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Posted: May 01, 2012

Executive edge: Wendy Mitchell

Aurora’s economic-development leader began with frank assessment of city’s image

Lynn Bronikowski

Ten years ago, shortly after Wendy Mitchell was named president and chief executive of the Aurora Economic Development Council, she took a risk – asking businesspeople what they thought of Aurora.

"Our study came out to say that people thought Aurora was not a good place to do business, that Aurora was not a good place to live," Mitchell recalls. "We realized then that one of the ways for us to change that was to let people come to their own conclusions by bringing in more jobs and highlighting what our major industries are."

Among other things, she created the A-List dinner, the biggest business event in the state. The annual gathering brings together regional and political business leaders to hear high-caliber speakers ranging from Bill Clinton to Andre Agassi.

"At these events we highlight our strengths, our industries," Mitchell said. "My whole goal was that when people walked out of there they said, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea. I did not know that about Aurora.’"

Every year the council does a follow-up survey to gauge perceptions, and according to Mitchell, "The needle has moved drastically and will continue to do that."

It helps that Aurora landed two huge deals last year. Gaylord Entertainment Co. said it hopes to build an $825 million hotel near Denver International Airport while General Electric said it will build a $300 million solar panel plant in Aurora.

"At the end of the day all we do is find out what our client wants, and we find a way to give it to them in a way that they want to receive it," said Mitchell, who heads a staff of six, operates on a budget of just under $2 million and currently has seven projects in the pipeline.

For the Gaylord project that meant agreeing to rebate $300 million in future property and use taxes to Nashville-based Gaylord – a move that has drawn some criticism, particularly from downtown Denver interests.

"Everyone talks about this big bag of money that we’ve given Gaylord, but that’s not true," Mitchell said. "If they don’t make a dime, they don’t get any of it back, plus the hotel will mean 1,500 jobs we didn’t have before."

She said the suburbs long have supported Denver projects – from construction of Sports Authority Field at Mile High and the Colorado Convention Center to Coors Field.

"For the most part we have received incredible support for Gaylord," Mitchell said. "If we really want to believe in the mentality that we all need to work together, then that needs to play out when something outside of downtown is happening."

Mitchell was drawn to take the Aurora job by the redevelopment of Fitzsimons Army Base into the Anschutz Medical Campus, a $4.3 billion investment on one square mile in the heart of Aurora with a daily work force of 17,000.

"Clearly the Anschutz Campus is the hope of Colorado," said Mitchell, who credits others with doing the heavy lifting before she arrived. "It is really something that Mayor Paul Tauer and the city council had the foresight to see what this could be. That shows they had a vision for Aurora even 15 years ago."

Mitchell, 43, a native of Albuquerque, studied economics at the University of New Mexico before working her way up from intern to vice president at Amrep Southwest, a publicly traded developer of Rio Rancho, an Albuquerque suburb.

"I was always interested in real estate and economic development," said Mitchell, who laughs that she reads The Economist and Women’s Wear Daily. "The thing I like most about this job is that every day is different – you don’t know what is going to happen or where you’re going to end up and what’s going to pop up."

Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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