A Mexican immigrant cabinetmaker striking out and opening his own business. A dilapidated, crime-ridden abandoned building transforming into a park. A whole commercial corridor turning into a …
A Mexican immigrant cabinetmaker striking out and opening his own business. A dilapidated, crime-ridden abandoned building transforming into a park. A whole commercial corridor turning into a cultural destination for Denverites miles around.
These are just some of the makeovers Bucu West Development Association, a nonprofit on Morrison Road in Westwood, has helped realize.
"I really feel like Westwood feels like a small town," said José Esparza, executive director of BuCu West. But with his organization's help, the area is building itself up to be known as more than just a neighborhood in southwest Denver.
Esparza looks forward to the day when Westwood isn't talked about as a low-income community - he'd rather highlight its grit and tight-knit nature.
"My hope is that when I leave BuCu West, Westwood would be an economy that supports local youth and local businesses," said Esparza, a 30-year-old, small-town Michigan native who went to graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver. "And somewhere people can learn from across the country."
BuCu West - the BuCu stands for business and culture - is dedicated to helping the Morrison Road corridor become a "destination," its website says. Esparza and its staff work to support the area's businesses and create a vision for how it continues to develop.
For instance, the plants in the median on Morrison Road? That's BuCu West. The street art on buildings and sidewalks? BuCu West had a hand in that. And there's more development on the horizon.
"A big part of (development) is making sure the community is involved in supporting local businesses and that local businesses are involved in supporting the community," said Esparza, who's led the nonprofit for more than four years.
Working with the people
Started in 1987 as the Morrison Road Business Association, the organization donned the name BuCu West in 2010.
Since the name change, it's been a community development corporation. That means it can ask for larger, sometimes federal, grants and be involved in commercial real estate and business operations. BuCu West works to connect businesses, and those looking to start businesses, with resources that can get them off the ground, Esparza said.
Before the change, the organization depended mostly on business owners' contributions and volunteer efforts, but the community needed more resources than that.
"What we ended up seeing was Morrison Road is more than just the businesses that make it up - it's the heart of Westwood," Esparza said.
As a community development corporation, it involves residents that bring a wide variety of skills to the table, Esparza said. Rather than only assisting businesses, BuCu West can search for resources to help the area in other ways.
"For example, we started a façade improvement program in 2012, and that was started with the (Denver) Office of Economic Development," Esparza said. "We involved community members on what they wanted to see and worked with architecture students at the University of Colorado Denver. That's just an example of how the broad resources around Denver can support local businesses ... rather than just seeking funds on Morrison Road."
BuCu West administers the local maintenance district for the Morrison Road corridor, which performs functions like trash services and planting trees and plants with money from businesses in the area. The district, recognized under City of Denver laws, was created in 2004, Esparza said.
Other government designations have given opportunities to the corridor, too.
In July 2016, Denver City Council approved a formal designation to make Morrison Road a cultural and business district as part of the Westwood neighborhood plan. The plan hopes to bring more street art, retail stores that reflect Mexican-American culture and street spaces for art and music.
On June 13, the state of Colorado also recognized the area as a creative district, placing it among the 21 districts around the state in total. With that comes a $10,000 grant from Colorado Creative Industries - the state's economic support agency for the arts - that BuCu West will match with another $10,000 in the next few years.
In all, the new designations should bring expanded sidewalks, new streetscape construction designs and marketing support along with retail and art additions.
Making a mark
Esparza's organization also has made direct changes to the fabric of the neighborhood.
"Back in 2013 and 2014, we were really involved in identifying properties that were key for this community to develop," Esparza said.
BuCu West worked with the nonprofits Trust for Public Land and Urban Land Conservancy to identify and track down the owner of what was once called the O K Thriftway store. In the neighborhood, the neglected building was known as the "Old Thriftway" and once housed a laundromat and dry cleaner.
It was "derelict and abandoned and a target for violence, drug use, squatting - all kinds of stuff," Esparza said. Some residents described it as one of their main concerns.
The building went through various levels of foreclosure and was difficult for anyone to purchase, Esparza said, so BuCu West worked with Denver City Councilman Paul López to raise awareness about the problem. Urban Land Conservancy bought the land and demolished the building in 2014. And in June 2017, it opened as the new Thriftway Pocket Park, featuring a futsal court and community gardens. Mayor Michael Hancock spoke at the opening ceremony.
But sometimes, BuCu West makes an impact just by giving a hand to a small, unassuming future business.
"I was a cabinetmaker for 10 years," said Hector Medina, a 44-year-old Westwood resident who came to the United States from Mexico in 1989. "I got tired. I decided to open a store."
Medina had BuCu West's help with getting a business license and applying for a loan. After being denied for the loan, Medina saved money and opened his convenience store, Abarrotes Medina's, about a year later in 2015, just a block south of BuCu West on Morrison Road. Esparza said his organization worked with Medina for a year and a half, looking at resources and giving his family financial advice.
"I just didn't want to work for nobody - except my wife," Medina said, laughing.
Esparza, 30, hopes to keep helping people develop and "build deep roots."
"It's something that only happens naturally," he said. "You can't just buy a plot of land and build a Westwood."