WESTWORLD: The sprawling National Western Center is home to the annualNational Western Stock Show and expanding with multiple seated and outdoor venues. (Courtesy venue)

Downtown Denver Facility Hosts 2.5 Million Guests Per Year

For a long time, Denver residents bristled at being called a cow town, but at some point amid the explosive growth of the Mile High City and its spreading suburbs, many folks began to rethink the label.

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“I moved here in 1982 and I just remember the cow town moniker was resisted,” said Brad Buchanan, CEO of Denver’s 250-acre National Western Center Authority, which runs the city and county-owned agricultural and entertainment complex. “We wanted to be a big city in the worst way and we started acting like a big city. We started doing big city things. Housing came and it came downtown.”

The National Western Center is site of the annual Western Stock Show, a 117-year-old event that runs for 16 days and attracts 2.5 million guests. The site serves a year-round agricultural hub, billing itself as a global destination for food innovation while celebrating old Western heritage and culture.

“We worked so hard to be this big city, but at some point everybody said maybe it’s a good thing that we’re a cow town,” Buchanan said.

Therein lies the vision for the facility, laid out in a 2015 master plan created by the city and county of Denver, Colorado State University System, the Western Stock Show Association, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and History Colorado.

“Everybody’s a cowboy for 16 days in January,” said Buchanan, who previously headed up the planning department for the city. “But it’s been a failing business model for almost all of the 117 years because they have 16 days of revenue and they had 365-days-a-year-campus worth of expenses.”

The vision is to have more events year-round in addition to the Stock Show at the center, which is the state’s largest agricultural institution and has room to grow the January event’s audience, Buchanan said.

“We’re building a number of entertainment venues. Two are completed; The Stockyards Events Center and The Yards,” he said. “We also broke ground in December on a 380,000-square-foot facility called the Livestock Center with a 5,000 seat arena in it and 230,000 square feet of expo hall space attached.”

Next up will be an Equestrian Center featuring a 4,500-seat arena. Beyond that, a 10,000-seat arena with expo space is planned for the grounds, which now contains historic buildings and modern structures alike.

The grounds are heated by the largest sewer heat recovery system in North America.

“We are in some ways a startup but in other ways we are rockin’ and rollin.’ We’ve been doing events for the last year and a half here,” Buchanan said. “All told, its 250 acres right on the edge of the Central Business District.”

Buchanan says industrial, gritty areas are all the coolest, hottest spots now in a number of cities. National Western Center is in good position to benefit.

“How do you make this a place that’s about today and tomorrow without disappearing the past? Today’s history was yesterday’s innovation and today’s innovations will be tomorrow’s history,” Buchanan said. “We’re trying to respect the past but there is a responsibility in that history to continue to innovate.”

Chuck Olney, the facility’s chief operating officer, who came from Empower Field at Mile High, starting his new job last November, said he was impressed with the mission and the event capabilities of the campus.

“There are 15 acres of yards (all with water and power), which tees up perfectly for festivals and concerts,” he said. “We’re downtown but we have this huge space we can activate. That drew me immediately, seeing what we could throw out here.”

The center has hosted beer and food festivals, small concerts, educational seminars, esports events and MMA.

Promoters are keen to book events in the Stockyards Events Center, which has a theater-style, fixed seat auction arena with a 600-person capacity and an 18,000-square-foot show arena with garage doors that can open to acres of space.

“We are trying to make a lot of different promoters happy and lots of people are starting to figure out the secret of booking out here,” Olney said.