At 20, Centennial 'melding' together, staying true to ideals

City's 20th anniversary sees suburb in a time of retail, housing shifts

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/2/21

As a nearby city plotted to take control of major business corridors in the south metro area, some Arapahoe County residents — who, at the time, didn’t live within a city of their own — began …

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At 20, Centennial 'melding' together, staying true to ideals

City's 20th anniversary sees suburb in a time of retail, housing shifts

Posted

As a nearby city plotted to take control of major business corridors in the south metro area, some Arapahoe County residents — who, at the time, didn’t live within a city of their own — began to see what they stood to lose: sources of local government funding and, more importantly, the ability to determine their own destiny.

So crowds from local neighborhoods piled into Arapahoe High School in an event that kicked off what turned out to be 100 “community meetings” to solidify support for forming a city of their own.

That first gathering “was filled to the brim,” said Brian Vogt, one of the five founders of the City of Centennial. He added: “People were very smart and constantly educating themselves and others about the details — and a movement was born.”

In the summer of 1998, Randy Pye, John Brackney, Vogt, Ed Bosier and Pete Ross gathered at a pancake restaurant to consider the advantages of forming a city to prevent Greenwood Village, the nearby and affluent municipality, from absorbing commercial areas in present-day Centennial.

And amid fears that Aurora would attempt to absorb areas east of Parker Road, the Centennial movement was approached by a community activist from that eastern region who asked to include those areas in the new city, Pye said.

The five founders represented a cross section of the community: Brackney, one of Arapahoe County’s commissioners, or elected leaders, at the time; Vogt, then-president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce; Ross, who represented a neighborhood association; and Bosier, who was the county assessor. Pye would go on to become the first mayor of Centennial, which became one of the most populated municipalities in the Denver metro area.

But the founding was far from a five-man effort. Over the next two years, the push to create Centennial saw 3,000 volunteers carry out tasks such as circulating petitions and handing out flyers to convince voters, whose approval would ultimately decide whether the new city could form.

After two years of court battles, a green light from the state Legislature and thousands of petition signatures, 77% of about 28,000 voters in what is now Centennial approved the formation of the city.

“I don’t know that I’ve had another experience in my life that was so tied into the American experience,” Vogt said.

“You’re at the Capitol building, you’re at the state Supreme Court,” Vogt continued. “It was like America in full.”

On the heels of Centennial passing its 20th anniversary last month, city founders and current and former city officials described Centennial as a municipality that’s held true to its founding ideals of keeping taxes lower and keeping government small while it has also evolved to respond to residents’ expectations.

They also pointed to challenges Centennial must tackle in the near future: adjusting to shifting retail trends and dealing with the growing pains of the metro Denver demand for apartments in a suburb whose calling card is generally large, single-family homes.

For now, though, the hurdles ahead didn’t outweigh the nostalgia and faith in Centennial from current and former leaders.

“I haven’t been as optimistic and positive about the city as I am now in a long time,” Pye said.

‘Thousands of founders’

In its early days, the push to create the city swept up local residents like Sue Rosser, who described herself as being “very apolitical” at the time.

“I thought it didn’t matter whether you voted or not. I was busy raising kids and working,” said Rosser, now 71, a resident of west Centennial’s Willow Creek neighborhood.

Soon, she found herself deeply involved after a friend told her about one of the first big meetings about forming Centennial.

Upon attending a meeting herself, Rosser thought, “Oh my gosh, this is something that’s kind of a do-or-die thing,” and she enlisted as a volunteer to help run information tables at local grocery stores. Residents wrote their own homemade materials to keep the public informed, Rosser said.

As the movement gained steam, “people evolved” and took on more responsibility, Rosser said.

“Some would come back and say, ‘I think everyone in my neighborhood is for this. Give me a neighborhood where people don’t like this too much,’” Rosser said, recalling how volunteers would walk the suburban streets and “put the literature under the doormat.” Rosser got to know the map by heart.

“From I-25 to Broadway, I could have been a taxi driver,” she said.

On Sept. 12, 2000, voters approved the formation of Centennial, and the movement held its 100th “community meeting” as a celebration party the night of the election, Pye said. The meetings took place at public spaces such as schools and churches, Vogt added.

Vogt emphasized that the movement’s success didn’t rest on his fellow founders’ shoulders.

“There were five people who had breakfast (together) one day, but there were 3,000 people who put enormous effort into forming the city,” said Vogt, 62. “There were some standouts who made volunteering almost a full-time job. So we really had thousands of founders.”

‘Government with a small G’

Key to keeping the city government small was the strategy of running a “contract city,” where city officials maintain agreements with other local entities to carry out certain services. Law enforcement in Centennial is the job of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office rather than a city police department, for example.

“It’s much less expensive than creating your own public works (infrastructure) department and police department and things like that,” said Pye, who served as mayor until 2010. Centennial remains a debt-free city.

Centennial benefited from starting out as a relatively upper-middle-class place with a good tax base, but Cathy Noon, the city’s second mayor, said it takes more than that to keep a city financially healthy.

“We were blessed with good demographics, but if you don’t perform (well), those demographics can leave,” Noon said. “And it’s not just us — we have to rely on a good fire district, good school districts. People don’t move (here) just for the city.”

The biggest difference in the services Centennial has provided over the years may be the advent of Centennial Center Park along Arapahoe Road, the city’s sprawling recreation area next to the city hall, Noon said. The city opened that park in 2012.

