The Engine of Urban Transformation

The restored lobby in Denver’s Union Station.

By Evan Sparks
Photos by Aaron Hoffman

In the mid-1990s, historical preservationist Dana Crawford and hotelier Walter Isenberg found themselves getting a martini in Denver’s Oxford Hotel. Located in the historic Lower Downtown, or “LoDo,” area, the Oxford is Denver’s oldest hotel, and Crawford and Isenberg had just teamed up on a restoration of the property.

“Let’s walk across the street,” Crawford told Isenberg. They walked into Denver’s Union Station. Lit dimly with fluorescent lights hung from the vaulted ceiling, the boarded-up walls penned in the handful of passengers waiting for a train that came just twice a day.

The building was “crumbling, really,” reflects Isenberg. It was “a pretty depressing place. And she turned to me and she said, ‘One day we’re going to turn this into a hotel.’” They began spinning a bigger vision for the dilapidated space—a vision of the great hall as “Denver’s living room—the idea that Denver, the citizens of Denver, Metro Denver, frankly, would own this place. And they could invite their friends and family and guests from out of town to come into their living room and enjoy our city.”

Two decades later, Union Station is alive. The main waiting room has become less living room for downtown Denver and more family room. Bars, shops and restaurants surround a space with comfortable couches, chairs, tables—even shuffleboard. Travelers wait for the train to the airport; business deals are made; families on their way to a sporting event catch a quick bite to eat. The furnishings—rich brown wood and leather with brushed brass accents—feel fresh and modern but nod to Union Station’s past.

All around the main waiting area, one-time railroad offices have been converted to luxe hotel rooms with historic features. (The Union Station waiting area is actually the lobby of the 112-room Crawford Hotel, the only hotel in America in an operating train station—but train passengers and the general public get to enjoy it too.) The station hosts 10 restaurants and bars, from Snooze, which wakes up its guests with chiles verdes eggs benedict, to high-end oyster restaurant Stoic & Genuine.

Developers often like to talk about all the ancillary investment a project will bring, but at Union Station you can see it. To the northwest, just beyond the swooping train shed on a reclaimed rail yard, are a dozen city blocks of brand new housing and commercial development. From 2012 to 2017, downtown Denver saw $5.3 billion in total development projects completed or under construction. Of the 87 projects tracked by the Downtown Denver Partnership, 33 are within a 10-minute walk from Union Station. Nothing else in Denver is such a magnet for investment and growth.

And none of it could have happened without banks.

Watch the eight-minute documentary about the Denver story:

Arresting a terminal illness

Like Union Station, Denver’s LoDo area had become a neglected skid row by the late 1980s. Investment had shifted east toward the modern downtown skyscrapers, and businesses were located in Denver’s far-flung suburbs. The economy was driven by oil and gas, and the city went through an economic rough patch.

Bit by bit, preservationists and entrepreneurs grew interested in the historic warehouses and brick buildings in LoDo. There was the Oxford Hotel. In 1988, a group of brewers that included future Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper opened Wynkoop Brewing across the street from Union Station. “And we started to have a lot of residents in the Lower Downtown area,” says Isenberg.

The effort to rebuild Union Station got a boost when Denver’s transit authority sought a plan to turn the facility into a multimodal transportation terminal combining commuter rail, Amtrak and bus transit. FirstBank was intrigued. Headquartered in nearby Lakewood, the $17.5 billion-asset bank is the largest based in Colorado and the second-largest operating in the state. The company had opened its first downtown Denver branch in 1988 and “saw the downtown area as a flourishing area in future growth for the city,” reflects President Ron Tilton. Tilton had first called on Isenberg’s hotel company, Sage Hospitality, in 1990 and helped finance another downtown project—but the massive Union Station project “didn’t fit perfectly into our loan portfolio,” says Tilton.

FirstBank’s Union Station-area branch.

“It was unique, [and] we actually changed a little bit of our thinking about how we approach business loans,” he recalls. “Sage prompted us to look at our internal lending policies and be a little more flexible about how we can bank really good, local organizations.”

Isenberg puts his own spin on it. “I don’t think there’s another lender on the planet that would have made this loan,” he laughs—then catches himself and points out that this is a compliment. “This was such a complicated deal that nobody else other than a community bank could have kind of gotten their arms around this to figure it out with us.”

