Will Kroenke finally build a true game-day experience around the Colorado Rapids’ stadium?

COMMERCE CITY — The weather-beaten Victory Crossing sign with its peeling laminate stands in a dirt field near Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, where the only inhabitants are prairie dogs and the occasional piece of wind-blown trash.

There’s nothing here to indicate a win for Commerce City, even though the sign has stood for nearly a decade. Instead, the barren field has been described as “unsightly” and “disgusting,” something that “tarnishes the city’s image.”

And that’s just what the mayor said.

Commerce City Mayor Benjamin Huseman gave that summary when he went on a rant during a City Council meeting earlier this year, as frustration boiled over with Kroenke Sports & Entertainment over failed promises to develop the land into a town center filled with retail stores, restaurants, offices and a hotel.

On that Monday night in May, Kroenke Sports representatives appeared before Commerce City’s council to support a three-way land swap that asked the city to give 88.2 acres to the sports, entertainment and development company owned by Colorado billionaire Stan Kroenke.

“You could have shown good faith to everybody involved that this is something your organization is committed to do. But nothing has happened,” Huseman said during the meeting as Kroenke Sports officials listened. “So how can you stand there and convince the nine of us this time is different?”

The deal wasn’t approved.

Now, five months later, the land remains in limbo as Commerce City officials and Kroenke Sports staff try to figure out how to move forward with a development that’s been promised for nearly two decades. Throughout the years, multiple plans have been presented — including the celebrated 2010 rebranding as Victory Crossing — that would turn the 917 acres surrounding Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, home to the Kroenke-owned Colorado Rapids soccer team, into a city showpiece.

On Monday night, Commerce City will once again try to move things forward, this time with an unconventional idea involving a contest for Colorado college students. The City Council will be asked to pay $25,000 to co-sponsor the contest organized by the national Commercial Real Estate Development Association, asking students to design plans for the site.

Bill Aiken, director of Commerce City’s Urban Renewal Authority, hopes splitting the sponsorship cost with Kroenke Sports shows the city is willing to be a partner and that attention generated by the national contest will create buzz around Victory Crossing and put it back on track.

“Splitting the $50,000 is an investment to basically get the word out to anyone and everyone that Victory Crossing is picking up momentum and speed,” Aiken said in an interview with The Denver Post.

Aiken, whose agency is responsible for kickstarting development on blighted city land, proposed the land swap that also would involve the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District. In addition to the 88.2 acres given to Kroenke Sports, the company would donate 9.7 acres to the water district, and then the water district would hand over 6 acres to Commerce City.

But multiple council members grew angry over the proposal, saying the city was on the short end of the deal. The land swap proposal is not off the table, Aiken confirmed last week, but the trade could look different the next time it comes before the City Council, which will not happen before next year.

By then, the council will have a new mayor and potentially five new members if incumbents are defeated in the upcoming election. Those newly elected officials could have different opinions on what should happen with the land.

Representatives from Kroenke Sports and Entertainment and the Colorado Rapids did not respond to interview requests from The Post.

A sign advertising the Victory Crossing development at the corner of East 56th Avenue and Valentia Street near Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
A sign advertising the Victory Crossing development at the corner of East 56th Avenue and Valentia Street near Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Decades of delay

It’s been nearly two decades since Commerce City entered into a partnership with Kroenke Sports to bring the Colorado Rapids to the municipality northeast of Denver.

It was a deal filled with promises to turn empty land that once was used by the U.S. Army to make chemical weapons into what Commerce City hoped would be its shining jewel — a professional sports team playing in a modern stadium surrounded by places where people wanted to live, work and play.

But today there’s a 16-year-old stadium along with a civic center, a police station and fire department, and not much else.

As Commerce City Councilman Sean Ford put it back at that May meeting, the only reasons people visit the area are to attend 17 Rapids games a year or pay their traffic fines.

“What I’m saying to Kroenke Sports is we need to have an idea of when you plan to do something on this land,” Ford said at the time.

The Colorado Rapids opened play at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in the spring of 2007, three years after Kroenke entered into an agreement with Commerce City to build the 18,000-seat stadium.

Under the agreement, the city would lease the land to Kroenke Sports for $1 a year for 25 years while Kroenke took responsibility for financing, construction and management of the stadium, practice fields and community fields.

On the day the deal was signed, Kroenke Sports wrote a $25 check to Commerce City to pay the lease in advance, said Travis Huntington, a city spokesman.

When that lease ends in 2032, Kroenke has the option to buy the land the stadium sits on for $1 and the option to buy the community soccer fields at an agreed-upon price set by an appraiser.

But Aiken said Kroenke Sports wants to secure land sooner to develop an entertainment district and residential neighborhood around Dick’s.

Enter the three-way land swap.

Youths play on the soccer fields between Valentia Street and Central Park Boulevard at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Youths play on the soccer fields between Valentia Street and Central Park Boulevard at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A PFAS problem

The South Adams Water and Sanitation District wants a piece of the land because it needs to build a new ion exchange treatment facility so it can filter PFAS — also known as forever chemicals that are dangerous to human health — out of the city’s drinking water supply, said Abel Moreno, the district’s manager.