“When we first formed, we didn’t have a parks department in the city at all,” and parks and trails were all handled by South Suburban Parks and Recreation and other entities, Noon said.

Providing park areas wasn’t what leaders anticipated when the city was being formed, and there were some naysayers about building Centennial Center Park, Noon said.

But Noon thought, “We’re not just doing (a park) — we’re doing a spectacular park,” said Noon, who noted how the city’s community events, such as concerts and other celebrations in Centennial Center Park, have grown over the years.

“We look for partnerships in everything we do in Centennial, and that has really benefited the residents,” but the city can also successfully do some things on its own, Noon said.

Current Mayor Stephanie Piko highlighted the city’s practice of keeping “government with a small ‘G’ instead of a big ‘G,’” but she remembers how city officials kicked into gear as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in Colorado last spring. The city worked to ensure public-health information was reaching the public and made it readily available online. City officials also played the role of distributing relief funding for local businesses.

Had Centennial never formed and citizens had to rely on Arapahoe County, government officials would have been further away from being able to be directly impactful to residents, said Piko, who has served as mayor since 2018.

“Not only in a pandemic but in any emergency, that’s when people look to government to do things and to be responsive,” Piko said.

City grasps at ‘who we are’

Two decades into Centennial’s history, a particularly stubborn sticking point remains: What makes Centennial “Centennial”? What differentiates the city from others?

The question reared its head again at a Jan. 11 city council work-session meeting.

The city’s snaking boundaries can make it difficult to know when a person is in Centennial, and if that weren’t enough, Postal Service ZIP codes also add to the confusion of where residents live.

Two codes that have carried Littleton’s name also cover areas in west Centennial, and two with the Englewood name show up near the city’s center, in unincorporated Arapahoe County areas like Inverness and Dove Valley — even though Englewood doesn’t border Centennial at all, lying clear to the northwest.

In 2009 and 2010, a “community identity” and signage program for Centennial was developed, and a 2014 city subcommittee determined the timing was not right to move forward with “bigger items,” such as a logo redesign, signage, public art and other items, according to a Jan. 11 city staff report. In 2019, an “identity workshop” took place with a consultant, the report says.

“You would think we would know ourselves by now,” Pye said. “I think because we have such a long city, our residents on the east side are probably a lot different than our residents on the west side, and since we don’t have many residents in the middle, I think that’s what stumps the city sometimes: What are they wanting?”

In a new city, Centennial residents “didn’t have that single thing that brought us together other than self-determination,” Piko said. “With Leadville or a mining town, a lot of that comes from the history of a town.”

Being a young city without a landmark, like the Castle Rock butte or a specific industry, “it makes it harder for people to jell around what that idea is,” Piko said.

Some in Centennial have said their neighborhoods, the community spirit and the friendliness of the community are what stand out, Piko said.

Vorry Moon, a former city councilmember from the city’s west end, said it’s unlikely the city will ever have a “downtown Centennial” the way other cities do, and that makes solidifying an identity difficult. But, he says, “I actually see the city melding into one city, east and west.”

The west was always engaged from the beginning in trying to form the city, Moon said. But lately, the eastern parts are coming into “their own sense of who we are,” Moon said.

“All of the city is becoming engaged in the city,” said Moon, who sees that trend in people getting involved in city commissions, especially the Senior Commission and Youth Commission, which advocate for the young and older residents regarding city policy.

‘Seeing so many apartments’

Consumers’ shift to buying more online and spending on experiences rather than traditional goods is “profoundly affecting” the retail industry, the city has said, and Centennial faces many challenges ahead in revitalizing struggling shopping centers.

“We have 10 major retail shopping centers with very significant vacancies at this point,” Pye said. “We have hundreds of thousands of cars that travel (Centennial’s) corridors on a daily basis … just using us for our infrastructure.”

Tax incentives are “probably the most significant bullet” the city can use to attract more businesses, Pye said. But adding an “entertainment district,” with restaurants and a movie theater and “maybe a nice bar or club,” could prove beneficial, Pye said.

It’s a somewhat similar concept to The Streets at SouthGlenn, Pye said, a large development in west Centennial that’s also facing proposed changes. The loss of a decades-old Sears store near the end of 2018 put the spotlight on what’s next for the outdoor mall, which could include adding apartments at the former Sears property and putting apartments and office space, and possibly retail and entertainment establishments, where SouthGlenn’s Macy’s stands. Developers expect that the Macy’s store could close in coming years.

“I used to hate to see another apartment complex go up,” Pye said, noting Centennial doesn’t have much more land to put housing on. He added: “I thought we’d be overbuilt. Absolutely the opposite has happened. There is no overbuilt. We need more. That’s why you’re seeing so many apartments and townhomes go up in Lone Tree. They understand that (for) people near the light rail … that’s what will be sold or rented.”

Noon pointed to the University Boulevard corridor, which lost an Albertsons store, as among the places that needs a change.

“What we have now isn’t working. And at the same time, saying every shopping center that loses a big tenant needs to look like ‘X’ — that doesn’t work either,” said Noon, 64.

“We don’t need 10-story buildings right against people’s houses. That’s not what they bought into,” Noon said.

Noon called it a balancing act but urged listening to residents and “not just saying because we can, we will” in terms of changing zoning, a city’s rules for what can be built where.

“You have to listen to what the people have to say,” Noon said. “It comes back to that self-determination — that’s what we were founded on.”

Centennial Colorado, 20th anniversary, founding, incorporation, history, Arapahoe County, Ellis Arnold

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