Big money floods the fight over the Park Hill Golf Course — 155 acres of Northeast Park Hill

All but six of the contributions are from outside the neighborhood.
12 min. read
Grassy yards in Northeast Park Hill. Aug. 30, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

More than a million dollars have been spent in the latest electoral battle over the future of the 155-acre former Park Hill Golf Course in Northeast Park Hill. Yet few of the contributors to campaigns on both sides of the issue are from bordering neighborhoods that will be most affected by what happens.

The people giving to both campaigns are largely from wealthier, whiter parts of the city -- and beyond.

Fewer than 3% of the donations have come from the three neighborhoods most affected by whatever happens on the site: Northeast Park Hill, Clayton and Elyria-Swansea.

The vast majority of money raised -- $911,135 -- has come from a single donor, the developer, Westside Investment Partners' LLC company: ACM Park Hill JV VII. Westside is based in Glendale, a tiny city engulfed by Denver, famous for strip clubs, dispensaries and a rugby team.

Westside is outspending opposition to the development nine-to-one.

In the April 4 election, voters are considering Referred Question 2O. This ballot measure asks Denverites to lift a conservation easement that limits how the former golf course -- one of the largest, undeveloped, privately owned spaces in Denver -- can be used.

The conservation easement says the site must be an 18-hole, fee-based golf course, though additional recreational possibilities are allowed. If voters approve the ballot measure, they will make way for Westside Investment Partner's development which would include housing for various income levels, retail, a massive park and room for a grocery store.

The future of this land means a lot to people in a city that has recently experienced some of the worst air quality in the world and is in the midst of a housing crisis.

Opponents say the development -- which could be built as high as 12 stories on some parts of the site -- would replace green with concrete, block the view of the mountains and undermine the city-owned conservation easement limiting how the privately owned land can be used. Most opposing development say they don't want a golf course. They would prefer to see the land turned entirely into park space -- which they argue could happen if the 155 acres were sold to the city and the conservation easement was amended.

The developer and other proponents say the city is desperately in need of the housing the development would create, the neighborhood needs more retail and a grocery store, and the project, as designed, is a product of compromise that would include 100 acres of parks and open space, along with at least 2,500 new homes.

At a recent rally in Five Points for opponents of the development, community organizer Jeff Fard criticized the campaign for having just one donor -- the developer.

"The fact that Westside is outspending us 9 - 1 is just more proof that they are doing everything they can to put 12-story concrete structures over parks and open space," noted Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb in an email.

He also noted that Westside is concealing its donations to the campaign.

"They are also passing through their expenditures as contributions from ACM, JV LLC (the entity that owns the property and is also the sole contributor to Yes for Parks and Homes)," Webb wrote.

A campaign spokesperson, Bill Rigler, said the Yes on 2O campaign isn't hiding anything.

"From the day the Yes for Parks and Homes campaign launched, it has been entirely self-financed and has not accepted outside contributions," explained Rigler, a principal with Greenlight Strategy.

Thus far, according to official filings from Westside, the campaign has only spent money with "Greenlight Strategies" -- a misspelling of Rigler's company's name.

Rigler, an expert in crisis communications who has worked with Ball Aerospace, Naropa University and Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, formed the company in 2021. He has represented firms trying to turn land encumbered by conservation easements and other barriers into housing.

So far, Rigler's company is the sole recipient of money from Westside: $317,115.

When reporting expenses to the Clerk and Recorder's office, campaigns often detail multiple vendors. That's part of the transparency Denver voters have grown to expect.

"What we feel is surprising is that Westside is funneling all of their expenses through one entity, Greenlight Strategies," Webb noted. "This shows zero visibility or accountability on where they are actually spending their money. What are they trying to hide by sending all of their money to a middleman?"

He described the tactic as "a classic shell game" and added, "we're not fooled and voters shouldn't be, either."

Westside's campaign plans to amend its filings to provide more transparency.

"Greenlight Strategy operates at the highest ethical and legal standards, and any suggestion to the contrary should require an extraordinary level of proof," Rigler wrote in a text message. "The City and County Clerk will attest that each expenditure is accurately disclosed as required by law and is fully compliant, and we refer all additional inquiries to the Clerk's office."

Westside's campaign has stumbled when reporting its finances -- even before misspelling its sole vendor's name -- but things are legally up to par now.

Earlier this year, Yes for Parks and Homes, the pro-2O camp, described all expenses as "in-kind contributions"  from ACM Park Hill JV VII LLC. That suggested they had spent no money on the campaign, which was not true.

The Clerk and Recorder's office disapproved.

"We reached out to notify them that they were filing incorrectly and asked them to fix it, which is our general practice when we first identify an anomaly," explained Lucille Wenegieme, a spokesperson for the Clerk and Recorder. "They fixed it promptly, and there was no penalty."

While the number of donors supporting the Yes on 2O campaign -- one -- appears comically low, refusing donations has been the campaign's strategy.

"From the day the Yes for Parks and Homes campaign launched, it has been entirely self-financed and has not accepted outside contributions," explained Rigler.

And the Yes on 2O camp does have supporters.

Groups including YIMBY Denver, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, the Butterfly Pavilion, Habitat for Humanity, the dance troupe Wonderbound and the Juneteenth Music Festival have endorsed the development.

Westside and the campaign argue the project will bring much-needed housing to Northeast Park Hill.

"Rents are rising, home prices are sky-high, and new projections show that tens of thousands more people will move to Denver in the next few years," Rigler said. "That's why our campaign is fighting so hard: the Park Hill Golf Course represents the single best and the single biggest opportunity Denver will ever have to build urgently needed housing. Every person in Denver knows we need more housing everywhere, and housing delayed is housing denied."

