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INSIGHTS | A decade after the DNC in Denver, the city says no thanks

Author: Joey Bunch - August 27, 2018 - Updated: September 13, 2018

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In this Aug. 28, 2008, file photo, then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he prepares to address the Democratic National Convention at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver (AP Photo/Scott Andrews and Chuck Kennedy, Pool – file)

Barack Obama electrified a Denver stadium filled with 84,000 Democrats who were a mile high on hope and dreams on Aug. 28 a decade ago.

The senator from Illinois had clinched the nomination the day before at the Pepsi Center, when one-time challenger Hillary Clinton interrupted the nominating roll call to move that Obama be the choice by acclamation, unifying the party.

Obama made history and told his story in the stadium that was then called Invesco Field at Mile High.

“It is that promise that has always set this country apart — that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well,” he said in a cadence the nation would grow accustomed to over the next eight years.

“That’s why I stand here tonight.”

> RELATED: Democratic National Convention in Denver: A look back 10 years later

Before 2008, Denver’s hadn’t hosted a major party convention since 1908, when Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who assailed corporate power and ultimately lost his third attempt to become president.

But the nominee won’t stand here again in 2020, or possibly ever.

In June the city pulled its name off the short list for the 2020 DNC, because the dates chosen for the convention clashed with a full schedule of events already set two years out. The city would lose $45 million to cancellations, the mayor’s office said.

Fair enough; that’s a lot of money and inconvenience. But it doesn’t square with what we were told 10 years ago by our leaders.

In 2008, the Convention Host Committee raised and spent about $54 million on goods and services in Denver. It predicted, however, that the tens of thousands of visitors would return an economic impact up to $200 million from direct spending alone.

I’m not great at math, but $45 million in losses versus $200 million (in 2008 money) in direct spending from the DNC still seems like a good deal, if what we were told a decade ago actually panned out.

Moreover, local dollars made up only a piece of the $54 million investment to bring  the convention to town.

> RELATED: Democrats scale back the power of superdelegates at the 2020 convention

In a post-convention report, the Host Committee said 79 percent of the private donors were from out of state, yet most of the businesses that benefited from those dollars were Colorado-based companies.

For instance, the Denver branch of New York-based Turner Construction Co. earned $10.9 million to put up and take down the elaborate stages and the convention spent $7.9 million to use the Pepsi Center for three days. Denver’s Epicurean Catering made $1 million.

I had friends who rented out their homes for three days and used the windfall on their own vacations and bills.

Ten years ago, economic-development officials said they hoped the worldwide attention would deliver long-term economic benefits. And for whatever reason, good leadership or good luck, Denver certainly bounced back faster than other cities from the recession that was bearing down in 2008.

“It is the world stage,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told me via text. “If people don’t know about your new airport, your light rail system, your revitalized downtown you are not getting much benefit. A national political convention is a celebration of all of the city’s achievements and successes.”

That sounds like something to be proud of. Thanks, Obama.

“The real benefit is marketing Denver and the region as this progressive city where the residents are [positive], a city of doers that loves collaboration and wants to do more business in the world,” Richard Scharf, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Denver Business Journal in 2008. “We’ve really established ourselves as a big city.”

Have we? The Business Journal talked in 2008 to major-event economists who warned Denver about buying into the hype.

“A small positive bounce is probably the best you can hope for,” buzzkiller Allen Sanderson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, cautioned back then.

Conventions give a boost in direct spending, but it’s not all gains, or money that couldn’t be made off other conventions that could come to Denver  without the protesters and potential for terrorism.

“There’s a tendency to look just at one side of the ledger,” Sanderson said then.

Denver leaders apparently looked at both sides this time around.

There’s also a very human cost to Denver’s decision to snub the 2020 convention.

For Hickenlooper, who’s mulling a run for president, one would think he would be ecstatic for the chance, however small, to accept the nomination in his city and give that big speech in the footsteps of Obama. I asked the governor’s office if Hick might be disappointed, but they laughed me off. I tend to ask if he’s running for president a lot.

For most of the people who live in Denver, these major events can be major annoyances, including traffic jams, packed restaurants and parking lots, plus a driver of growth that drives up home prices.

But it’s not as if Colorado leaders don’t have stars in their eyes.

They are pondering whether to bid for a future Winter Olympics. An exploratory committee in June said voters should ultimately decide. There exists the fact that voters rejected the Winter Games in 1976, because of the costs, congestion and overwhelming development it could bring.

I question whether the International Olympic Committee might hold Denver’s fickle past against its future prospects.

The same also could be true of Denver ever getting a chance to host a major party convention again.

But when those leaders start making promises and projections about the riches and long-term benefits, the question becomes, would they make those promises again a decade?

Denverites have learned what political promises are worth.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.