Returning the aging National Western Complex to the framework of its original self is what might actually be needed to revitalize the north Denver neighborhood, according to a report released Thursday.
The NextGEN Agribusiness Economic Development Study, which cost the city $ 200,000, found that by providing a framework, the city of Denver could create a global agribusiness epicenter for research. Colorado State University and Denver International Airport are already partners in the proposed National Western Center, which should focus heavily on food, animal health and water. But this isn’t about bringing the meat packers and cattle ranchers back to the neighborhood. It’s about bringing the researchers and innovators to figure out how to steer the next-generation meat packers and cattle ranchers.
“The reality is that when we think of how we’re going to feed 7 billion people going forward and deal with earth’s most precious resource — water — somebody’s got to study that. Somebody’s got to help determine what we’ll look like going forward,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said. “We have the intellectual capital and the wonderful institution of CSU. We have Denver Water. And we have the interest of agribusiness and now, studies that show this is where it’s going to emanate from. So why not Denver?”
The core of the plan is a 250-acre campus that would house private companies and public organizations to stimulate collaboration. The study identified areas with the most growth and job potential, including water and infrastructure, beverage manufacturing, cattle management and even drones used for agricultural purposes. Potato farming also showed a lot of potential for growth. Such industries have added 10,000 jobs in the state but they had the potential to create many more.
“We’re laying out the strawman for the big idea,” said Kelly Leid, executive director of the Office of the National Western Center.
In the late 1800s, the area near the intersection of Interstate 70 and Brighton Boulevard brought farmers and ranchers together.
“Like all things, they had a need they were trying to fill. How do we as farmers and ranchers compete in a national market?” said Leid, noting that the first Stock Show was in 1906. “Denver was an emerging city. We were Cow Town.”
But today’s agriculture world isn’t so collaborative, he said.
“This idea that we’ve learned from our past and it’s now just a new set of conditions. It brings a lot of the same parties together to solve the next generation’s problems,” he said. “This cross-pollination of industries doesn’t exist anywhere on the scale we’re describing. The National Western Center can become this place to pollinate ideas across sectors.”
While the project is expected to take a decade to become reality, the city has already acquired about 30 percent of the land needed to get started. Paul Washington, executive director in Denver’s Office of Economic Development, added that over the next 12 months, the city will create agribusiness-job training programs, an innovation fund and a special district to attract international companies. The special district could swell to thousands of acres because of CSU and the airport.
There’s also been outreach to groups that departed long ago, like the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, which left the neighborhood for Arvada around 1990.
“The association has been a Denver citizen since 1867,” said Terry Fankhauser, its executive vice president. “But I’ll be honest. The reason we moved was the community started to suffer. It was an old, industrial area and becoming more dilapidated.”
Fankhauser wasn’t part of the report but said his group offered feedback. He’s encouraged by the idea of creating agribusiness incubators and by outreach to global companies. And seeing the city’s commitment to change the area into a more thoughtful hub for the industry has the group fired up.
“We’re committed to being supportive and helpful where we can to make this a reality to the point where we stand ready to relocate to that area even if it’s not entirely completed,” he said.