• Haines Eason

Extended coverage: The evolution of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods

Updated: Mar 15, 2019

Note: the following is a four-part series (not originally published as such) on the evolution of Denver's most-prominent registered neighborhood organization, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods. These articles ran between February 2017 and February 2018 in Life on Capitol Hill.

Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods goes all volunteer—Roger Armstrong departs

On Jan. 10, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN) announced a seismic change: Executive Director Roger Armstrong, a 20-year-veteran of the organization, would step down due to budgetary realities. Armstrong’s last day was Jan. 13.

According to a press release issued by CHUN, the annual Capitol Hill People’s Fair, the iconic, 45-year-old CHUN event from which CHUN has drawn much of its operating budget, had seen declining revenues due to “the proliferation of similar events, combined with a few years of bad weather.” Operational costs also factored in the decision.

Roger Armstrong at the Tears-McFarlane mansion, the headquarters of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods. Photo by Sara Hertwig.

LIFE previously reported in October 2016 just how tenuous CHUN’s financial situation had become: “CHUN’s Federal tax-exempt organization filings show revenue and net proceeds from the event have declined steadily since 2007. Gross revenue fell 43 percent, from $649,136 to $328,241; after-expense proceeds dropped 63 percent, from $372,559, to $120,075.”

Still, CHUN began as an all-volunteer organization and outgoing CHUN President Charles Nusbaum feels it can weather this transition. According to Nusbaum, CHUN has lined up an interim volunteer coordinator who will ensure there are volunteers to man phones and that the office functions as before.

“We’re more like a community partner now,” Nusbaum said. “We can focus on the community work at hand, which is really where we started. Working to save historic structures, working to advocate for those who want and need help. The homeless or the neighbors who are worried about this dispensary or that methadone clinic or this noise level or that patio activity. We’re not trying to lay down policy for everybody; we’re just trying to give everyone a voice.”

In a Jan. 23 email exchange, incoming co-presidents Mark Cossin and Travis Leiker added specifics, writing CHUN board members are “looking at increasing [its] supporter base, utilizing the community center in creative ways that benefit the community and increasing community engagement through smaller and more frequent events.”

Cossin and Leiker wrote they intend to expand CHUN’s philanthropic partnerships while potentially reaching out to corporate sponsors. Furthermore, they write the organization has committed to putting more energy into Sustainability, Parents Group, Fundraising and Memberships/Marketing efforts so as to encourage more community participation.

“For me, it was really an honor to run an organization that had been so established over the years. In most city circles, whether it’s city departments, planning departments, City Council, public works, they see CHUN as one of the biggest and most-organized [RNOs].”

Nusbaum, Cossin and Leiker all stressed rents from offices within the Tears-McFarlane House and proceeds from smaller annual events would now provide CHUN’s principal revenue.

As for The People’s Fair, the event isn’t going anywhere. CHUN will continue to be the principal sponsor and will receive some financial support from the event.

Operation of The People’s fair has been taken over by Denver-based Team Player Productions, a company with 20 years’ experience in festival and event production. Their events include Taste of Fort Collins, Steamboat Wine Festival, Park City Food and Wine Classic and the Breckenridge Wine Classic, to name a few.

“We’ve always been big fans of The People’s Fair, and I’ve known Roger Armstrong for 20 years now,” said Team Player Productions President Jason Ornstein. “We’ve been involved behind the scenes in The People’s Fair for a number of years. When we heard there were some struggles going on with it, after weighing things out and seeing that it’s been something that’s gone on for 45 years, we as a company just didn’t want to see it fail.”

Ornstein wants to take The People’s Fair back to its roots, which, as he puts it, means placing Denver’s culture and people, back at the center. Specifically, he suggested there would be a heightened local restaurant and brewery presence, a focus on Colorado music groups and potentially a drag queen parade and at-risk youth mural competition.

In all the activity around CHUN’s transition, one could forget Roger Armstrong had been with the organization since 1997, when he became a board member.

Armstrong became a CHUN employee when he left the Temple Events Center in 2005. His first role with CHUN was as director of The People’s Fair—the first he directed was in 2006. By August 2008, he was executive director.

“For me, it was really an honor to run an organization that had been so established over the years. In most city circles, whether it’s city departments, planning departments, City Council, public works, they see CHUN as one of the biggest and most-organized [RNOs].”

