Every January, amid the martini bars and gastropubs that line this ambitious city’s downtown, a procession of long-horned cattle and cowboys weaves through the streets of Denver.
The parade is the climax of the National Western Stock Show, which has been an annual staple of mile-high winters for 105 years.
During 16 days in an arena three miles northeast of Denver’s high-rises, luxury condos and spiffy new art museum, ranchers and breeders from throughout the West show off their wares to hundreds of thousands of spectators. It’s a rodeo, horse show and trade show all at once. Outside of Broncos pro football and killer powder at A-Basin, there’s little else that gets this town as excited.
Which is why it came as a shock to many when the stock show announced last month that it wanted to leave Denver. And, to add insult to injury, the show’s desired destination is the neighboring suburb of Aurora.
Paul Andrews, the chief executive officer of the company that runs the show, said the aging Denver Coliseum is just too small for the event’s needs.
“It’s important for us to secure the long-term viability of the National Western Stock Show,” Andrews said. “If that means we have to be on Aurora land, that’s what it will have to be.”
The show has spent a decade looking for a site larger than the cramped 95-acre coliseum. It examined several possibilities in Denver, but each fell through. So the show looked to Aurora — the sprawling home of 275,000 that is something like the Long Beach of Denver, a city that would be a metropolis in its own right were it not overshadowed by its more famous neighbor.
The proposal has sparked something of a civic coronary. Without the stock show, some fear, Denver would lose a key link to its heritage and come one step closer to being just another midsized city trying to attract attention from people disenchanted with coastal living.
“There are some people who say that parade downtown with all those long-horned cattle is embarrassing,” said Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown. “But why be just like every other city? It’s part of our heritage.”
Two advisory committees have been formed to review the proposal — one by the City Council, the other by Denver’s newly elected mayor, Michael Hancock, whose office did not return a call for comment.
When a move might happen — if at all — is unclear. The January 2012 show will take place in Denver as scheduled.
The show has a lease with Denver that does not run out until 2040. It would need the city to let it leave early — and to then issue bonds to help pay for the move to a 300-acre parcel on the edge of Aurora, near a resort planned by a Texas company.
Brown said he didn’t see how Denver residents would agree to pay taxes so a beloved institution could decamp to a suburb. “There’s no way, in my political judgment, that the council is going to do this,” he said. Brown’s been handing out stickers that demand: “Keep the National Western Stock Show in Denver,” and his son has recorded a song calling for the event to stay put.
“This has really struck a chord,” Brown said.
Business leaders are alarmed too. January is Denver hotels’ second-slowest month, when the holiday ski rush has ended and most conferences and conventions move to the Sun Belt. The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has commissioned a study to examine how much would be lost if the show moved.
“We do feel it will impact Denver; we just don’t know how much yet,” said Richard Sharf, the bureau’s president. “Plus, a lot of the residents feel an emotional connection.”
There has been talk of Aurora possibly cutting a deal to give the show site to Denver, though officials there did not return calls for comment and many are skeptical that could happen. Andrews, of the stock show, did not want to talk about the suggestion, but stressed that the show cared about the Mile High City.
“It’s always been our intention to be on Denver land,” he said. “I’d just ask that people not rush to judgment.”