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Mayor Michael Hancock is term-limited and can only serve in his current position until July 2023. But his latest State of the City address, a virtual speech delivered at 10 a.m. on July 26 from atop the Denver Central Library, certainly didn’t suggest an official whose duties are winding down. The presentation was filled with new and pricey proposals, including a plan to build a new arena as part of a sweeping infrastructure package, as well as an effort to increase equity in the local marijuana industry.
Hancock has been all about feel-good policies of late. On July 25, for instance, he introduced an upbeat City Park jazz event paying tribute to the late saxophonist Freddy Rodriguez Sr., who died of COVID-19 in March 2020, and El Chapultepec, the legendary venue that officially bid farewell last December, by naming that date Denver Jazz Heritage Day. And optimism was a major theme of his July 26 talk, which he delivered in twenty minutes.
At the outset, Hancock asserted that “the signs of recovery” from COVID-19 “are all around us”; even increasing traffic was spun as a positive. But while he acknowledged that “the past sixteen months have been a time of loss, hardship and change,” and conceded that the spread of the disease is not yet over (hence a half-million-dollar investment to increase vaccinations in neighborhoods with low rates), he consistently took a glass-half-full approach to problems in the city.
Take homelessness, the first major topic Hancock addressed. Instead of wading into the controversy over allegations that encampment sweeps earlier this month were motivated by public-relations efforts tied to the July 13 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, he maintained that “we should all be proud of the care we provided to our unhoused neighbors during the pandemic,” and celebrated helping to “transition more than 11,000 people out of homelessness and into housing,” including a couple he referred to as “Smokey and Mary.” In this context, he proposed to “infuse $28 million from the American Rescue Plan into our Affordable Housing Fund” and another $21 million from the same federal source “to help our neighborhoods, businesses and workers emerge stronger and more resilient.”
Likewise, Hancock’s mentions of Denver International Airport portrayed the ongoing renovation of the facility’s Great Hall as a powerful economic engine for the future, not a bureaucratic money pit that has seemingly been going on forever.
“Infrastructure is multi-generational,” he stated prior to referencing a new $450 million bond package submitted to Denver City Council this week. The proposal is supposed to “create 7,500 good-paying jobs, $483 million in worker wages and benefits, and $1 billion in economic benefits” by way of projects that “will strengthen our cultural institutions, libraries and parks-and-rec facilities.” Among the latter will be “a new state-of-the-art arena” about which no details — not even a location — have been made public to date.
Hancock offered more specifics when it came to several other issues, including “a new Workforce Historic Preservation Training Program” at Red Rocks that will build on the tradition of the Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps that helped turn the amphitheater into one of Colorado’s most iconic places. And he also spoke forcefully about enhancing fairness in the marijuana industry that became legal thanks to Amendment 64, which he vigorously opposed back in October 2012.
“History exposes an amazing imbalance when it comes to this industry,” he contended. “Many investors in the industry are white and male. At the same time, many people of color are still weighed down by past convictions for possession of marijuana and, as a result, they are barred from entering the industry. Many minority- and women-owned businesses have lacked access to capital.” In order to “level the playing field,” he said, “I am directing our economic development and finance teams to realign a portion of the city’s marijuana sales tax revenue to establish a new revolving loan fund to support these and other businesses. We will also engage financial institutions to compound this funding, with the goal of eventually creating a $50 million fund to help these enterprises start, grow and thrive.”
According to Hancock, “This is no time to think small. It’s time to go big. It’s time to lift our heads up and move forward.”
Here’s the complete text of Hancock’s State of the City speech:
My fellow Denver residents and neighbors:
I’m going to ask you today to take a moment, to lift your head, and look around. From this vantage point overlooking Civic Center park, the signs of recovery are all around us. People have returned to downtown Denver. Jobs are available. Construction is picking up. We successfully hosted Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and nearly a week of events leading up to it. And I’m sure you’ve noticed, there’s a lot of traffic again.
The state of our city is resilient.
