engaged in the space. The Conservancy is here to facilitate that engagement.
CP: What's your prediction for the future of Civic Center?
Lazzari: As Denver and Colorado continue to grow and public demands for public spaces change, we must evolve with that. Civic Center has a long history of being the place to gather for large celebrations, protests, and festivals – but 12 acres in the heart of our City can and should be more than that. It needs to be a place to find green amongst the busy streets and buildings. It needs to be a place to meet a friend for lunch or a yoga class. It needs to be a place to see world-class art and a performance from a local musician. As a city, we have asked a lot out of Civic Center over the years, but right now and into the future, we are asking it to be a place for everyone, every day. Through the Civic Center Next 100 effort, the focus is on ensuring Civic Center is the place you will want to visit daily or weekly — not just one or two times a year.
In the next five to 10 years, I expect residents and visitors will come to Civic Center for a mid-week evening concert, to play in fountains, grab a bite to eat, see spectacular lighting displays, ice skate and also use a base to enter a world class cultural campus while learning the about history of Denver and Colorado.
Where did you grow up? Naperville, Illinois, suburban Chicago.
What did your folks do for a living? My dad was in sales, my mom ran our house until she passed
Pizza, pasta or salad? Pizza
Do you have any pets? No
How would your college friends describe you in three adjectives? Quiet, searching, sober
Cars, guns, TV or books? TV, unless I have a good book
How's your skiing? Dormant. I prefer to snowshoe, but hope to get my kids on skis or snowboard for the first time this year.
Tell me about your family. Leah and I will celebrate our 10-year anniversary this August. Molly (6½) and Walter (3½) keep us on our toes all of the time. We love living in Denver!