FirstBank ended up providing a $27 million financing package for the Union Station redevelopment and became a major participant in financing the revival of LoDo. “We’ve financed about half of those projects from that 1990 to 2005 timeframe,” says Tilton. “It really exploded our loan growth down here and developed several key relationships.” The Downtown Denver Project estimates that from 2012 to 2017 alone, downtown—and LoDo in particular—has added more than 9,000 new housing units and 3.5 million square feet of new real estate. FirstBank also moved staff into new offices in LoDo and opened a branch adjacent to Union Station, one of its three downtown branches.

Partners in growth

Alpine Bank was the first bank to locate on the Union Station block in downtown Denver. It’s a $3.5 billion-asset community bank headquartered a few hours up I-70 in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Glenwood Springs. Participating in the LoDo redevelopment was a natural fit for the bank, which—given its origins in Colorado’s mountain communities—has a strong focus on sustainability and environmental stewardship. In 2017, the bank won an ABA Community Commitment Award for its program to buy and donate solar panels to a nonprofit that provides them to low-income families, freeing up money from their energy bills.

“It’s a really genuine business model,” says Matt Teeters, president of Alpine’s Union Station market. He’s a 12-year veteran of the company who came to Denver to launch the market in 2013. “It’s a bank that’s been around since 1973; it’s a bank that’s owned by the employees; it’s a bank that’s only in Colorado. Localism is something that’s really important to Coloradans. Having a presence in the mountains and having that imagery of the mountains is important.”

Alpine Bank’s Denver branch at Union Station.

Alpine opened its branch three months before the Crawford Hotel did, and it found the Union Station area to be a terrific fit for its business model at the western end of downtown, surrounded by smaller and midsize businesses (compared with the corporate high-rise offices at the eastern end of downtown). “For us it was important to differentiate and to say: ‘This is our clientele; this is the clientele we do really well with.’ If we’re trying to say we’re a great company for a 5,000-person institution, that’s probably not a good fit,” Teeters says. “But if you’re a company with 50 employees, are you sure a big bank is your best fit? There’s room for both of us in this marketplace.”

One of those smaller businesses is the Alliance for a Sustainable Colorado. Housed in a beautifully renovated century-old warehouse a block from Union Station, it not only offers programs to promote sustainability—it provides LEED Platinum-certified office space to 50 environmentally focused nonprofits and houses hundreds of jobs. “The Alliance was one of the organizations that we sought out and said: ‘You’re a collaborator. You’re bringing people together in this environmental space,” says Teeters. “Is there an opportunity for us to work with you, given that you seem to have a shared clientele to the clientele that has appreciated and helped us grow our business over 40 years?”

Today Teeters serves on the Alliance board—bringing a focus on financial management and real estate development—and the Alliance does its banking with Alpine. “We’re thrilled to work with Alpine Bank because they are a community bank,” says the Alliance’s executive director, Jason Knoll. “Local and community building is a huge part of the sustainability movement in terms of how can we come together in our local communities to do the things that we need to do.”

Knoll appreciates Teeters’ personal partnership with the Alliance. (Teeters acknowledges with a chuckle that he does “tend to play to the banker-on-the-board role.”) “In the board room, Matt brings a different perspective,” says Knoll. “Our board consists of people who are visionary, who have spent perhaps decades in the world of sustainability—but [who] don’t necessarily bring that pragmatic view [of] being sustainable as a business from a financial perspective.”

Partnership is the name of the game in Denver—and it’s visible in the Union Station and LoDo renaissance. “When banks come together is when clients really prosper,” says Jodi Rolland, who is global commercial banking market executive at Bank of America as well as president of its Denver market. “You can imagine a customer that might need a large loan facility. Many banks have come together to syndicate that, so each bank takes a piece of the relationship. That way, not only is the bank growing responsibly, but we’re also helping the client grow responsibly.”

And FirstBank continues its partnership with Sage. “We’ve had partnerships on credit facilities in excess of $100 million, and if you think about all of those projects and the success that’s created for Sage and then the great places it’s created in Denver, it’s pretty fun to say you’re part of that,” says John Markovich, a commercial lender who manages the Sage relationship.

