RTD board votes to fill its vacant Civic Center lot with a National Medal of Honor Museum park

And the board member who cast the deciding vote last week changed course.

An empty 'ol gravel pit. Sept. 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

An empty 'ol gravel pit. Sept. 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Nathaniel Minor

After an initial denial, a formal no vote, and then a firestorm of criticism, the Regional Transportation District board voted Tuesday night to sublease its empty lot at Broadway and Colfax.

The lot would be used as a park by a new National Medal of Honor Museum, should the foundation behind it choose Denver over Arlington, Texas. Some board members had objected to the deal, saying the cash-strapped transit agency should try to get more money for it.

But the comment that sparked outrage came last week from RTD board member Kate Williams.

“I don’t know how many national Medal of Honor winners there are that they need a museum,” she said.

That quote set off critical coverage by other local media and, Williams now says, death threats.

Williams apologized for her comments Tuesday night, her voice cracking with emotion.

RTD board director Kate Williams speaks at the agency's board meeting on Tuesday, where she apologized for her comments  last week questioning the need for a National Medal of Honor Museum.

RTD board director Kate Williams speaks at the agency's board meeting on Tuesday, where she apologized for her comments last week questioning the need for a National Medal of Honor Museum.

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

“I apologize to those veterans and all our active service people who I have offended, and I apologize to my constituents, both those who asked me to stand my ground on this vote, and those who asked me to reconsider,” she said. “I am just one person doing my best to represent a very diverse constituency.”

Local elected officials, including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who are wooing museum officials, urged board members to vote yes. So did representatives from veterans groups, some of whom tearfully told heroic stories of Colorado natives who’ve been awarded the Medal of Honor — the U.S. military’s highest honor.

A particularly poignant moment came when Steve Kjonaas, state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Colorado, took to the podium. He calmly looked at her, and apologized for the abuse she’s received.

“I literally speak with thousands of veterans every year, and that’s not the type of people we are.”

“Thank you,” Williams replied.

Under the deal approved Tuesday by 14 to 0, the City and County of Denver would pay RTD about $123,000 a year for the lot. RTD holds a lease on it until 2075. Gov. Jared Polis released a statement late Tuesday, saying the RTD board made the “right choice for our state.”

“I’m glad the RTD board heard our bipartisan calls to celebrate our nation’s heroes,” he said.

The National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation is set to announce where it will build its new facility in early October.

Here’s Williams’ full statement:

Mr. Chairman, fellow Board members, and District A residents: I will be voting in favor of the National Medal of Honor Museum being welcomed here to Denver, and I apologize if my words gave the impression that I was opposed to the museum. I am not a politician, even though this is an elected position. I am an advocate for older adults and people with disabilities, and I was asked to run for this seat to speak for them. I acknowledge that my constituents include many more who do not fall in those categories, and that I need to represent their interests as well.

The threats against my life and the unimaginably vile statements made to me on my phone over my previous vote on this issue have frightened me beyond words. I am not brave and honorable like the 3500 awardees who will be enshrined in the museum across the street from RTD’s property. I apologize to those veterans and all our active service people who I have offended, and I apologize to my constituents, both those who asked me to stand my ground on this vote, and those who asked me to reconsider.  I am just one person doing my best to represent a very diverse constituency.

For this record, I still believe that there may be better uses for this property. But that doesn’t mean that this is not a good use. It is of note that a variety of business and civic interests have contacted me since I voted against selling our leasehold on a 20,000 sq. foot piece of land which is separated from the proposed museum site by 5 lanes of traffic on one of our busiest streets. None of these interests contacted me prior to last week’s vote to discuss the importance of this project or the relevance of the independent piece of land. The information that was presented to me by RTD staff, RTD’s General Manager, and the current Chair of the RTD Board, was minimal and casual. They neglected to give me complete and defensible reasons for the sale of a piece of land that IS NOT the museum site – but that does not excuse my poorly chosen words.

I sincerely hope that our city council, which has not yet approved the funding to make this purchase a reality, receives more complete information prior to being asked to vote on this same proposal. At this time, I’m losing my personal safety over what may be a moot point if the City and County of Denver does not approve the funding for this transaction. Again, I ask that you all accept my apology, and I thank you for your tolerance in permitting this statement.

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