Until that plant is built, the water district will continue to draw water from its northernmost wells, which are the least contaminated, and then treat that water for PFAS, Moreno said. That treated water is then blended with water purchased from Denver Water so PFAS is not detectable in what flows through drinking taps in the city.

The district spends an extra $2 million per year to buy water from Denver, which customers pay for through rate increases, Moreno said.

The water district wants the acreage owned by Kroenke Sports because it’s adjacent to the district’s existing water plant and would be a less expensive place to build and operate a treatment facility, Moreno said.

If the land swap doesn’t happen, the water district would have to buy the land from Kroenke, Moreno said.

But Commerce City owes the district land after an exchange in the mid-1990s. Under that agreement, the water district granted land to Commerce City for affordable housing in exchange for future acreage, Moreno said.

Council members have said they want to fulfill their land obligations to the water district and help the district rid the city’s drinking water of PFAS. But they objected to Kroenke Sports receiving so much free acreage in the deal — land that could be worth upwards of $50 million.

Soccer fans head into Dick's Sporting ...
Soccer fans head into Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to see the Colorado Rapids take on the Seattle Sounders Oct. 20, 2021. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

A game-day experience

Aside from giving away valuable land, Commerce City leaders were frustrated by yet another round of promises by Kroenke Sports to develop the area around the stadium.

Over the years, multiple proposals and plans have been rolled out, only for deals to fall through.

The Victory Crossing name was introduced in 2010 as a rebranding effort for 380 acres near the stadium. At the time, potential businesses were confusing the Commerce City site’s name — Prairie Gateway — with another Kroenke development in Brighton known as Prairie Center.

“That Victory Crossing sign’s been out there since 2012,” said Dave Wegner, president of Centennial 38, a group of fans that supports the Rapids. “It’s an area in dire need of something. But it’s 11 years after the fact.”

Wegner and other members of Centennial 38 are fed up with the lack of progress surrounding Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and the Colorado Rapids organization.

For years, the group has brought busloads of fans from Denver to Commerce City and organized tailgate parties before soccer games because there are few options for buying a meal or a drink within walking distance of the stadium, Wegner said.

“We decided a long time ago that we wanted to build a community of Rapids supporters by breaking bread together,” Wegner said. “We made our own victory crossing.”

But a development with shops, bars and restaurants would enhance the game-day experience for Rapids fans and potentially boost attendance because a soccer game would become more of an all-day event, he said.

“You make it an experience,” Wegner said. “That’s modern sports. We’re still 20 years behind the curve.”

The idea of a modern game-day experience is what Kroenke Sports presented during that May 1 council meeting.

Brian Jencek, director of planning with the global design firm HOK, gave a presentation on behalf of Kroenke Sports to show the City Council what the land around Dick’s could become.

Jencek highlighted the company’s work on The Battery, the development surrounding the Atlanta Braves’ stadium, where more than 20 bars, restaurants and shops give people a reason to come early and stay late after ballgames.

The presentation also featured ongoing work around the stadium of St. Louis City SC, another Major League Soccer club, where a retail, entertainment and office district are being built on 31 acres surrounding a 22,500-seat stadium. That district also includes space for concerts and other community events, Jencek said.

“This isn’t just a soccer stadium,” he said. “This is where we become something more than ‘a use.'”

Empty lots are seen near Dick's Sporting Goods Park parking at the corner of East 56th Avenue and Valentia Street in Commerce City, on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Empty lots are seen near Dick’s Sporting Goods Park parking at the corner of East 56th Avenue and Valentia Street in Commerce City, on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

The blame game

While Commerce City has waited for development around its stadium, the northeast side of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has grown up in recent years.

Known as the Denver community of Northfield, there are new residential developments, office buildings, a high school and a few retail outlets. A neighborhood called Beeler Park sits just across Central Park Boulevard from the Rapids’ stadium and practice fields.

“This excites us as we look at the urban growth that’s beginning to wrap around this property,” Jencek said. “It gives us confidence that now is the time.”

But Huseman, the mayor, pushed back by asking Matt Mahoney, Kroenke Sports’ senior vice president, why other developers saw potential on the Denver side of the border while his company continues to sit.

“All that’s been built in the last six years,” Huseman said of the development in Denver. “It’s blown up.”

Mahoney said those developments were for single-family homes and Kroenke plans a mixed-use development, which requires a different approach.

Development in the area is complicated by land restrictions imposed by the federal government when the old Rocky Mountain Arsenal property was labeled a Superfund site in 1987.

To build residential housing, Kroenke would have to get clearance from the Environmental Protection Agency, which could take up to three years, said Aiken of the Urban Renewal Authority. Retail and office buildings do not need the same approval, so Kroenke could start development of those sections sooner.

But others feel Victory Crossing has never been Kroenke’s priority.