We’re turning the challenges of the past year – and there were many — into opportunities. Opportunities to transform our city into a model of equity and inclusion that is sustainable for years and even decades to come. The Denver Central Library, where I am standing this morning, exemplifies that. Thanks to Denver voters, the library is undergoing renovations and modernizations that will improve access and resources for the 1 million people who visit this iconic building every year. It’s an example of how public institutions can adapt and transform to meet the changing needs of the communities they serve.
Without question, the past sixteen months have been a time of loss, hardship and change. The stress of folks losing their jobs; of losing loved ones or friends; of losing a sense of belonging and connectedness after months and months of staying at home — has taxed all of us.
Unfortunately, that stress may be with us for a while longer. As much as we might like to think COVID is over, it’s not. That’s why we’re allocating another half-million dollars to continue bringing vaccines into neighborhoods and communities with low vaccination rates.
Yes, the uncertainty and the challenges are all very real. They also represent opportunities. I often think about the vision of past mayors — Federico Pena, Wellington Webb, John Hickenlooper and Bill Vidal. When faced with extraordinary challenges, they mustered the courage to lift their heads and think beyond current circumstances. Today, we are the beneficiaries of their efforts: DIA, the Convention Center, reclamation of the South Platte River, sports venues, and an amazing system of libraries, parks and recreation centers. Today, we must heed the same clarion call to lift our heads and invest now to create opportunities for tomorrow.
I want to turn now to some of our priorities for the next year, starting with homelessness. We should all be proud of the care we provided to our unhoused neighbors during the pandemic, and over the past ten years, we have helped transition more than 11,000 people out of homelessness and into housing. But clearly and without question, there is so much more to do. Even before the pandemic, homeless encampments were appearing in cities across the country in numbers not seen in almost a century.
You have my word — we are going to continue to deploy every tool available, with a goal of lifting thousands of people out of homelessness over the next two years, including those who are living on our streets in the most unsafe and unhealthy of conditions.
Let me tell you about a couple named Smokey and Mary. They lived on the streets for twelve years without accessing shelter. They were staying in an encampment in the Uptown neighborhood when a Safe Outdoor Space opened across the street last December. They moved into the Safe Outdoor Space, connected with outreach workers, and last month, they moved into housing.
We know what works, and we’re going to do even more and even better. Hundreds more hotel and motel rooms. More tiny home villages, more safe outdoors spaces, and even safe parking spaces. Housing vouchers, wrap-around services and programs that will keep people from falling into homelessness in the first place – rental and utility assistance, eviction-protection programs, and of course, creating new and preserving existing affordable homes.
For every unit of affordable housing that’s built, two jobs are created. That’s why I am proposing to infuse $28 million from the American Rescue Plan into our Affordable Housing Fund. And to get affordable housing built sooner, we will be creating a specialized team to prioritize these projects for permit review and approval.
As I said, we know what works. Our innovative Social Impact Bond program, which has kept hundreds of people housed, was recently hailed nationally as a “remarkable success.” Housing with supports works. And we are going to do more of it. We recently opened new state-of-the-art shelters to serve hundreds of men and women in 24-hour facilities. Our new Solution Center is providing a much-needed option for folks experiencing a behavioral health crisis. And to our partners at the state and regional levels -– thank you to metro mayors and to Governor Polis for stepping up and leaning in.
You know, back in March, we initiated work with our regional partners to eliminate the tragedy of veteran homelessness. The successes we see here will guide us to better serve other vulnerable groups, such as children, women and the chronically homeless. While we’re doing our part, today I am calling on the federal government to join us. Cities cannot do this alone. It’s long past time for a stronger nationwide push to address homelessness. There is a moral, economic and social imperative to correct these most extreme cases of poverty in our country.
We must also address another emerging crisis in cities nationwide: a post-pandemic spike in violent crime. In Denver, that spike is being compounded by the release of violent criminals too quickly from custody, putting them right back in the community to reoffend. This must be corrected. There must be a balance between reform that keeps low-level non-violent folks from going to jail in the first place, and our residents’ safety. One cannot come at the expense of the other.