In contrast to the single donor supporting Yes on 2O, at least 212 donors have given to the No on 2O campaign dubbed Yes for Parks and Open Space. That group has raised $112,446.43, according to city documents.

Opponents of the development include the Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., the Overlook at Park Hill Registered Neighborhood Organization, Congress Park United Neighbors, and the Elyria Swansea Neighborhood Organization. The Denver Post editorial board suggests voting no against the measure, and urges the city to negotiated a better deal with Westside.

The top donor to the opposition to 2O gave $20,000 and four gave $10,000. Sure, that's big money. But it's just over 5% of Westside's contribution to the Yes on 2O side.

The neighborhood that has donated the most money to fight the development is expensive Hilltop, which is nowhere near the former golf course: There have been eight contributions totaling $42,975.

There were 19 donations from Cheesman Park, which gave the second most money: $29,500.

A whopping 48 donations came from the wealthy neighborhood South Park Hill, for a total of $17,065.84.

Another 30 donations came from North Park Hill, across Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. from Northeast Park Hill. Those totaled $6,348.08.

There were 18 donations from outside of Denver, bringing $2,290 to the opposition.

Just eight donations for the opposition came from Northeast Park Hill, the neighborhood where any harm and benefits from the development will be felt most significantly.

The total from the neighborhood: $3,150.84.

No donations came from Clayton or Elyria Swansea, the other neighborhoods bordering the golf course, both on the other side of Colorado Boulevard from the development.

In short, 2.8% of the money supporting opposition to the development came from the three neighborhoods nearest to the golf course.

A whopping 36.8% of contributions and 19% of the money came from the more expensive parts of Park Hill.

"Wealthy residents living far from this undeveloped property have spent huge sums to prevent needed affordable housing and public parks in one of Denver's most economically challenged neighborhoods," said Kevin Marchman, a development proponent. He's the president of the Northeast Park Hill Coalition and former executive director of the Denver Housing Authority. "From filing questionable lawsuits to last-minute incomplete petitions to publicly harassing neighborhood faith leaders, the No crowd has made clear that they will do or say anything-no matter the cost to community and the city."

The No on 2O campaign has support from across the ideological spectrum. But Denver Republicans and Democratic Socialists of America have opposed Westside's plans.

"Millionaires are spending big to prevent affordable housing," Rigler said. "No wonder the Denver GOP is endorsing the No campaign."

But Harry Doby, treasurer for the Northeast Park Hill Coalition and an opponent of the development, said he takes responsibility for not raising more donations from Northeast Park Hill.

"Quite frankly, as a middle-class neighborhood, we haven't asked them to donate," he wrote in an email. "We reached out to people willing and able to afford at least $250 donations. The ones coming in on ActBlue at $100 or less are unsolicited funds from people that found us on the web, Facebook or on social media and decided on their own to donate, not because we asked them. Their numbers far exceed the number of donors giving larger sums which demonstrates how passionate Denverites are about this issue."

Doby and Marchman's leadership positions with the Northeast Park Hill Coalition show that even the registered neighborhood organization -- which has not taken a stance on the issue -- is divided.

Data Source: Denver Elections Division

Opponents of development at the former golf course say there's an explanation for why so much money is coming from outside Northeast Park Hill -- and so little is coming from within.

"You cannot always use money as a proxy for support  -- especially in communities where money has to be used more on essentials rather than political campaigns," said No on 2O champion and City Council At-Large candidate Penfield Tate.

Tate pointed to a 2021 election, when voters decided they should have the right to approve whether the city lifts conservation easements that it owns by passing I-301. That same year, voters also opposed a developer-backed initiative, 302, that would have undermined 301.

"The true support is reflected in the extensive voter support for 301 and opposition to 302," Tate added. "An examination of money in that campaign would have shown the same dynamic - but look at the vote. The real bottom line is, only the developer is financially supporting its campaign, and hiding how it spends its money. Ask them to drop the curtain and reveal where their money is really going."

That's what the campaign has pledged to do.

Here's what's next.

The conservation easement will remain intact if the public votes no on 2O. Westside, who owns the property, plans to reopen the land as a fee-based golf course, following the requirement of the conservation easement as it is written.

Opponents of the development hope that a new mayoral administration and City Council will decide the city should buy the land, strike a deal with the developer, amend the conservation easement and fund a massive park on the site. Westside has indicated it will not agree to that deal, and Mayor Michael Hancock's administration has indicated the city would not have the resources to do so. But he's term-limited, and new elected officials might see this as a priority.

If voters approve 2O, Westside plans to fund 100 acres of parks on the site; build 2,500 units of housing, 25% of which will be income-restricted; create buildings for retail and community centers; and dedicate space for a grocery store, should a grocer decide to move into the neighborhood.

The developer is currently in court for two lawsuits -- one from the opponents of the development who are trying to stop the entire project in court. The other is from Sisters of Color United for Education, a nonprofit in a dispute over a lease to the former Park Hill Golf Course clubhouse.

Over the decades, the golf course has seen development plans scuttled before.

The April 4 election will be the first time the public can vote on whether development is a good idea on that particular 155 acres of land.

Correction: Due to a data processing error, we originally reported a lower amount of money and individual donations coming from Northeast Park Hill. The actual amount was $3,150.84 and there were eight total donations. We also clarified the language regarding donations vs. total money. The Sierra Club confirmed it has not taken a stance on the issue -- though it did oppose developer-backed I-302. 

This story has also been updated with a quote from Harry Doby and clarification that the Northeast Park Hill Coalition has not taken a stance on 2O.

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