Union Station leaders tell Las Vegas contingency ‘get public input’ before spending a dime

Union Station leaders tell Las Vegas contingency get public input before spending a dime
By Monica Mendoza  March 8, 2016


Figure out what your community wants before you drop a single dime on a public private transit project.

That was the message from Denver’s key financers and architects behind the redevelopment of Union Station to members of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada who visited the historic train station today hoping for some insight on how they might put together a public-private partnership for transit.

When members of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada wanted to see the ins and outs of a successful public-private transit project they came to Denver to tour the Union Station.

The Union Station and transit tour included riding the Regional Transportation District light rail and touring the commuter rail station at Denver International Airport and several panel discussions. It was hosted by Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which has offices in Las Vegas and Denver and was heavily involved in the Union Station project.

“Denver is a model city when it comes to transit and development projects,” said Ellen Schulhofer, Brownstein’s co-managing partner who is based in Las Vegas. “Ultimately we hope this will be a helpful process for members of RTC and the Southern Nevada community to navigate the successful development of enhanced transit services in the Las Vegas valley.”

Looking back on the $54 million Union Station project, which renovated and developed the train station at 17 th and Wynkoop streets into retail, restaurants, event space and a 112-room hotel, a key step in the process was taking time for community input.

“We had a belief that if we delivered what the community wanted, it (Union Station) would be successful financially,” said , partner of Larimer Associates – part of the Union Station Alliance that consisted of McWhinney, REGen LLC, Sage Hospitality and Urban Neighborhoods. Brownstein was among the team of attorneys that worked with architects, engineers, and banks on the project.

“Everyone wanted to use the station even if they were not using transit,” Vostrejs said. “That process started informing our decisions.”

Tina Quigley, Las Vegas RTC general manager, said she wanted to learn about the ins and outs of Denver’s public-private partnership, but also about community business and political support for transit investments.

“We are grateful to have the opportunity to see their system first hand and learn from their experiences as we continue to consider the possibilities for building and operating an enhanced transit system in Southern Nevada.”

Dave Genova, Regional Transportation District interim general manager, told the story.

In 2001, the RTD, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Denver Regional Council of Governments partnered to buy 19.5 acres of land around the station from private owners for about $49 million. The station was old, rundown and expensive to maintain, he said. The RTD decided to try to woo private developers. RTD put up $11 million, the state put in $5 million, $8 million came from private equity and $20 million came as a loan.

From 2006 to 2008, various deals were struck, creating a public-private partnership and setting target dates for land purchase and development.

By 2012, they were breaking ground on the project. Chad McWhinney, CEO and co-founder of McWhinney, said he was sold on the project almost immediately after hearing a pitch.

One reason why the project actually got off the ground was because there was agreement among the players the RTD would tee up the project and then step back and let the private sector get creative, he said.  “P3 projects are great,” he said. “But the public sector needs to know when to get involved and when to get uninvolved.”

There is another fine point that Las Vegas should consider when the transit private-public projects is ready to open: don’t over book the place with events.

When Union Station opened, for example, there were 200 requests a day inquiring about renting out the space.

“We could make a lot of money renting out Great Hall,” Vostrejs said. “If you over-program them, then the people who want to use it everyday get alienated.”

And last bit of advice from McWhinney: “Wake up everyday and ask yourselves how can it be better.”

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