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Denver Desperately Needs to Revitalize Its Downtown; It May Find an Answer ‘Outside’

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The Outside Festival transformed Denver’s Civic Center from June 1 to 2. The park was crawling with hip festivalgoers, packed with hundreds of booths featuring local businesses, outdoor organizations, events, speakers, sports, and two nights of live music.

The Civic Center hosts many festivals and events throughout the year. When it’s not in use, though, it and nearby downtown Denver grapples with pressing societal issues like drug use, crime, and homelessness. And like many other major cities, Denver’s towering office buildings have been struggling with low occupancy rates since COVID.

Denver mayor Mike Johnston says he’s working to change that and build a “truly vibrant Denver.” This month’s Outside Festival and others like it are part of his plan to revitalize this area that’s in desperate need of new life.

“Large festivals introduce (or reintroduce) people to Civic Center and Downtown Denver. The evolution of Civic Center will be driven in response to community needs and will include physical changes, community-based activation, and large events like the Outside Fest,” Johnston’s office told GearJunkie.

That’s why Outside Festival will likely return to Denver’s Civic Center in 2025. It represents a way to reshape downtown Denver’s struggling image — at least partially, according to the Mayor’s office.

When Outside CEO Robin Thurston took to the stage on Sunday night to thank the festival crowd, he wrapped his comments by saying, “See you next year, same time, same place.”

Denver’s Crown Jewel, in Need of New Life

In 1912, Robert Speer, Denver’s then-mayor, thought the Civic Center Park would “do more than anything else to advertise Denver — attract the tourist, health and home seekers.”

Today, it is the busiest event park in Denver. According to Johnston’s office, it is regularly booked every weekend for events of all sizes from May to October. But the city has struggled to clean this park up for years. In 2022, Civic Center Park reached a historic low when it had to be closed for several weeks while hazmat cleanup crews removed human waste, used needles, and other garbage.

The park’s current state of deterioration pushes tourism elsewhere in the city — even though the Civic Center is home to the Denver Art Museum, Public Library, Cultural Complex, the U.S. Mint, and other attractions. For years, and especially since COVID, downtown Denver has experienced economic decline that the city has been working to correct.

At Outside Festival, Civic Center Park was almost unrecognizable. It was clean. There were families, couples, college and high school students, tourists, and locals. The crowd was diverse.

For two full days, it felt like Mayor Speer’s 100-year-old vision for the Civic Center and its Park was alive and well.

But as Mayor Johnston’s office points out, it will take more to make a real and permanent change.

“The inaugural Outside Festival was an incredible success with great turnout and support — and it certainly brought great energy to downtown and reintroduced people to Civic Center Park,” Johnston’s office said. “However, we know from decades of work and investment in the park that a single event will not change a park’s culture.”

For Mayor Johnston and the City and County of Denver, the Outside Festival greatly affected local and tourist perceptions of this park, but it is far from a panacea for its problems.

Outside Festival: The Civic Center’s Newest Hope

Between Saturday and Sunday, the Outside Festival had 18,000 attendees — 20% of whom traveled from out of state for the event. Shaun White, Jeremy Jones, Quannah Chasinghorse, and Diana Nyad gave talks at the Denver Art Museum to rooms that were at 100% capacity. The Art Museum also hosted 21 other speakers and 20 adventure and outdoor films over the weekend.

On Saturday morning, The North Face held its Tred Tour, and over 100 runners took to Denver’s streets. In conjunction with the festival, Denver’s Big Gear Show also featured 80 exhibitors who showcased their branded gear, apparel, and more.

When asked about the festival’s economic impact, Outside did not respond. Johnston’s office said it was too early to tell.

However, early projections at the Colorado Economic Development Commission in 2023 estimated that 10,000 attendees would generate an economic impact of about $4.7 million. By 2027, Outside hopes to have 70,000 attendees at the festival — which would generate roughly $54 million.  

Having drawn so many tourists from out of state and locals, it undoubtedly stimulated the city — particularly the areas around the Civic Center. Within the festival were scores of local food trucks, all serving long lines of customers. And small local businesses, like Treehouse Cyclery, had booths where they could get their names out.

“Bringing events that draw Denverites back downtown and back to Civic Center Park is a key part of [building a truly vibrant Denver],” Johnston’s office said. “Especially post-pandemic.”

Outside Festival 2025?

There seems to be little doubt that Outside Festival will return to Denver. Not only is it in alignment with Colorado’s persona, but Outside, the City of Denver, and Governor Jared Polis all seem to see the benefits of making this a staple event of the city.

“Colorado’s great outdoors is part of who we are, and our thriving outdoor recreation industry is not only a lot of healthy fun, but also an economic engine for our state,” Governor Polis said when he announced Outside Festival in January 2024.

Taylor Shields, director of communications for Visit Denver, was extremely excited by the turnout and success of the event. According to her, Outside Fest has a standing invitation in the city.

“We were thrilled to welcome and sponsor the inaugural Outside Festival, which brought so many outdoor brands, world-class speakers, and guests to the city,” said Shields. “Denver is the outdoor capital of the country, and the outdoors is ingrained in everything we do here, which made the city a natural host. We look forward to welcoming them back next year and far into the future.”

If reviving downtown Denver is the goal, Outside Festival made an impact for two full days. It won’t solve the city’s woes. But if this first event was an indication, the city is banking on its proximity to the outdoors, music, and entertainment could help get its core back on track.

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