Cowtown conundrum: Denver wants delegates to see the old and the new
August 11, 2008
DENVER ” This frontier town turned modern city wants to put its best foot forward for the Democratic National Convention ” just not necessarily one wearing a cowboy boot.
Western duds ” like a shiny pair of boots, a finely shaped Stetson and a pearl-snap Western cut shirt ” would’ve been appropriate for the rodeo Rep. Diana DeGette suggested for the party welcoming delegates and news media. That venue didn’t sit well with some of the organizers and sponsors, she said, and they opted for an amusement park setting.
“They didn’t want to look like a cow town,” DeGette said, declining to name anyone. “I thought it would have been a great nod to our Western heritage and we could talk about Western values as we move forward.”
Conflicting feelings about Denver’s Wild West image are nothing new. A century ago, when Denver was preparing to host its first Democratic National Convention, organizers were anxious to present a modern, contemporary image.
“We’re really stuck with the idea that we want to look progressive and modern and cosmopolitan, but we also want to play up our romantic past,” state historian Bill Convery said. “In 1908, Denver was trying to have it both ways.”
Back then, Damon Runyon, writing for the Rocky Mountain News before he made it big in New York City journalism, observed that men walking through downtown Denver were more likely to wear suits, ties and straw hats than boots and cowboy hats.
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But Denverites, some of whom lived through the rough-and-tumble years of frontier life, wanted to give convention-goers a sense of the city’s colorful past. So, they brought in 40 Apache Indians from New Mexico who danced and camped in City Park.
Denver has proved itself on the international stage. The city hosted Pope John Paul II in 1993 for World Youth Day, and the 1997 Summit of the Eight, which brought the leaders of the U.S., Russia, Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Japan.
And still people fret about Denver being viewed as a cow town. “I think that’s part of our civic psychology, it’s deep in our civic DNA,” Convery said.
Mayor John Hickenlooper said he believes in paying homage to Western values: self-reliance, innovation and strength. He has nothing against rodeos; the issue for him was logistics.
The welcoming party was originally planned for Civic Center Park but then switched to Elitch Gardens amusement park, whose arena isn’t big enough for bucking broncs or steer wrestling.
Hickenlooper is eager to promote what is called the “New West” to the roughly 50,000 visitors expected from around the world. He wants to make sure people hear about Colorado’s booming energy industry ” both conventional and renewable ” and the kind of intergovernmental cooperation that resulted in more than 30 mayors supporting a $4.7 billion plan to expand light rail and bus service in the Denver metro area.
“Denver’s doing so much right now,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re trying to show off the kind of flavor of what the West has to offer.”
Sharon Linhart, managing partner of a Denver public relations firm, participated in rodeos growing up in northern Colorado but isn’t sure that image best fits what the area has become.
“The fact is our economy now is extremely diversified, resilient and contemporary,” said Linhart, who heads a convention task force for a downtown business group. “We have fabulous culture and art.”
For Pat Grant, president and chief executive of the National Western Stock Show, there is no conflict between Denver’s Western heritage and its status as a major metropolitan area in one of the fastest-growing parts of the nation.
“People assume an international, cosmopolitan image is at variance with the notion of being a cow town,” said Grant. “Let’s celebrate and be excited for both.”
The 102-year-old stock show, which includes a horse show and one of the country’s largest rodeos, has been a key place for the region’s farmers and ranchers to showcase their livestock and seal deals down in the stock yards. Attendance this year was nearly 674,000, with people from 49 states and 44 foreign countries.
The two-week show in January provides a big post-holiday economic boost for Denver, generating at least $80 million in benefits, according to economic studies.
Grant, a former Republican legislator, had been working with DeGette on setting up an exhibition rodeo for conventioneers. He said they’re still looking at organizing some kind of event.
“The National Western Stock Show isn’t partisan. It doesn’t take sides,” Grant said. “It’s an opportunity to bring people of all different backgrounds, culture, races together. That’s what the West is really about.”