Photo by Sara Hertwig.

Armstrong said The People’s Fair is the engine that allowed CHUN to become an organization of stature, noting at one time the organization had six full-time staff members. With the decline of the fair, staff were let go, something which Armstrong found depressing.

“Three or four years ago, there were only 300 or so events in the City and County of Denver,” Armstrong said. “In 2016, I think there were 600 and in 2017, there will be close to 700.”

As for the transition to CHUN’s all-volunteer status, Armstrong sees it as necessary, but sees it also as a challenge.

“What I worry about is [CHUN's] stature in the community,” he said.

Both as an employee of CHUN and as a private citizen, Armstrong has served or serves on the Mayor’s Commission to end homelessness, the Blueprint Denver Taskforce and the Neighborhood Advisory Committee to the Botanic Gardens, to name a few.

“All of these relationships have evolved over the years because we’ve had an office and we’ve had the ability to host a lot of community meetings,” he said. “The Blueprint Denver meetings were daytime meetings, the Mayor’s Commission was a daytime meeting…”

Still, Armstrong feels new co-presidents, Cossin and Leiker, will be up to the challenge of leading CHUN forward.

“I think they’re going to be good,” he said. “They bring a fresh, new perspective and a fresh look on the mission and what the organization can accomplish with less. It’s been nice in the last five years to see a younger demographic come in. I always think that change is always good.”

Armstrong sees the change as coming at the right time. When asked what he’s most proud of when it comes to his time at CHUN, Armstrong said he feels he always managed to act with integrity, adding there’s nothing more he can give.

“I’ve imparted all the wisdom, will and knowledge I can impart,” he said.

Armstrong started his career in HIV services in Philadelphia—where he’s from—in 1986, at a time when no one knew much about the disease. He began with the Philadelphia Aids Taskforce; he was assigned to run one of the first housing programs for people with HIV in the country.

Armstrong climbed up in his organization and continued to break ground. He conducted some of the first AIDS-in-the-workplace training sessions at some of the nation’s largest companies. He spoke about his organization on national news programs. He became director of development, then assistant director.

Though fulfilling, the work was taxing. Wanting a change, Armstrong left Philadelphia in 1995 for the Colorado Aids Project, located in Denver. From there he transitioned to the Temple Events Center.

It was around that time Armstrong met Roxanne White, Mayor and now Governor Hickenlooper’s one-time Chief of Staff. She was on the CHUN nominating committee and asked Armstrong to volunteer.

“When everybody asks me, I always say it’s Roxanne White’s fault I became a member of CHUN,” Armstrong said with a smile.

As for what’s next, Armstrong has mulled politics but has put the idea aside for now. He's thinking travel and plans to spend six-plus months away from work.

“I really don’t know what's next,” he said, adding that his future is wide open.

Iconic People’s Fair changes hands, but are the changes for the better?

After a few years of declining attendance, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN), the organization that started People’s Fair in 1972, handed the reins to Team Player Productions, an event marketing company based in Denver, to reinvigorate the event. Team Player Productions is the mastermind behind Taste of Fort Collins, Divide Music Festival and Breckenridge Wine Classic, among other regional and national festivals. People’s Fair will be held June 3-4 at Civic Center Park.

“Our goal is to make People’s Fair more relevant in Denver and celebrate all the wonderful things Denver has to offer,” said Jason Ornstein, president of Team Player Productions.

The format of People’s Fair will stay relatively the same. “We are working with local companies like Great Divide Brewery and Infinite Monkey [Theorem] … plus offering better food options to represent the thriving Denver food scene,” says Ornstein. Per Ornstein, booth rentals are tracking well ahead of last year’s numbers and a sell-out year is expected.

“We want this to be a good shopping experience for our patrons and a successful weekend for our vendors.”

New national sponsorships have also been attracted. Prana will be the official outfitter for the festival.

“At one point, People’s Fair was just about the only fair in Denver. Now, there is competition with other fairs and festivals in close proximity."

One primary change will be the elimination of tickets for food and beverage purchases. Ornstein and his team thought the tickets were not consumer-friendly and want to make it easy for patrons to make food and beverage purchases.

“We want patrons to not take a lap around the festival and leave; we want them to make a day out of it,” says Ornstein. An attendance of 200,000 is expected over the weekend.

