The Douglas County School District is taking steps to acquire a complex along Lincoln Boulevard that was formerly The Wildlife Experience museum, and later a University of Colorado campus, with hopes of using the property for a long list of district programming and uses.
District staff have touted the proposal as a can’t-miss opportunity to forge new partnerships with higher education institutions, provide significantly more career and technical education to students and help students gain access to major industries in the area.
The 175,000-square-foot space could also be used for central administration office space, event space, professional development for teachers and other uses, staff said. If the deal goes through, the facility could be up and running with DCSD programs by 2023.
The Wildlife Experience, between Lone Tree and Parker, was established in 2002 as a natural-history museum, theater complex and events venue by David and Gail Liniger, who founded the real estate company Re/Max.
In 2014 the complex was donated by the Liniger family to CU for use as a campus known as University of Colorado South Denver. The gift at the time was valued at $40 million.
In September 2020, CU announced the site would be sold and that classes would no longer be held there after mid-2021.
The site went on the market around February 2021. At that time, the district submitted a letter of intent to purchase the site, but CU declined it. In July the Liniger family stepped in.
Now CU is preparing to sell the facility back to the Linigers, who are then expected to sell to the district. The anticipated closing date is Dec. 15.
The estimated cost for DCSD to purchase the site is $10.3 million. The district would plan to make another $25 million in tenant finishes through a phased-in project.
The investigatory period for any due diligence by the district ends Dec. 8. If the district does not issue a “notice to proceed” by that time, the seller could withdraw, DCSD general counsel Mary Kay Klimesh said.
‘An investment for our students’
Danny Winsor, the district’s executive director of schools for the Parker region and choice programming, has made passionate pitches to the board of education about the potential to provide students with CTE, such as nursing, culinary or robotics courses.
“This is an investment for our students,” Winsor said.
The school board held a special meeting about the property acquisition on Nov. 17 at the request of staff.
Directors passed a resolution in a 6-1 vote that will allow district staff to continue preparing contracts required for DCSD to use the building. The resolution also authorizes the superintendent to proceed with acquiring the property, although it only authorizes him to do so and does not direct him to.
Director Kevin Leung voted against the motion because he said the agenda item should be tabled until Nov. 29 when four new board directors are sworn in following the Nov. 2 election.
“I truly feel that the election has consequence and we do have four new board members coming in who deserve deliberation,” he said.
Directors discussed the pending transition of board members and clarified the new board could choose to cancel the deal if it saw red flags with the project.
A couple people who gave public comments called the project an exciting opportunity for students and a no-brainer for the district, including a member of the district’s long range planning committee who said he spoke as one individual.
Still, the timing of the project drew scrutiny, as several people who spoke during public comment said the deal felt shrouded in secrecy and rushed through.
Liz Wagner called the deal “sneaky” and raised concerns about the condition of the property, citing past assessments from previous sales that fell through.
“Your legacy rests in your hands today,” she said.
‘Looked at every crack’
Mike Peterson, who will be sworn in as a board director on Nov. 29, said the project lacked transparency and that the public was given little time to absorb the information provided by the district. He worried that confusion within the public could lead to trust issues that will make passing a mill levy override for teacher pay more difficult.
He asked that the superintendent not issue a notice to proceed until the new board is seated.
Superintendent Corey Wise said the project feels fast-tracked because the timeline is dictated by the real estate transaction between CU and the Liniger family, not the district.
At the past two board meetings, staff recommended that the school district pause plans to build an innovation center and alternative education high school from the ground up. Those plans had been laid out in a bond and mill levy override passed in 2018.
During the pandemic, costs and inflation surged and the project was projected to go over budget by millions, said Rich Cosgrove, the chief operations officer.
The heightened cost of building a facility would have cut down the number of CTE programs the district could offer at the site, staff said.
Chief Financial Officer Kate Kotaska said acquiring the CU South Denver facility would not cost any additional funds besides what had been allocated in the bond and mill levy override. Any increase to operational costs, estimated at about $1.4 million, could be covered by leasing space, event fees and other revenue streams, she said.
“I am absolutely confident that we would be able to offset those operational costs,” she said.
Cosgrove also responded to concerns that the facility is in poor shape and a bad deal. He said there are not structural issues with the site, and fixes the district has identified are minor.
“We’ve literally looked at every crack,” Cosgrove said.