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The 'unfortunate transition' between DIA and Great Hall Partners: What went wrong and what's next?

Denver International Airport is ending its agreement with Great Hall Partners LLC. What went wrong?

DENVER — Like most breakups, it’s hard to pinpoint one thing that led to the disintegration of the relationship between Denver International Airport and the developer for the Great Hall renovation.  

“There are no 'ah ha' moments,” DIA’s CEO Kim Day said during a Tuesday morning news conference announcing the split. “It was just the buildup of things.”

FULL STORY: DIA terminates agreement with contractor for Great Hall Project

But, that “buildup of things” Day mentioned has been drawn out for months during a $770 million project that, initially supposed to be completed in 2021, is now on pace to end four years behind schedule (Day said DIA hopes to finish it sooner but didn’t specify how they'd do it.)

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Great Hall Partners said it was committed to a "special and smooth withdrawal" from the project. 

“We are disappointed with [DIA]’s decision and strongly disagree with their characterizations of how we have arrived at this point," the statement reads. "We categorically reject their allegations around safety and change directives." 

How did we get to what Day referred to as a “unfortunate transition?” (She said this phrase works better than "debacle" or "mistake".) What’s next? 

Here’s a timeline.

Summer 2017: Denver City Council gives Great Hall project the go-ahead

Back when DIA first opened in 1995, mobile ticketing and people trying to squeeze as much as possible into carry-ons to avoid baggage fees weren’t a part of traveling. So, it makes sense why, as travel has evolved over the years, airlines have needed less and less space for their check-in counters. 

RELATED: The future of DIA: officials offer first public peek at a renovated Great Hall

Consolidating this space – as well as moving security out of the Great Hall and near where the ticketing counters now – were two big parts of the project when it was first presented in June 2017, according to Denver Business Journal coverage. This was before the City Council approved the project that August. 

At the time, Day said her hope was for DIA to be the “prototype for other airports” – and that the public-private partnership involved in the Great Hall project would cut two years off the construction time.

FULL STORY: $1.8 billion plan to improve DIA moves forward

This came with a caveat though: The deal with Spain’s Ferrovial S.A. was a 34-agreement that included the private company receiving a cut of the airport’s revenue. 

It's worth mentioning that Ferrovial isn't an unknown by any means: It was involved in a revamp of London's Heathrow Airport before securing the DIA contract. 

July 2018: Passengers start to notice the construction project

Passengers began to realize a huge project was underway at DIA as numerous concessions in the Great Hall began to close to make way for construction. That was slated to happen in phases. 

Day announced the start of construction in a press release at the time, saying: “The Great Hall Project will reconfigure and better utilize the existing space in the terminal to create a safer, more efficient and better travel experience while returning the Great Hall to its original purpose of a travelers’ oasis."  

The construction start came a month after conspiracy theorists noticed some of the airport’s most notable (others would say “creepy”) art was moved into storage … again, for the sake of the construction project. 

This was all a change to adjust to, but some good came out of the whole thing: The incredible signs about the construction implying that the Illuminati and lizard people were behind the airport after all (you can Google the conspiracy theories on your own time). 

December 2018: DIA and 9NEWS work together to show what it will look like after the renovations 

DIA worked with 9NEWS and the TEGNA Art Department to visually show what the airport will look like after the Great Hall Project, which at the time we reported was slated to be finished in 2022. (Our previous reporting said 2021.)

FULL STORY: Here's what DIA will look like after its $2 billion renovation

The videos featured the “security suites” headed to the airport, which would allow 30 to 35 people to enter the line for TSA screening at a time.

February 2019:Great Hall Partners admits the project is behind schedule

A monthly report from Great Hall Partners revealed developers anticipated a 10-month delay for the project, bringing the estimated completion date from Nov. 3, 2021 to Aug. 30, 2022. At the time, Great Hall Partners said concrete samples from the airport’s terminal floor tested weaker than expected.

That concrete would become a huge sticking point.

April 2019: The 10-month delay grows to 18 months 

Another report from Great Hall Partners said the issues with the concrete floor could delay the project for 18 months, meaning the anticipated finish date was projected to become May 2023.

DIA called that timeline an estimate and said it was working to mitigate the impacts of the so-called shoddy concrete. 

June 2019: May 2023? Try May 2024.  

Great Hall Partners issued another report, this one with worse news, that the Great Hall project would likely be finished 2.5 years behind schedule, in May 2024.

This time, the developers said it was having trouble securing permits in a timely manner, and once again mentioned what it said was shoddy concrete. The city of Denver, however, claimed engineers it hired had tested the floor and argued it could in fact support the construction. 