To attract a younger crowd, three national headliners will take the stage during the weekend. Featured bands will include Guster, Night Riots (both playing Saturday) and Jeremy Garrett's Fiddle Science (playing Sunday).

To many, People’s Fair is a labor of love and work at it for years; some, decades. Doug Kacena, an accomplished artist and veteran of the Mural Project, began volunteering in 2000. He helped stretch canvases, purchase supplies and judge the finished murals. Kacena noticed the dwindling attendance. A rain-out one year, and competition from other fairs happening concurrently near Civic Center Park, hurt People’s Fair’s turnout.

“At one point, People’s Fair was just about the only fair in Denver. Now, there is competition with other fairs and festivals in close proximity.”

With being a veteran, there come stories. “I remember, one year, a young woman came by the booth and said she recognized me from when she participated in the Mural Project,” reflects Kacena. She was an at-risk youth and was persuaded to join a team to paint a mural for the project. At the time, she was experiencing homelessness and lived at a youth shelter downtown. The Mural Project was a huge influence for her. She went on to earn her GED and enrolled at Metro State University and studied primary education. Once on the brink, now she is an elementary school art teacher.

“When I think of her story, I still tear up,” said Kacena. “A little art goes a long way.”

People’s Fair, regardless of who runs it, will always be about the community—Capitol Hill and surrounding neighborhoods, the nonprofits and those dedicated to the Fair’s survival. “We feel CHUN has done a terrific job over the years and don’t want to take away from how they’ve developed this historic festival,” says Ornstein.

CHUN will still receive proceeds, as will Project Angel Heart, Animal Haus, Colorado Gay Rodeo Association, Doing Good Foundation and more to be announced.

Hopefully, years from now, Team Player Productions will have personal anecdotes about the festival as well.

For information about attending People’s Fair, visit peoplesfair.com.

Roger Armstrong, former Executive Director of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, passes at the age of 54

It is with great sadness we report that Roger Armstrong, longtime Capitol Hill-area community activist and former Executive Director of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN), has lost his battle with cancer.

Speaking to her time with Armstrong, CHUN Board Member and former President Caroline Schomp, said “Roger Armstrong was a quietly strong leader who listened to all points of view. When I was president of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, he was patient, gentle and kind. He made me a better leader.”

Roger Armstrong seated in front of the Tears-McFarlane Mansion, home of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods. Photo by Sara Hertwig.

Armstrong started his career in HIV/AIDS outreach work. Originally from Philadelphia, he became a 20-year veteran of CHUN, starting his tenure in 1997 as a board member. He officially became a full-time CHUN employee when he left the Temple Events Center in 2005.

As reported by LIFE in February of this year, Armstrong’s first full-time role with CHUN was as director of iconic CHUN event The People’s Fair—the first he directed was in 2006. By August 2008, he was executive director.

Armstrong noted for that story his pride in working for one of Denver’s most iconic registered neighborhood organizations (RNOs).

“For me, it was really an honor to run an organization that had been so established over the years,” he said. “In most city circles, whether it’s city departments, planning departments, City Council, public works, they see CHUN as one of the biggest and most-organized [RNOs].”

Speaking to his memory of Armstrong at an Oct. 17 FANS for Cheesman Park RNO meeting, Denver City Councilman Wayne New chose to focus on Armstrong’s positive nature.

“If you didn’t know Roger, he was just a real gentleman, a peacemaker and guy who tried to think positive and come up with solutions,” New said. “[Roger] was a real team player. He’s going to be sorely missed. He struggled with cancer for many, many years, and through that he continued to do great work.”

Councilman New and his colleagues officially recognized Armstrong Oct. 16 during the regular City Council session with an official proclamation offering “thanks and appreciation for the life and work of Roger D. Armstrong.”

Armstrong is survived by his wife, Cathy Lopez. "Roger changed my life for the better. He was my best friend and I was honored to walk by his side through his battle with cancer,” she says. “He was brave and strong and always kind. My heart is broken."

An obituary can be found here: newcomerdenver.com/Obituary/148948/Roger-Armstrong/Denver-Colorado.

Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods shows first profit since 2013

It was with much excitement and a touch of relief that Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN) Co-presidents Travis Leiker and Mark Cossin were able to tell those assembled for the registered neighborhood organizations’ (RNO) annual membership meeting that, for the first time since 2013, the RNO ended 2017 with a true profit.

