As he took the podium inside a toasty tent on an otherwise desolate stretch of land near Denver International Airport on Tuesday, Ira Metzner looked relieved.
Backers of the plan, led by the Aurora Economic Development Council, spent the past six years trying to get the project off the ground. But along the way, the project hit roadblock after roadblock.
Amid lawsuits, political opposition at the state Capitol and wholesale changes to the developers and brands attached to the deal, Metzner said his confidence wavered, but only a little.
On Tuesday those doubts were washed away.
Last fall the project secured about $500 million in financing and on Tuesday, Metzner, AEDC President and CEO Wendy Mitchell, Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan and other backers celebrated a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site. The massive hotel and conference room is expected to be the state’s biggest, with 1,500 rooms and 485,000 square feet of conference space.
Mayor Steve Hogan said there are a few projects that define Aurora — the redevelopment of the old Fitzsimons Army Medical Center into the Anschutz Medical Campus and the city-owned water system among them.
“This goes on that list,” he said.
There was likely nobody in that tent as relieved as Mitchell, who first started negotiating the deal for Gaylord close to six years ago and throughout has been Aurora’s point person on all things Gaylord.
“This was the hardest deal, hands down, in my entire career,” Mitchell said Tuesday before the groundbreaking. “And it will probably be the hardest and most fun deal of my career.”
She said just her and Aurora City Attorney Mike Hyman remain from the early negotiations as everyone else has moved on or retired.
The deal seemed to sputter along at times. After the city’s boisterous announcement in 2011 that Nashville-based Gaylord had chosen Aurora for its next hotel and conference center, the project appeared to be the sort of marquis development city officials had clamored after for decades.
But with more than $300 million in city and state tax incentives to be handed to the developer, the project raised some hackles even early on.
And while the plan initially envisioned the National Western Stock Show moving to an adjacent plot of land, Denver officials leery of losing the iconic stock show quickly nixed that move.
Then, in 2012, Gaylord Entertainment said they were getting out of the hotel development business and selling the four Gaylord hotels to Marriott. Hogan has said that moment was the only time during the process that his confidence really wavered.
For Mitchell, that was a rough spot, but she said it wasn’t the worst part. All the change meant was that AEDC had to find another developer, Mitchell said, and that’s what they specialize in.
In 2013 RIDA signed on to lead the project.
The lowest point, Mitchell said, was when a group of Denver hoteliers filed a lawsuit against the deal, questioning the various tax incentive plans that had made it possible.
At that point, Mitchell and the project’s supporters had already fought hard at the state Capitol to secure more than $80 million in state tourism tax breaks, switched developers and endured years of work, so the lawsuit seemed at first like a tough blow to weather.
“That was probably the worst day for me,” she said.
The uncertainty surrounding the lawsuits meant a planned fall 2014 groundbreaking came and went without a shovel in the dirt, but the project eventually prevailed in court. And last fall the financing came through, too.
Mitchell said the groundbreaking is an exciting moment, especially considering all the hurdles the project had to clear over the past six years.
“Today means that the last six years of basically having somebody beat me in the head every day with a baseball bat was worth it,” she said with a laugh.
And she’s looking forward to more of those “this-is-actually-happening” moments, including seeing the shell of the project rise from the desolate plains south of DIA to the planned grand opening in late 2018.
“This is going to change Aurora forever,” Mitchell said. “It’s truly a transformational project.”