René Bullock, executive director of the Commerce City Chamber of Commerce, said Kroenke has been more focused on other developments.

Kroenke’s real estate arm instead recruited businesses to Prairie Center, the mixed-use development in Brighton, he said.

“He hijacked a lot of the retail and commercial development that could have been in our city,” Bullock said. “That’s his part.”

Bullock, who is running for Commerce City mayor, said he understands why there are hard feelings among the members of the City Council, but he is not opposed to the land swap. The council would need to put protections in place so Kroenke would pay a penalty if development once again falls through.

“You can’t hold onto a grudge forever,” he said. “If you see someone coming to offer something to you, you take the deal and make them pay if they back out of it. If you’re going to give away that much land, you definitely want to get more than just promises.”

Colorado Rapids players huddle in the second half of an MLS soccer match in Commerce City Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Colorado Rapids players huddle in the second half of an MLS soccer match in Commerce City on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A bad year for the Rapids

Meanwhile, Rapids fans are running out of patience, too.

“For me, it’s hard to sympathize with either of them. It’s unused land, and it has been forever,” Wegner said. “So I don’t understand what City Council’s hanging onto, other than a payday. But it’s also hard for me to feel bad for one of the richest land developers in America. At the end of the day, whatever the cost is, I feel like he’s got it lying around in a sock drawer.”

The Rapids will close one of the team’s worst seasons ever on Saturday when the squad plays at home against Real Salt Lake. The team is in last place in the MLS Western Conference with a record of five wins, 16 losses and 11 draws.

Last month, Centennial 38 issued a statement calling 2023 the worst year in team history.

The statement, posted on the social media site X, said it wasn’t just the losing record. The club called out Kroenke’s investment in the team’s facilities, saying the scoreboard is missing lights, the parking lots are too dark and the public address system is often inaudible.

“Dick’s Sporting Goods Park is simply not up to the standard of a modern professional sports venue,” Centennial 38’s letter said.

The disrepair at the stadium goes hand in hand with Victory Crossing, Wegner said.

Attendance lagged this year as the team struggled on the pitch, with Soccer Stadium Digest reporting the Rapids have the second-worst attendance record in Major League Soccer.

“If there was more going on over there, it would make everybody’s experience, including ours, better,” Wegner said. “We want more people in the stadium just like the Rapids do. We feed that energy.”

Wegner compared the Rapids to the Colorado Rockies, another local professional sports team with a losing record, but said that team continues to draw a crowd because there’s more to do in and around Coors Field, including at McGregor Square, a development adjacent to the stadium that was funded by the team’s owners.

“They’re punching above their weight because it’s more of an experience,” he said. “It’s a real bur in the saddle for those of us who are Rapids fans to see just one more thing that’s a sign of a lack of progress.”

Wegner said one problem with Kroenke Sports is the organization is tightly controlled by Stan Kroenke and his son, Josh Kroenke. Few decisions are made without their approval, and the two of them get stretched thin with their various projects.

The Kroenkes have been more focused on building out their stadium district for the Los Angeles Rams, which makes sense considering how much money is being spent and the popularity of the NFL, Wegner said. Now the Kroenkes are exploring renovations around Ball Arena, which they own, along with the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche.

In response to Centennial 38’s complaints in September, Kroenke Sports released a statement saying the organization was finalizing plans for the long-awaited Victory Crossing and hoped to introduce the project in 2024 with public forums for the community.

Crews are installing sprinklers at the soccer fields around Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City on Thursday, October 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Crews are installing sprinklers at the soccer fields around Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City on Thursday, October 12, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Finding common ground

Aiken, who meets regularly with Kroenke Sports officials to talk about Victory Crossing, told The Post that he senses the company is sincere about putting its money into the project.

That’s why he will present the real estate development contest to the City Council on Monday.

Victory Crossing was chosen as a finalist last week and needs the council’s support to become the chosen project, he said.

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If picked, six teams from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Denver will be paired with professional financiers, developers, architects and engineers to come up with workable plans for Victory Crossing, Aiken said. Those teams will figure out what density level is appropriate, the zoning and environmental hurdles the property faces, and what businesses could be successful at the site.

Ideas would be presented in April, and the two sides could reach an agreement on what Victory Crossing ultimately will be, Aiken said.

Aiken is trying to navigate a City Council that doesn’t want to give up valuable land for free and a company that will need to invest millions to make the property ready for development.

“How does Kroenke mitigate his exposure? He’s being asked to spend money to develop land and make it more valuable, and then he could be charged more by the city to buy it,” Aiken said. “As a businessman, that approach doesn’t make any sense to the Kroenke organization.”

Kroenke Sports approached the real estate development association about entering Victory Crossing in the contest and then asked the city to be a partner, Aiken said. The partnership and the students’ work could potentially eliminate the perception that one side is trying to game the other.

“It’s important for the city to be involved because it’s a landowner,” he said. “We felt very strongly that the only way the City Council would accept the credibility of the challenge is if they are engaged.”

Brendan Ploen contributed to this report.

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