Speaking after the meeting, Leiker said the board “remains optimistic about [CHUN’s] future and this optimism is buoyed by the fact that our financials look as well as they do, considering just 12 months ago, our long-term outlook was very different.”

The meeting was held at Warwick Hotel Jan. 11 and was attended by more than 80 area residents. Budgetary concerns led the agenda. Leiker and Cossin led a high-level budget talk, and then CHUN Treasurer John Riecke took those assembled through a detailed explanation of the 2017 financial position.

“CHUN is in ongoing conversations with our new partners, City Street Investors, to look at and explore what our opportunities are to activate Tears-McFarlane House in a much more meaningful way. We are definitely focused on, as we craft this vision, ensuring that we hold true to our organizational values and do what is best for both CHUN and the community.”

For 2017, CHUN was able to show a profit of $59,464.70, but, according to Leiker and Cossin, while there’s room for excitement, there’s much yet to do. Tears-McFarlane House and community center is in need of about $250,000 in urgent repairs, and, say the co-presidents, the price tag for needed full restoration of the building may be closer to $1,000,000.

CHUN’s recent annual budgetary shortfalls were in part tied to declining revenues from their once signature event, the People’s Fair, an annual summer kickoff festival held in Denver since 1972. The event is now produced by Team Player Productions, a Lower Highlands-area event planning and promotions company responsible for events such as the Breckenridge Wine Classic and Taste of Fort Collins.

CHUN ended 2014 and 2016 in the red $19,072.42 and $44,251.77, respectively. In 2015 it did show a profit of $47,761.03, though that profit was due to the RNO making use of and depleting its cash reserves. Those reserves once totaled more than $200,000.

The return to true profitability in 2017 was due to a shift in focus from the People’s Fair to the Tears-McFarlane House, CHUN’s headquarters at 1290 N. Williams St., as a source of income.

In addition, CHUN’s leadership had to make the decision to scale back on operating costs, including eliminating all full-time staff positions in early 2017 and cutting excess costs wherever possible.

In 2017 CHUN was able to lease offices in the building and recoup $81,200.66. Additionally, CHUN brought in $15,583.54 through special events like their annual wine tasting, $22,409.89 in contributions and $11,611.20 in membership dues. Contributions are classified as individual private donations, monies via Colorado Gives Day, board member contributions and recurring donations. Total profits came to $157,395.75, and total expenses, including $12,676.68 in payroll expenses, came to $97,970.05.

When Leiker and Cossin assumed leadership and began looking at ways to bring the RNO back to profitability, they discovered there was no existing major gift base to make contributions in excess of $500, there was no foundation support, the contingency fund was exhausted and the Tears-McFarlane House was the only potential source of revenue.

Though there’s much to be relieved about, there remains more to do. Tears-McFarlane House needs repairs to its hot water heater (which failed and caused damage), sewer line, ceilings (which leak during heavy snows and rains), fire and burglar alarm systems, electrical systems, gutters and key structural elements, such as brickwork.

According to Leiker and Cossin, as securing a loan for even the basic repairs wasn’t a truly viable option given CHUN’s recent cash flow issues, the RNO is currently working with City Street Investors, a real estate investment and development firm which approached the RNO in April to form a partnership. City Street’s website (citystreetinvestors.com) says the company is “dedicated to creating extraordinary places … through transformative real estate investments,” and the firm can claim in its list of projects Denver’s Union Station, Novo Coffee Shop on 6th Avenue, Lowry Hangar 2 and Eastbridge Town Center in Stapleton.

Leiker and Cossin stressed during the presentation that any partnership with City Street would be just that, a joint venture, and there is no discussion about selling Tears-McFarlane House outright. Any venture would keep CHUN in the house and ensure its presence there going forward. Last fall, the two groups conducted a series of focus groups to help guide a new, reinvigorated space; they are in the process of reviewing this data as it will guide their next steps.

“CHUN is in ongoing conversations with our new partners, City Street Investors, to look at and explore what our opportunities are to activate Tears-McFarlane House in a much more meaningful way,” Leiker says. “We are definitely focused on, as we craft this vision, ensuring that we hold true to our organizational values and do what is best for both CHUN and the community.”

LIFE will continue to cover this story as it develops.

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