by Charles C. Bonniwell
For over a hundred years there has been no governmental agency in Colorado more beloved by the people it serves than the City and County of Denver’s Department of Parks and Recreation (Denver Parks). Over its history it has been headed up by extraordinary individuals from a multimillionaire who did not wish to be paid a salary to a husband and wife team who uniquely served as co-managers. Denver Parks today has an annual budget in excess of $46 million. The department oversees 30 recreation centers and 200 parks both within and outside of the City and County of Denver. The newest manager, Lauri Dannemiller, has a salary in excess of $130,000.
Entire legal entities have been set up by Denver citizens to assist Denver Parks in everything from fund raising to citizen input. Such entities include The Park People and FANS (Friends and Neighbors of Washington Park).
Denver citizens have always been somewhat leery of what some politicians might do to the city’s parkland if the citizens were not directly involved in decision making. Under Denver City Charter Section 2.4.5 any sale or lease of any City parkland requires the majority vote of citizens, although the Denver City Attorney’s office found ways around that provision under the administrations of Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper.
Some of the longtime supporters of Denver Parks have come to believe that over the last 10 to 15 years the department’s close ties to the community have become increasingly frayed.
Advocacy groups wonder if Denver’s new mayor Michael Hancock and his recently appointed Manager of Denver Parks Lauri Dannemiller will be able to prevent Denver Parks from becoming simply another governmental bureaucracy that is no longer in tune with the wants and needs of the ordinary citizens it is supposed to serve.
Denver’s love affair with parks started at the beginning of the 20th century when Mayor Robert Speer adopted the concepts of the “City Beautiful” movement which emphasized public parks and meeting spaces. Speer considered what he achieved in parks and beautifying Denver to be his greatest accomplishment.
In 1935 George Cranmer, a multimillionaire who sold his stock brokerage firm just prior to the 1929 Crash, became the manager of what was then called Parks and Improvements. He was the man behind Mayor Ben Stapleton’s successful political comeback and was given a free rein to do anything he wanted as long as he could find the necessary funds. Deemed a financial genius Cranmer used creative ways to bring millions into the department and built everything from Winter Park Ski Resort to Red Rocks Amphitheater. He made Cranmer Park one of the most beloved parks in the city by cutting down trees and creating an enormous open space adjoining where he lived.
In recent times the most notable Manager of Denver Parks was the husband and wife team of Carolyn and Don Etter who jointly became the co-managers of the department under Mayor Federico Pena from 1987 to 1991. Today they are viewed as almost legendary figures that brought Denver Parks to new heights.
Denver Parks Under
Webb And Hickenlooper
But a decade later Denver Parks has begun to lose its luster in the minds of many. Winter Park was sold in everything but name to IntraWest Resorts in 2001 by the Wellington Webb administration. In legal circles the ability of the lawyers for IntraWest to outthink and outnegotiate those representing the city in that transaction is legendary.
The administration of businessman John Hickenlooper is generally praised as one of the best in Denver history notwithstanding the disasters that befell Denver Parks. Mayor Hickenlooper appeared to view Denver Parks as something that could be used for political sloganeering but otherwise he saw it as a loss leader in the time of great financial need in the city. He did away with open space whenever possible for tax-producing developments and he sought ways to “monetize” the park system itself.
He also sought to take control of the parks from the Denver City Council to his executive branch in order to limit public input and protect against citizens being able to protest his actions. His high approval ratings and the refusal generally of The Denver Post to undertake stories critical of the Hickenlooper administration kept public outcry over what was happening to Denver Parks to a minimum.
To show his commitment to fighting global warming Hickenlooper introduced the “Mile High Million Tree Initiative” with the goal to plant a million trees by 2025. It is not clear how many trees were actually planted but Denver Parks began simply planting trees in parks without regard to the effect on the park or what people using the applicable park thought of the idea. For example trees were planted in the middle of City of Brest Park at Cherry Creek Drive South and Colorado Boulevard to the consternation of many people who used the park. “They destroyed the park for most uses,” declared Jason Cruze, “so they could meet some tree planting quota imposed by the mayor’s office. I love trees but a park devoid of any open space is one terrible idea.”
In 2003 with great fanfare Mayor Hickenlooper appointed Kim Bailey the manager of Denver Parks and Recreation. She was the former manager for the Chicago Park District and highly touted for the experience and diversity she brought to his cabinet.
But Bailey is today generally considered as one of if not the worst managers of Denver Parks in its distinguished history. It was uncovered by the press that she was taking over a week off every month she was in office to travel around the country and go to classes to complete a doctorate. She clearly saw her job as manager of Denver Parks as a stepping stone to a better job elsewhere in the country. As a result, the physical condition of the city’s parks began to badly deteriorate to the dismay of many. In order to cut costs she began to informally abandon parkland to adjoining private landowners by, inter alia, physically removing historical markers as outlined by the Chronicle in May 2007.
