Rooted in history, the future National Western Center dates to the origins of Denver, when travelers settled at the foot of the mountains and found fertile ground and opportunity on the banks of the South Platte River. In time, rail lines crisscrossed through the city, bringing new advantages and ideas to the settlers of the West. With rail came a booming cattle industry that thrived off the central location of Denver for trade, and the open range and rich mountain soil for cultivation.
In 1881, the Denver Union Stock Yard Company was founded as a central unit of sale and commerce in Denver.The site of the young organization, which will evolve into the National Western Center in the years to come, had three major rail lines running parallel to the South Platte River, making it the ideal location for a bustling livestock market. The burgeoning cattle industry at this location quickly necessitated the construction practical structures such as stock pens, an elevated viewing walkway, and an animal transport bridge across the South Platte River.
In 1898, the first portion of the Denver Union Stock Yard Exchange Building was constructed, with subsequent additions added in 1916 and 1918. Facing the railroad tracks and originally surrounded by cattle pens, this prominent four-story brick and stone building was the center of stockyard and stock show operations. The building housed the offices of the Denver Union Stock Yard Company, as well as a newspaper, restaurant, bank, the Colorado State Farm Bureau, and the local office of the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Finished in the Beaux Arts Classical style, the building presented a grandiose formality and was highly visible from adjoining areas and professed the livestock industry’s wealth and stature in the community.
Trainloads of cattle, sheep, and swine rolled into the site seven days a week, 24 hours a day to be sold and traded in the active marketplace. The buzz surrounding the crowded yards was comparable to what can now be found at the New York Stock Exchange and other large markets of trade, where small and large businesses converge in the spirit of agribusiness.
Packing plants and smelters quickly joined the lineup on the site, surrounding the yards and capitalizing on the bustling industry. The largest, Colorado Packing and Provisions Company, later known as Armour & Company, expanded rapidly north of the sheep barns and experienced huge financial success in the early 1900s. While most of the Complex was razed in 1987, the 1917 Armour & Company Office Building and water tower remain to this day.
As the livestock industry continued to grow and prosper into the new century, the blossoming region saw an increasing need for a stock show worthy of the rapidly expanding market. In 1906, the Denver Livestock Exchange hosted its first “official” Western Livestock Show under a circus big top tent. Spectators, buyers, and sellers flooded to the site for the occasion, filling the yards to capacity and selling some of the highest priced bulls in the country. From the beginning, these annual events were wildly successful, and it was quickly decided that a more permanent structure was required to carry on with the annual show, and so the National Amphitheater and Livestock Pavilion came to life in 1909. The large structure was a marvel of its time, with its interior steel columns and long beams providing a large open arena surrounded by seating for up to 6,000 people. The brick Neoclassical style building, with its decorative masonry patterns and corner towers, proclaimed its permanence and physical presence to the community.
The National Western Stock Show (NWSS) continued to grow and prosper throughout the early 1900s, bringing people from across the world together annually to the livestock exchange of the year in a social, interactive event. The stockyards continued to thrive through the Great Depression and each of the World Wars. It wasn’t until 1950 when the national livestock market and the success of the Denver Livestock Exchange began to falter. Buying and selling trends began to shift to favor smaller feedlots away from the big cities and thus, further away from Denver.
As daily activities in the yards began to slow, greater emphasis was placed upon the National Western Stock Show, which was running stronger than ever. By the post-World War II era, stock show events had outgrown the original arena. Work began on a larger Denver Coliseum in 1949. Completed in 1951, the concrete barrel vault structure designed by architect Roland Linder, was modern in style, exuding confidence in the Stock Show’s future. An enclosed concrete walkway structure crossing East 46th Avenue was constructed with the Coliseum to connect it to the remainder of the Stock Show facilities to the north.
The stockyards weren’t the only industry to flock to what is now the future site of the National Western Center. Other railroad-reliant industries, such as ore smelters, found the area equally attractive and quickly expanded the industrial sector of Denver alongside the livestock industry. Communities such as Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville (formerly Holdenville) arose to house and accommodate the influx of industrial and meatpacking workers and their families.
To the east grew the diverse communities of Elyria and Swansea. Elyria was incorporated in 1890, immediately east of the present stockyards, which today borders Brighton Boulevard and the eastern boundary of the National Western Center Campus. Swansea sits beyond Elyria, east of York Street and was founded in 1870.
These regions were originally occupied by Slavic immigrants who were within walking distance to work in the industrial and meat packing plants. These growing communities built schools, churches, and neighborhood stores that were accessible and welcoming to the newcomers in the area. On the opposite side of the future National Western Center, to the west of the South Platte River, is the community of Globeville. This region was originally established in 1891 to provide homes for the workers of the Holden Smelter, and the area was home to many Polish immigrants in its early years.
Together, the stockyards, meat packing plants, and smelters created a strong and bustling economic center in the early 1900s, enabling the vibrant and resilient surrounding residential communities to grow and flourish for many years. Expansions in all three communities continued throughout World Wars I and II, and population shifts brought greater diversification and a strong Latino population and influence to the area.
