In-progress Gaylord project already expanding

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Looming over otherwise desolate eastern plains south of Denver International Airport, the future home of the Gaylord Rockies hotel and conference center is starting to take its massive shape.

And as hundreds of construction workers hammer away at the hulking structure in advance of a 2018 opening, officials say another adjacent project is just starting to build up.

Rida Development Corp., the lead developer behind Gaylord, late last year purchased 130 acres near Gaylord for $9.23 million, according to the Colorado Real Estate Journal. The swath of land is near Himalaya Road and East 64th Ave.

Wendy Mitchell, president and CEO of the Aurora Economic Development Council, said the plan for the land is to build additional hotels, retail business and restaurants.

With the sale just closing at the end of January, Mitchell said there aren’t any brands attached to the deal yet, but she’s confident they will clamor for the chance to be close to Gaylord.

“It’s not going to be hard to get takers out there because of the fact we have 450,000 people parked out there every year,” she said.

With 1,500 rooms and 485,000 square feet of conference space, the project will be among the largest hotels in the western states region and is expected to be the biggest in the state. Mitchell said that’s a lot, but not enough.

Mitchell said when companies or organizations book conference space at a Gaylord resort, they often plan on having more attendees than the hotel has rooms. That’s where those adjacent hotels and nearby rooms come in.

“There is a ton of spillover, so that’s why you always see these other hotels in and around it,” she said.

The goal is also to have dining and other shopping options that will lure not just guests staying for a few days at Gaylord Rockies, she said, but also people from across the metro area.

It’s too early for a timeline for the adjacent hotels, Mitchell said, but the goal is usually for them to be up and running “fairly quick” after Gaylord opens its doors.

Mitchell said the hotel has already booked almost 400,000 rooms.

That’s up from last fall when Gaylord officials said they had booked about 150,000 rooms.

And, officials say, more than 80 percent of the guests set to visit Gaylord are new visitors to Colorado.

The hotel hosted a ceremonial groundbreaking in early 2016, a moment that had for years seemed like a distant dream as the project sputtered along.

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.

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.

The project also faced a lawsuit from a group of Denver hoteliers questioning the various tax incentive plans that had made it possible.

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 in fall 2015, the $500 million in financing came through, too.

Now that work is speeding along, Mitchell said she hopes people can start to envision just how big this project is.

She has described it to some as being like Town Center at Aurora Mall, times two, stacked end to end. But even using that local landmark — albeit one dwarfed by Gaylord — probably doesn’t do it justice, she said.

“I don’t think people can visualize how big that is,” she said.