We also need to keep looking out for one another. It’s been a tough year. For some, it has pushed their mental and behavioral wellness to the breaking point. I have felt it throughout this pandemic many times myself. I urge everyone — educate yourselves, learn to recognize the signs of a person in crisis, and be there to help. Once someone has lashed out or reached their breaking point, it may be too late. For their safety and the safety of others, be there for them, ask for help — because no matter their circumstance, it can get better.
Our children also absorb the stress, and the consequences for them can be life-altering. We have prioritized our new Youth Violence Prevention initiative, which is well underway. We are engaging our youth to guide those strategies. And the Denver Police Department has embarked on a new collaborative crime-prevention initiative, bringing more patrols to hotspot areas and delivering more resources to help these communities address the underlying factors that can give root to crime. We’re also seizing the opportunity to hire new officers who can meet the challenges of policing in America today, and training them to better meet the needs of the communities they serve.
The social and cultural fabric of our nation has been built by people who stood up and engaged when they saw unjust laws and actions by the system. They marched and protested, but they didn’t stop there. Refusing to sit on the sidelines and expect others to bring the change they hoped for — they got involved. They became a part of the solution. They ran for office. Many were elected mayors of their hometowns, to congress. They applied for and joined law enforcement departments around the country. So, here’s my invitation. I want to issue to the young people who have called for better accountability in law enforcement: stay involved — be the change you want to see by running for office or applying to be a Denver police officer, sheriff’s deputy, firefighter or paramedic. We’re hiring, and we would be honored to have you.
Denver has also become a national leader in alternative police response, and we’re committed to staying on this path. In the first year of the pilot, the STAR Program has responded to more than 1,300 calls for people in a crisis. Not once — not one time — did those responding need to call in a uniformed officer for backup. We know that alternative response works. It works at getting people the help they truly need, and it works at keeping our officers focused on preventing crime. It’s a fundamental issue of equity in the pursuit of justice.
We are investing in this approach, adding $1 million to continue the expansion of the STAR Program so people in crisis are met with behavioral health professionals instead of uniformed officers. A new civilian Street Enforcement Team will address lower-level infractions, and we are working on a new Assessment Intake Diversion Center. This AID Center will create an additional alternative response to the criminal justice system. On calls where a uniformed officer may be required, we can better guide individuals with mental health or substance misuse challenges away from being booked into jail, and instead connect them to more appropriate services.
Now, our economy must work for everyone, and this pandemic has made it very clear that it still does not. When we lift our heads up, we see where we need to go. There is a fundamental lack of equity for far too many. The question we must ask ourselves is not when we will economically recover from this pandemic. The recovery is underway. The question is, how we will prioritize those hit hardest by the pandemic: women, youth, low-income earners, and people of color.
Earlier this year, when faced with the possibility of delaying a scheduled increase in the minimum wage, Councilwoman Kniech and I decided to move ahead as planned. We simply could not deny workers, especially frontline workers who were already struggling, a much-needed pay raise.
Denver International Airport, Colorado’s number one economic engine, is also at the heart of our equitable recovery strategy. The Great Hall renovation, 39 new gates and a new runway are infrastructure investments that will create new opportunities for workers, businesses and tourists well into the future.
Infrastructure is multi-generational. It creates the structures and facilities that in turn create jobs and enable prosperity. This week, I will be submitting to City Council a $450 million infrastructure bond package to help sustain our recovery for future decades. This package, we estimate, will help create 7,500 good-paying jobs, $483 million in worker wages and benefits, and $1 billion in economic benefits. And that’s just for the construction.
Building a new state-of-the-art arena, and the new events it will attract, will create year-round jobs and provide funding for community programs and projects important to the well-being of the surrounding neighborhoods. Bond-funded transportation projects will support new jobs and improve mobility, and other projects will strengthen our cultural institutions, libraries and parks-and-rec facilities.
I am also proposing to deploy $21 million from the American Rescue Plan to help our neighborhoods, businesses and workers emerge stronger and more resilient. This funding will help businesses, nonprofits and neighborhood organizations. It will help entrepreneurs in communities of color and it will help families with childcare, food and bridging the digital divide.
