Heeding pleas from state and local officials, Denver’s Regional Transportation District decided Tuesday to approve a plan to make the city a more attractive candidate for the National Medal of Honor Museum.
The unanimous decision clears the way for the RTD to sublease a vacant gravel lot at Colfax Avenue and Broadway to the city to become an open space and entrance welcoming museum visitors.
After the proposal failed to advance from a committee meeting last week in a split vote by the RTD board of directors, Gov. Jared Polis and other elected and economic development officials implored the board to reconsider.
“Without your support, we will lose out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure this amazing asset for our region, state and capital city,” Polis and legislators told the board in a letter, read by the governor’s executive director of economic development at the Tuesday night meeting.
The National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation announced in June that Denver and Arlington, Texas, are the finalists for the museum, which will highlight the stories of the 3,500 military service members who have been presented with the nation’s highest military honor.
The attraction’s proposed location in Denver is just east of RTD’s lot, across Lincoln Avenue.
Denver is expected to learn early next month if it’s been chosen for the museum.
“I want you to understand that the use of the RTD south lot is a critical component to the museum project and will provide transit connectivity from Civic Center Station directly to the museum,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock told the RTD board. “Without the ability to sublease this lot, Denver’s proposal would not be as competitive as Arlington’s.”
Hancock, Arvada Mayor Marc Williams and Denver City Councilmen Christopher Herndon and Chris Hinds were among more than a dozen people at the meeting who urged the RTD to approve the plan.
Those crowding the meeting room at the agency’s downtown headquarters cheered when the board voted 14-0 to sublease the lot to the city. Director Ken Mihalik was absent.
The roughly 66,000-square-foot lot was originally expected to be part of the reconstructed Civic Center Station, but the RTD later determined it wasn’t needed for that project.
The district’s lease on the property doesn’t expire for another 55 years. It was eyed as a site for a consolidated headquarters for the transit agency until officials determined it wasn’t a suitable location.
Some of the seven directors who voted against the proposal last week said they changed their minds after talking with constituents and receiving more information about the financial benefits that the museum would bring, such as increases in ridership fares and sales tax revenue.
“Prior to Tuesday, not one stakeholder reached out to me. Not one. And our information was, at best, limited,” said Director Troy Whitmore, who initially didn’t support the plan.
Director Kate Williams apologized for what she called her “poorly chosen words” when the RTD last considered the proposal.
“I don’t know how many national Medal of Honor winners there are that they need a museum,” Williams said last week before casting a “no” vote.
She said she’s since received death threats and frightening calls over her comments.
“I apologize to those veterans and all of those active service people who I’ve offended, and I apologize to my constituents,” Williams said. “For the record, I still believe there may be better uses for this property, but that does not mean that this is not a good use.”
If Denver is selected as the museum site, “the city will enter into much more detailed negotiations with the RTD and the museum,” said Eric Hiraga, executive director of Denver Economic Development & Opportunity.
Denver has proposed covering the RTD’s annual lot rental payment of about $123,000, although that would be subject to the City Council’s approval, Hiraga said. The sublease would cover about one-third of the lot, he said.
The museum would be responsible for funding the design of the entrance and any improvements, as well as maintenance and security for the open space, he said.
“The use of the RTD south lot is a critical component.” Mayor Michael Hancock