These historic neighborhoods proved their resilience through industrial shifts that brought new challenges in the mid-1900s. Greater automation and the relocation of meat packing plants out of the city meant lost jobs and changing economies in the region. The physical landscape experienced a shift, too, with the construction of Interstate 70 in 1964. The demographics also changed. Currently, Globeville’s population is 68% Hispanic and Elyria Swansea’s population is 81% Hispanic. The community continues to be welcoming to immigrants and pride themselves on being family friendly. Learn more about the neighborhoods through the Denver Public Library.
Despite drastic changes, individuals in these communities resolved to revitalize their corner of Denver. The historic buildings and features that remain on the National Western Center site directly tell the story of the stockyard and early show days. These same features also tell the story of the surrounding residential neighborhoods as longstanding landmarks of community and prosperity.
As the days of flooded stock yards and daily livestock trades began to fade from memory, transformations were made to the site to allow for the expansion and progress of the National Western Stock Show. New facilities added between 1973 and 1995 allowed for growth and modernization into diverse areas of agriculture. The addition of the Hall of Education, Beef Palace and the National Western Club in 1973, the Expo Hall and Stadium Hall in 1991, and the Events Center, paddock and Horse Barn in 1995 all brought new visitors and opportunities for the complex. Improved access was aided by the reconstruction of the I-70 viaduct west of Brighton Boulevard in 2000.
By June of 2011, the NWSS had outgrown its current facilities and was exploring new options outside of Denver County. The inauguration of a new Mayor, Michael B. Hancock, and this identification of a potential relocation out of Denver was the catalyst for a renewed study that looked at the existing National Western Complex site to identify both its shortcomings and its potential. Using the information gathered in this study, the NWSS released a business plan in December 2011 that was reviewed by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA).
The business plan and subsequent review by DURA provided important guidance as to the strategic planning regarding the NWSS, offering a baseline understanding of the operations of the Western Stock Show Association, the facilities necessary to support the production of the annual NWSS and financial implications related to the proposed relocation and improvements of these facilities. Additionally, the report integrated the City’s desired outcomes for redeveloping of the current Complex.
After consideration of DURA’s review, and with the support of the City of Denver, the National Western Stock Show announced its intention to remain in Denver in November 2012. Shortly after the announcement, the NWSS assembled multiple committees to begin to develop their program needs for a new NWSS at the current location.
To further examine long-term positioning for the National Western Stock Show, National Western Complex, Denver Coliseum, and Colorado Convention Center, Visit Denver, Western Stock Show Association and Denver Arts and Venues conducted the Denver Feasibility Study, directed by the Strategic Advisory Group (SAG), published in May 2014.
The Feasibility Study identified the National Western Stock Show as the “Super Bowl” of stock shows — a premier livestock industry event. Study results also found a high level of dissatisfaction among users due to the age and deficiencies of the facilities, many of which are technically obsolete and when combined with the poor site logistics, restrict the level of utilization for events both during the National Western Stock Show and year-round. The study suggested that with new and adaptively reused facilities, organized in a more functional master plan, Denver could realize greater utilization and facility impact. Key projections of the study included:
Preliminary recommendations from the SAG study were used as a guide in the formation of the 2015 Master Plan, and included evaluating the strategic opportunity to be a national competitor for large horse shows and other multi-use, year round event opportunities.
At this time, several founding partners were committed to developing the new vision for a future campus, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013. The founding partners include the City and County of Denver, Western Stock Show Association, Colorado State University, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and History Colorado.
The founding partners engaged in the planning efforts to develop the master plan after the SAG report was published. The Western Stock Show Association created the National Western Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) consisting of residents, business representatives and property owners from the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods, non-profits serving the adjacent neighborhoods, and other interested stakeholders. The CAC was instrumental in creating the new vision for the future National Western Center. In addition, the master plan process also included the community at large.
In March 2015, the National Western Center Master Plan was adopted by Denver City Council to advance the vision of the National Western Center. This document established the long-range vision, guiding principles, and goals for the redevelopment of the National Western Complex and Denver Coliseum, and revitalization of the historic region of Denver. In October 2015, the Western Stock Show Association, Colorado State University System, and the City and County of Denver signed a non-binding term sheet including governance and financial commitments from each partner to begin formally working together to move the project forward.
That November, Denver voters overwhelmingly passed measure 2C which authorized City funding for Phase 1 and 2 of the master plan. In this measure, Denver voters approved the issuance of bonds or other obligations in an amount not to exceed $778 million dollars from a 1.75% tourism tax on hotel rooms and rental cars. The revenue from these taxes will to be divided between the National Western Center redevelopment and improvements to the Colorado Convention Center.
At the end of 2015, the State of Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade also awarded the City and County of Denver with a grant from the Regional Tourism Act worth $1.21 million. This funding is specific to tourism elements of the future site.
The project’s founding partners have continued to prepare the site for redevelopment. In 2016, the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center was formed to lead the efforts of the new campus. In 2017, the project also saw the initial process of land acquisition and site preparation for the Phases I and II outlined in the Master Plan, and the signing of a Framework Agreement to form the project governing authority, the National Western Center Authority, and set the stage for future success of the National Western Center.
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