Jamie Giellis: Coronavirus shutdown offers opportunity to rethink Denver’s priorities

I have been spending my days listening, working closely with friends, neighbors and elected leaders all sobered by this challenging moment and what lies ahead. This pandemic has shaken us, shedding light on the fractures in our society.

It has also, however, revealed our common good. Our community has united to lighten the load of those hit hardest in so many ways. I myself have spent my days sewing — part of an army of people across the city making masks for our front-line workers and others in need. Each stitch represents hope, and I believe we have every reason to hope that something good will come out of these long, challenging days.

Ensuring that happens means our city leaders must seize the opportunities for change this crisis has presented. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that we live in an “inescapable network of mutuality” and this pandemic has laid that bare. Nobody is untouched by its impacts, and light has been shed on the economic vulnerability of so many. Old recession playbooks won’t work to pull us all out of this together. Instead, investing in programs that help us rebuild a sustainable and resilient economy must be our approach going forward. Housing, jobs, small businesses, food security, health care and equity are core to that.

As we all individually adjust to new realities, we must ask our leadership to do the same. The city of Denver faces a dire financial future – $180 million in lost tax revenue already with bigger losses to come. Tough decisions will need to be made about projects to keep or cut. It is time to step back and hit the reset button on our priorities. If we carry on as before ignoring the deep fissures in our system, we will only perpetuate this crisis. Our city’s leaders must focus on rebuilding with resiliency – lifting up and creating a safety net for those this pandemic has impacted most – our small businesses and workers, our community of individuals experiencing homelessness, our elderly community, our kids. The pandemic has forced Denver to act on issues that have long challenged all of these groups; our legacy coming out of it should not be temporary interventions, but permanent changes.

A critical component to this is pivoting away from big physical infrastructure projects that are no longer relevant, freeing up resources to focus on the wellbeing of the people of this city. This means:

  • Substantially paring back the renovation of Denver International Airport to focus only on the necessary. We’ve already lost hundreds of millions of dollars to mismanagement; as airlines and concessionaires face extraordinary losses of their own, this is not the time to add more cost burden.
  • Halting the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center. The bid-rigging scandal cost taxpayers tens of millions, and now conventions themselves face an uncertain future.
  • Shelving indefinitely the $100 million 16th Street Mall renovation. The city should work with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (one of the major funders) to redirect those dollars to city and school coffers for essential programs and services.
  • Reimagining the vision for the National Western Complex to one that’s focused on community resiliency, particularly for Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. The Complex is now home for our homeless – let’s find a way to make housing, services and jobs a permanent part of National Western’s legacy.
  • Spending the nearly $1 bllion general obligation bond approved by voters in 2017 on only critical physical infrastructure, redirecting the remainder to social infrastructure.

We also need to make strategic cuts in what appears to be a bloated city of Denver budget. Can we reduce the pay of our top elected leaders and political appointees? Can we encourage early retirement options? Let’s take the lead on creatively and thoughtfully trimming costs while preserving critical jobs and services. This is a new day. There is no going back to where we were – but that is not something to fear. Instead, this is a moment to rethink the city we want to be – one that lifts people up first. We should become a place where social issues bear more weight than legacy projects.

As I watch the people of this city fight to stay afloat, and as I engage in gut-wrenching conversations with my 10-year-old son about a return to “normal,” I realize we have been given a gift, an opportunity to create our new normal together. The people of this city are working hard to reimagine the future. It is time for our government to join us.

Jamie Giellis is president of the urban planning consulting firm Centro Inc. and a former mayoral candidate for the city of Denver. She can be reached at [email protected].

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