Big companies, big needs

Small and medium-sized businesses may have fueled LoDo’s renaissance, but downtown Denver was able to thrive because of another critical asset: large corporations with local operations. Large companies drive employment and attract new talent to the area, and large corporate headquarters often bring in or develop locally a cadre of high-skilled and well-paid talent. This dynamic magnet creates a naturally growing population of people who want to live and work in Denver’s burgeoning downtown.

Greater Denver is home to some of America’s largest corporations and most recognized brands: DaVita, Arrow Electronics, Dish Network, Liberty Media, Chipotle Mexican Grill. It’s also the site of major industrial or business operations for Coors Brewing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and United Airlines.

Bank of America is the third bank located on-site at Union Station.

One of these major employers is Ball Corporation. Perhaps best known for the iconic Ball jar—a division long ago sold off—Ball today is in three high-tech manufacturing businesses. The most prominent is the 300 million aluminum beverage cans the company makes each day. (That’s not a typo. If you buy a soda or a beer in a can, odds are two in five that it’s a Ball can.) It also makes high-tech glass products for aerospace and satellite applications and advanced food and aerosol containers.

Headquartered in Broomfield, a suburb about 15 minutes northwest of downtown Denver, Ball employs more than 3,000 people in Colorado. But Ball also has operations—and 18,000 employees—on five continents. “You need a partner that also has the breadth and scale that can support you everywhere from Europe to Asia . . . to South America,” says Ball Chairman and CEO John Hayes. “While it’s important to be active in the communities here [in Colorado], we also need partners that can be active in the communities where we operate as well.”

There aren’t many banks that can support a global operation like Ball, providing payroll for thousands of employees in different currencies, facilitating cross-border money movement and supplying a credit facility. So Ball banks with Bank of America. While B of A is newer as a retail bank in Denver—it, too, has a branch on-site at Union Station—the bank has had a relationship with Ball for more than 110 years. “Bank of America was there early to help them grow and expand, and as they’ve evolved as a company we’ve helped them acquire new businesses, we’ve helped them manage their cash worldwide in 35 countries,” says B of A’s Jodi Rolland. “We are on the ground with them with local teams in each of those 35 countries. Besides being their credit partner, we’re also there for their day-to-day treasury management.”

For example, Bank of America was the lead provider of “committed credit” that allowed Ball to make a “transformative acquisition” of a major public company in 2016, says Ball CFO Scott Morrison. And Bank of America is helping Ball centralize its European cash management, which will improve efficiency significantly.

“Small banks can play a role with us and they do, but really, for the things that we do—the global nature of our business, all the different locations that we’re in around the world, the size of the credit commitments that you need—you really need a global bank,” Morrison reflects. “It’s critically important to our success.”

Rolland is quick to point out that the nearly $1.8 trillion-asset Bank of America is a full-service bank, serving small businesses and individuals as well—bringing the bank’s relationship with Ball Corporation full circle. Sitting in B of A’s cozy Union Station branch, she says it’s “very likely that we have Ball employees that come right here in this branch each and every day. When you look at the city of Denver, residents are located throughout the city, and many do choose to live downtown and do a reverse commute out to the suburbs.”

Banks of every size

From 2006 to 2016, a period that spanned a crippling recession, Colorado’s economy grew by 4.3 percent, 90 basis points over the U.S. average during that same decade. Many attribute the success in Colorado (and in Denver particularly) to its many and diverse banks.

Bank diversity means there’s always a financial institution there for a business or consumer with unique needs. “There are small banks that have a very specialty focus that meet the unique needs of certain businesses, and then we need the large banks to bank those multistate customers, and then we fit there in the middle where we kind of go from small to large businesses and really tailor solutions that go up and down that scale of size,” says Jim Reuter, CEO of FirstBank.

Banks don’t drive the economy, emphasizes Bank of America Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan. “Banks reflect the economy. We help the economy happen.” Banks take deposits, turn those deposits into well-tailored loans, and those loans fuel investment and sales and job creation and more growth.
“If we stay focused on those customers, they will grow and prosper,” he adds. “If they do, we do.”

Watch the eight-minute documentary about the Denver story:

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About Evan Sparks

Evan Sparks
Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and vice president for editorial services at the American Bankers Association.