Who Needs Open Space
In perhaps the most brazen example of giving away open space, Denver Parks refused to take title to 80 acres of prime open space in Lowry Vista claiming it was too great a liability due to contamination and arranged for it to be sold to a developer for $10. With no remediation in fact needed, the developer had the property rezoned for a massive mall and mixed use development. Lowry Vista typified the Hickenlooper administration’s desire for potential tax revenues from a development over open space and parkland for the citizens as a whole.
After the scandal broke in the press concerning Bailey’s minimal work schedule, Hickenlooper had to get her to pledge not to attend classes during the work hours and limit travel outside of Colorado on city time. In April 2009 she resigned and took a job as vice president of Urban Centers for Outward Bound USA in Golden. Westword charitably described Bailey’s tenure as “lackluster and controversial.”
A series of temporary managers succeeded Bailey at Denver Parks but the pressure to “monetize” the Denver park system continued unabated. Proposals were floated by the Hickenlooper administration to close various parks to the public and lease them to concert promoters such as Chuck Morris. The promoters would then charge admission to the public park. The outcry of citizens to the Denver City Council, which under the City Charter has control over the zoning and use of the parks, killed the proposals.
The Hickenlooper administration then sought to transfer control of use and zoning concerning Denver Parks from the Denver City Council to the executive branch. That would effectively block public input and appeal by citizens to the actions of the mayor. Such schemes by the Hickenlooper administration were too much for many who had dedicated portions of their lives to nurturing the well-being of the Denver Parks system.
Former co-managers Carolyn and Don Etter wrote an open letter to Mayor Hickenlooper declaring under the proposed change Denver citizens “would no longer be able to take advantage of the constitutional due process procedures” and decrying his efforts to “reverse a long-standing system of checks and balances between the legislative safeguards of the zoning process, such as receiving notice, participating in public hearings and seeking judicial review of zoning decisions.”
Former Denver Councilwoman Cathy Donahue also spoke up declaring, “In all my years on council, I could never have considered handing over my power to oversee our parks.” The Denver City Council defeated Hickenlooper’s power grab over the park system.
The election of Hickenlooper to governor of Colorado in the middle of his second term as mayor cut off, at least temporarily, the efforts to monetize the parks and transfer control over to the Denver Parks system to the executive branch.
The question has arisen whether Mayor Hancock views the Denver Parks system like Hickenlooper and Webb as an unnecessary drain on city finances or whether he views parks as a crown jewel of Denver government in line with mayors Pena, Stapleton and Speer.
Dannemiller Takes Charge
The appointment of Lauri Dannemiller by Hancock in October 2011 as the latest manager of Denver Parks has raised as many questions as it answered. She had spent the last six years as executive director of Denver City Council, a highly political position, and served various other political positions in the City of Englewood and Poncha Springs, Colorado. She has a background in recreation with one of various degrees being a Master’s of Science in recreation administration from Eastern Kentucky University and she was at one time a recreation coordinator for the City of Englewood. She has no background concerning parks or public open space.
Those working with Dannemiller directly in her role as manager of Denver Parks have a great deal of praise for her work. For example Brian Vogt, the CEO at Denver Botanic Gardens, noted that “she is a strong and thoughtful leader of Denver Parks and Recreation.” He went on to explain that in his opinion she has “a vibrant respect for the future of the parks of Denver and she does an excellent job of balancing the myriad demands on the resources and direction of the department.”
But the first and most public effort by Denver Parks concerning parkland has been a public relations disaster. Denver Parks announced in 2011 that it was going to improve the highly coveted Washington Park running trail and asserted that it was seeking public comment on what the changes and improvements should be. But citizens who became engaged in the process claimed it was a ruse and the bureaucrats in Denver Parks simply gave lip service to the concept of citizen input and did whatever they wanted to. Organizations like FANS offered withering critiques of Denver Parks’ performance. Efforts at public relations damage control by Denver Parks, without any substantive changes to the plan, assuaged no one. At one public meeting a man stood up after being recognized and asked why they were even having the meeting if they (Denver Parks) were going to go ahead with their plans regardless of citizen input. His remarks were met with cheers from the overflow crowd.
Kerry Morimoto stated, “I sensed a great deal of frustration and resignation from many citizens who felt they weren’t heard.”
Bob Liebhauser declared, “In my perspective, this was a one-sided, one directional initiative ramrodded by Parks and Recreation. They did have their ‘open to the public’ meetings, but I sincerely question whether anyone in Parks and Rec were really listening. As verified by the end result, I think not.”
The public outcry became so intense that Denver Parks announced in April the delay until 2013 of the implementation of the controversial portions of the new Washington Park running trail.
Denver Parks is an enormous bureaucracy that ultimately cannot be continually viewed as an institution antithetical to the citizens it in theory serves. Admirers of Lauri Dannemiller believe that notwithstanding the missteps concerning the Washington Park running trail she will eventually gain the trust and admiration of the public for the work she is able to accomplish as the manager of Denver Parks. They assert that by the end of her tenure she will be viewed much more of a steward of Denver Parks in the mold of Carolyn and Don Etter rather than Kim Bailey.