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Lowry redevelopment assists Denver's renaissance

DENVER (AFPN) --

When Lowry Air Force Base, Colo., was selected to be shuttered as part of the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure Act, many recession-battered Denver residents thought the end had come to the "Mile High" city.

Lowry, a military training installation with a 50-year history, was providing 7,000 much-needed jobs for Denver-area residents when it was closed in 1994, recalled Thomas O. Markham, executive director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority. The organization was formed by the cities of Denver and Aurora, Colo., to oversee redevelopment of the former base.

At that time, Denver's tax base was eroding as residents were fleeing the city for greener suburban pastures, Mr. Markham said, and the announcement of Lowry's closure just added to the area's malaise. The base had straddled the Denver-Aurora municipal line, with about 89 percent of Lowry located in Denver.

Today, after weathering yet another downturn after the 1999-2000 dot-com and telecommunications busts, Denver is enjoying an economic renaissance, Mr. Markham said, thanks to residential and commercial redevelopment at Lowry and other city land-reuse projects that have enticed thousands of former suburbanites to move back to the city.

Since 1994, residential and commercial redevelopment on the 1,800 acres of the former base has provided 3,000 homes for 6,500 new residents while creating about 6,000 jobs, Mr. Markham said, and Lowry redevelopment has generated a gross economic benefit of $4 billion for the Denver metropolitan area.

"There is life after (BRAC) closure," said Mr. Markham, who also is president of An Association of Defense Communities, a group that assists localities affected by BRAC. Other ongoing Denver-area redevelopment at the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, which was closed in 1999, and at the former Stapleton International Airport also have helped re-energize the Denver region's economy, Mr. Markham said.

Redevelopment projects at Lowry, Fitzsimons and Stapleton "really provided the economic engines of construction and jobs," Mr. Markham said. They helped the Denver area regain vitality after experiencing punishing recessions and urban deterioration.

Yet, while Mr. Markham described the Lowry redevelopment project as "hugely successful," he also said that the process was strewn with "major challenges."

Once a military installation is given final approval for closure under BRAC, the affected civilian community does not "have any choice but to gather around and try to make the best of it," Mr. Markham said.

Therefore, he said, it is important that the public and private sectors of BRAC-affected communities quickly arrive at consensus on how to redevelop former federal land.

"That is really important, because there's cooperation that's needed throughout," he said.

Hilarie Portell, the public relations and marketing director for the Lowry Redevelopment Authority, said that Denver and Aurora government and business officials provided equal representation on the land-use planning boards.

"The planning process was very collaborative," she said.

Two community colleges now call the former Air Force base home, Ms. Portell said. And, with its schools, parks and other amenities, including close proximity to downtown, Lowry today has the priciest residential ZIP code in the Denver metropolitan area, she said.

While the development boasts apartments and condominiums priced for modest wage earners, Ms. Portell said, the Lowry community also has homes costing $1 million.

"The construction at Lowry, as well as the redevelopment of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, really helped keep the (Denver) metro economy afloat while we were getting through the recession," she said.