In 2014, Denver became the first American city to begin legalized retail sales of marijuana. History exposes an amazing imbalance when it comes to this industry. Many investors in the industry are white and male. At the same time, many people of color are still weighed down by past convictions for possession of marijuana and, as a result, they are barred from entering the industry. Many minority and women-owned businesses have lacked access to capital.
It’s time to level the playing field and leverage the profits of retail marijuana to correct these challenges. Today, I am directing our economic development and finance teams to realign a portion of the city’s marijuana sales tax revenue to establish a new revolving loan fund to support these and other businesses. We will also engage financial institutions to compound this funding, with the goal of eventually creating a $50 million fund to help these enterprises start, grow and thrive. And thank you to Council President Gilmore for agreeing to sponsor this fund.
We will also focus our workforce development efforts on those who were hurt the most by the pandemic. We will leverage local, state and federal funds with the goal to serve more than 20,000 Denver residents with job-seeker support, skills training, micro credentialing, pre-apprenticeships, digital literacy and job placement.
I’m asking you to lift your head up — and look beyond the borders of the city. Many people don’t realize it, but Denver owns 14,000 acres of mountain parks. These are your parks, and we share them with the world. I have a deep passion for our mountain parks and a commitment to sharing the opportunity and the promise they hold, especially with our young people.
For many of us, our first trip to a Denver mountain park may be for a concert at the iconic Red Rocks amphitheater. What you may not know is Red Rocks was built by the hands and labor of young, unemployed, unskilled workers — members of the Civilian Conservation Corps — thought to be the most successful of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to combat unemployment during the Great Depression. They learned a trade, like masonry, carpentry, surveying and landscaping, that would sustain them for the rest of their lives.
There were 2,000 of these work camps across the country. The one near Red Rocks is still home to the barracks where those workers lived. It’s a national historic landmark — one of only two remaining camps in the nation. I’m pleased to say that we’re going to restore that camp for use by Denver residents before the end of my term.
At this precise moment, up at the Mount Morrison Camp, a new Workforce Historic Preservation Training Program is getting started that will provide the same, timeless, hands-on training it offered on that very site nearly a century ago. Thanks to the hard work of our Parks and Economic Development departments, young adults interested in entering the construction and preservation workforce are starting a six-week course. They’re receiving training from our partners at HistoriCorps — to give them not only the expert insight and hands-on experience they will need for a future career, but also the guidance to secure those sought-after jobs upon graduation. The campus will be preserved for history, and it will be a source of inspiration, stewardship, recreation, education and sustainability for generations to come.
When we lift our heads, we can also see the opportunity — the need — to address climate change and create a new generation of clean-energy jobs. Another summer of wildfires makes this seem so obvious. It takes skilled labor to reduce emissions in our buildings, to build more solar, to install more electric-vehicle charging stations. More than just creating good-paying jobs, we’re going to make renewable electricity more accessible to our residents and businesses, especially for low-income residents.
Our Net Zero Implementation Plan calls for all new buildings and homes to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. Our Renewable Heating and Cooling Plan is centered on equity, ensuring that the 30 percent of homes in Denver that currently lack air conditioning, will have it with technology that doesn’t make climate change worse. And we’re providing fully subsidized solar power subscriptions to 300 low-income households thanks to the voter-approved Climate Protection Fund.
We are doing our part to address climate change while reimagining how our economy works for everyone. As our recovery roars forward, we lift our heads up to recognize that these investments will fuel it and sustain it.
The immediate challenges of the moment will try to force us to keep our heads down. But it’s time, Denver, to lift our heads and see a better tomorrow. To build a better tomorrow. This is a phoenix moment, where we get to rise from the ashes of hardship transformed, redefining what it means to be a 21st century city. That’s the opportunity before us.
And we are ready.
The resiliency that defines us, the Denver spirit that welcomes challenges and creates opportunities, is back and stronger than ever before — that is our path forward. Our conviction is unyielding, and it’s built upon equity. It’s a future we can aspire to, and that every one of us can believe in. This is no time to think small. It’s time to go big. It’s time to lift our heads up and move forward.
And I look forward to seeing everyone out there starting on Saturday for the return of Denver Days!
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the City and County of Denver.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.