At age 47, long-time Denver architect Brad Buchanan found himself in the uncomfortable position of helping a mama cow give birth.
“I had my iPhone propped up in the crook of my shoulder the first time I pulled a calf at four in the morning,” said Buchanan, who, despite his day job in the city, had moved 33 miles east from a swanky Park Hill neighborhood to rural Strasburg, where he’d recently acquired 22 cows and a ranch from Charles Robbins. Robbins was talking him through the delivery: “OK, what do you feel first, a nose or a tail? A nose? OK good, that’s what’s supposed to come out first.’”
Eleven years and some 1,250 calves later, Buchanan may be the perfect city-guy-turned-cattle-rancher to shape the future of the National Western Center, the new name for the National Western Complex. The $1 billion transformation will turn about 250 acres in North Denver into an agricultural mecca for those who supply food or want to know where their food comes from. The first buildings could open as early as 2022. The project is a nod to Colorado’s cowboy past and a return to when Denver was a center of agricultural activity.
But it was also the ultimate peace offering to the National Western Stock Show, which faced unaffordable upkeep on the century-old site and considered hitting the road for Aurora.
“Denver and the National Western Stock Show kind of grew up together. It didn’t feel right for the Stock Show to leave for reasons we felt were solvable and could be fixed,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who valued Stock Show field trips as a kid. “Watching the rodeo with the bucking horses, we didn’t see that in the inner city. It broadened our horizons.”
The new development has many partners, including Colorado State University and National Western Stock Show. But it’s Buchanan who is tasked with figuring out how to create a collaborative arena that connects residents in the surrounding Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods with farmers from the Western Slope and Eastern Plains, and make links between scientists and professors and tech entrepreneurs, chefs and consumers with food producers.
“This is about connecting the urban and rural places,” said Buchanan, CEO of the National Western Center Authority, a newly created non-profit that just took over managing events for the community that are unrelated to the Stock Show. “…They both have to succeed in order for both of them to succeed. And the only way you do that is for them to understand each other, and to appreciate each other, and to respect each other, and to admire each other and to be curious about each other. And they’re not right now.”
Stock Show history inspires renovation
Every January, a parade of longhorn cattle plods up 17th Street in downtown Denver to visually kick off the more-than-a-century-old National Western Stock Show. It’s the epitome of a rural and urban mashup.
But for the other 11 months, the run-down facilities north of I-70 and east of the South Platte River struggle to stay relevant. The National Western Complex is known for hosting an odd assortment of events, including a kids consignment show, a wedding expo and a tattoo convention.
Keeping the Stock Show in town and creating year-round educational and entertaining spaces was key to the new plan.
The $1 billion makeover
The cost of transforming the National Western Center
- $622 million from 2C Bond revenue
- $50 million cash and $75 million land from National Western Stock Show
- $27.7 million payment or land contribution from CSU for site preparation of its 3 facilities
- $121.5 million (max) from the Regional Tourism Act via sales tax increment financing over 36 years
- $200 million is CSU’s construction budget for its three buildings
- Grants and other funds as awarded/available
“The complex itself, to put it in a nutshell, is eroding at a very fast pace. There’s deferred maintenance of over $100 million that exists. If nothing was done, the National Western Stock Show was at a very high risk of being insolvent in the next 10 years,” said Stock Show CEO Paul Andrews, who took the job in 2010 despite knowing the challenge ahead. “Thankfully, the voting public approved 2C.”
Measure 2C, approved by Denver voters in 2015, extended a 1.75 percent tax indefinitely on hotel rooms and car rentals in Denver. That raised $622 million for the National Western Center project, plus CSU tossed in another $250 million (as provided by the legislature for construction and connected projects) to build three facilities for education and entertainment purposes. The Stock Show is donating the land plus another $50 million cash. The site will add parks and open space, restore the South Platte riverfront, add an equestrian center and renovate or replace aging facilities.
The CSU buildings will be built first, with the groundbreaking ceremony planned for the next Stock Show in January, said Amy Parsons, executive vice chancellor of the CSU System.
“From a programmatic standpoint, we have a very rich history together,” Parsons said. “We realized that now is the time for us to step up and become more permanent residents down here. This way we can support the Stock Show and make sure it stays in the city forever and really revitalize this part of the city from February to December.”
The groups working to update the space will all be responsible for events related to their own areas. The Stock Show will handle its January event plus horse shows and the Denver County Fair. CSU plans to keep the ground floors of its buildings open to the public and reserve the upper floors for classes and labs. As for the non-profit National Western Center Authority? It’ll handle everything else, with input from the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and Coloradans.
Buchanan launched the Cultivate campaign asking for ideas about what events and programs should be offered. He wants to hear from the statewide agricultural community and residents who live next door. (Submit your idea by April 20 at nationalwesterncenter.com/cultivate).
“This is also about partnering in this call for ideas and figuring out how do we get food that’s made three blocks over there and sold in our public market,” said Buchanan, while at his ranch in Strasburg.
With more than 2 million square feet of new buildings and other potential development, that’s a lot of events to plan and spaces to fill. “We call them square foot days and it’s like a gajillion,” he said.
Reaching out to the community is a natural for Buchanan. While working as an architect on urban projects, he often found himself meeting with residents to learn of the impact of a new building. Around 2004, he started Freedom By Design, which is now a nonprofit run by student architects to offer pro bono design and construction work to low-income communities.
“You want to leave a community in a much better place then when you started,” he said.
Longtime Globeville resident John Zapien remembers when jobs were plentiful in the neighborhood because of smelters, factories and meat packers like Armour & Co., Swift & Co., the Cudahy Packing Company and Wilson & Co. He worked for Wilson as “a lugger.” “You lugged the meat off the hook and onto a truck,” said Zapien, now 83.
Zapien, a member of the volunteer National Western Center Citizens Advisory Committee, is also the only community member who gets a vote on the authority’s board, which means he’s also Buchanan’s boss. He said he and other residents look forward to the jobs that construction and new facilities will bring and the CSU educational opportunities for children.
“Who would have thought we’d have a college campus right where the stockyard was? They’re not just dealing with animals, but information and water, which is terribly crucial. I see this as a wonderful opportunity for young people,” Zapien said. “I think one of the biggest bridges is the food on the table. Whether you live in Globeville or Elyria or Swansea or Burlington or Clifton or Palisade or Rifle, there are some real similarities that we can work on together in the future with our rural neighbors. They’re the same as we are, they just live out of town.”
The ideas for the Cultivate campaign have started to come in. Boulder-based Savory Institute, which operates the West Bijou bison ranch in Strasburg, promotes holistic management of grasslands by rotating livestock between fields and allow grass time to grow. Managing where cattle feed can positively impact water issues, food security and climate because nature has time to recover, said Daniela Ibarra-Howell, CEO and co-founder, who is proposing anything from classes to on-site visits at the Savory ranch.
“Good food comes from healthy soil,” she said. “We’re proactively managing the grazing aspect and said, ‘What if this ranch also becomes a campus for learning?’”
But it will still take time to convince farmers statewide that the new National Western Center could be valuable to them.
Mike Callicrate, who runs Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado Springs, said local ranchers need to regain control of the food they produce. The major meat-packing companies have consolidated regional operations. That’s made it difficult for ranchers to easily access slaughterhouses nearby. It motivated Callicrate in 2011 to start his own mobile slaughter unit, which brings the slaughterhouse to the ranch and can process up to 10 cattle a day.
He’d love to see the new campus include a full processing plant, with glass windows so visitors can peek at people cutting meat that winds up on a dinner table.
“My worry with the National Western Complex/Center is that it will not increase availability of infrastructure for processing, along with better connections between farmers, ranchers and consumers. I’m afraid it will be just another piece of property collecting maximum rents,” Callicrate said in an email.
Others are still learning about it, like Meg Cattell at Windsor Dairy. “Having a like-minded organization in place so that we can communicate would be great. Even if we just had a common meeting area and a resource to put people together who knows how to get things done. It’d be great to have a clearinghouse for information out there,” she said.
Home on the ranch
On a recent morning, Buchanan was home at his ranch in Strasburg where his family now tends about 1,000 head of cattle. It’s calving season and some babies are just hours old. They’ll feed on grass their entire lives before becoming someone’s dinner. The Flying B Bar Ranch, which sells grass-fed beef online and to places like The Brown Palace Hotel, has become a part of the community, hosting events like a branding day potluck and honey festival.
Buchanan’s wife and two children supported the move. But the first herd — 5 mamas with calves, 11 pregnant cows and a bull — was a bit unexpected, said wife Margaret Buchanan, a reiki master who teaches stress reduction for animals.
“The day he decided to get the cows was a little bit of a shock to me. We weren’t even living there yet,” she said. “The next thing I knew he said, ‘I’m on my way home. I’ve got 16 mamas.’ I jumped up and said, ‘Do we have food, do we have water? How are we going to do this?’ …It was all good. I’m a total animal lover.”
The whole family eagerly adopted a rural lifestyle, even though there were some harsh lessons. “The kids named the bull Ferdinand. He was shooting blanks and was the first one in the freezer,” she added in a follow-up text. “Our daughter was so upset, she was a ‘vegetarian’ for the next two years.”
And winters were tough, especially the blustery bomb cyclone in March. The ranch lost 20 calves.
“We got hit really hard by that storm and it was a very solitary experience. We were alone. We were fighting to keep animals alive,” Brad Buchanan said. “Ranchers and farmers are so stoic and proud and it’s not OK to whine ever. I get that and respect that, but I also know that one of the impacts is the rest of the world doesn’t know their story. We need to tell their stories for them so folks understand what the life of a farmer and rancher is really like. Because it is hard.”
He never left his day job in the city, although it’s changed over the years. As an architect and builder at Buchanan Yonushewski Group and later RNL, he converted a lot of old warehouses into condos, including the Watertower Lofts and Silver State Lofts in LoDo.
Over the years, he served as chairman of the Denver Planning Board and Downtown Denver Partnership. In 2014, he became Denver’s Community Planning and Development director, at Mayor Hancock’s request. He started at the National Western Center Authority in October. He commutes from Strasburg.
“This was supposed to be a weekend place,” said Buchanan, who realized with his family they all wanted this even if it meant downsizing from a 6,000-square-foot home to one with just 1,500 square feet and one bathroom. “It was three weeks and we were like, home. And honestly, it was the best decision. The (Park Hill) house was a big house. It had a lot of TVs and a lot of couches. We weren’t together there. There’s no not together out here.”
Which National Western is which?
- National Western Center — The new name for the new development. Also referred to as the National Western Center Campus.
- National Western Complex — The existing name for the property. This moniker goes away after the first new buildings open. However, it’s also the name of the existing building at 4655 Humboldt St. That building is expected to be replaced in later phases, which have not yet been approved or funded.
- National Western Stock Show — The annual cattle-trading event where cattle compete for top dollar. No change in the organization that handles the annual Stock Show, plus horse shows and Denver County Fair.
- National Western Center Authority — The non-profit organization created to manage events and programming, except those handled by Colorado State University or the Stock Show.
- National Western Center Citizens Advisory Committee — Volunteer group of residents, businesses and others in the community working with officials on the new development.
- Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center — Handling the construction of infrastructure phase of the project. Will be disbanded after work is completed and turned over to CSU or other entities.