July 2019: DIA says it experienced its biggest summer season ever 

Like it does nearly every month, DIA sent out a news release saying it was home to a record number of passengers in May 2019, with six million people walking in and out of the airport.

This was the second busiest month in the airport’s history, behind July 2018, DIA wrote in a news release. 

One of those passengers was actor Macaulay Culkin, who had glowing praise: 

July 26, 2019: DIA threatens to break up with Great Hall LLC

Representatives for DIA filed a letter alleging that Great Hall LLC breached their contract, and that it needs to address concerns including fire-damaged escalators caused by demolition, cleaning delays and concerns about minority hires.

FULL STORY: DIA threatens to end contract with developers in the middle of Great Hall renovation

The laundry list of allegations also claimed the construction disrupted normal activity at the airport and that developers repeatedly failed to meet the deadlines outlined in 2017’s agreement. It also claimed the contractors intentionally refused to remove walls in the baggage claim area that didn’t need to be there anymore. 

Great Hall Partners claimed this criticism distracts from “serious matters” that were getting in the way of the project. In a letter, the developer said what actually caused the delays were changes to the airport’s plans and the concrete in the terminal.

FULL STORY: Laundry list of concerns preceded DIA's threat to end contract with developer

In addition, Great Hall Partners alleged the escalator fire was actually caused “in part by the owner’s own lack of maintenance and allowing grease to build up in the equipment” and that the escalators weren’t the developer’s problem to begin with.

As for the walls in the baggage claim, Great Hall Partners alleged they hadn’t come down yet due to a disagreement over whether the work was actually finished on the part of the airport. 

RELATED: Great Hall contractor shoots down airport's claims of shoddy work, throws blame at DIA

Aug. 2, 2019: Audit cites safety hazards at DIA 

A safety audit found that the airport’s construction zones had places with incomplete guardrails, holes in scaffolding and missing toe boards. In some areas, the audit alleged passengers could be hit on the head with falling debris, and that in some places, wires dangled from the ceiling – increasing the risk of electrocution.

FULL STORY: Audit cites various hazards at DIA

Great Hall Partners alleged these concerns were unfounded and just a ploy from DIA to get out of the contract between the two. In a statement, the LLC called the allegations “misleading.” 

Aug. 12, 2019: DIA says it won’t compensate Great Hall Partners over the concrete issue 

In a filing posted on Denver’s municipal bond website, DIA claimed the concrete issues was not big enough to account for delays in the project, saying it would not allow Great Hall Partners to receive a deadline extension or the compensation it asked for.

FULL STORY: DIA: Concrete can't be blamed for construction delays at airport

Alana Watkins, a spokeswoman for GHP, said the organization was "disappointed" by DIA's decision.

"GHP categorically disagrees with [DIA]'s assertions and believes that GHP is rightly entitled to the relief set forth in its claims," Watkins said.

Aug. 13, 2019: DIA breaks up with Great Hall Partners 

During a news conference, Day confirmed DIA was ending its contract with Great Hall Partners and now working to find a new contractor. The difference? The airport said it would solely operate the Great Hall, instead of having it be part of a public-private partnership as originally planned.

Terminating the contract would cost money, Day said, but she couldn’t confirm how much. She said the goal was to stay within the $770 million budget (it breaks down to $650 million plus a $120 million contingency) – something that could force the airport to change the scope of the Great Hall project as it moves forward. 

Her other, lofty goal was to either beat or at least match the 2025 projected finish date the initial developers ended with.

Here’s a recap of the contract with Great Hall Partners:

  • Great Hall Partners was going to make an initial investment of $258 million that the airport would repay over time. The LLC would also receive a 20% share of concession revenues from new shops and restaurants.
  • Following the completion of the project, Great Hall Partners would be on the hook for 30 years of operations and maintenance for specific parts of the airport. This contract was capped at $1.8 billion.

According to Great Hall Partners’ website (the section of the DIA website that mentioned the project is already gone), here are some of the key milestones the developer was supposed to have hit: 

  • Mid 2019: First phase of new check-in counters and the first phase of the new commercial area open.
  • Early 2020: All remaining new check-in counters open with all airlines in their final locations.
  • Late 2020: New TSA passenger screening areas open.
  • Late 2021: Construction complete including all the new commercial areas.

What’s next? 

Great Hall Partners has 90 days to vacate the project – meaning they should be gone by November, the beginning of the holiday travel season.  

Since DIA actually owns the plans, it can find a new developer to implement them. For what it's worth, work will be halted during this intervening time. 

The new plan, like it did in 2017, will require final approval from the Denver City Council. Day expects work to begin again sometime early next year. 

Englewood-based Saunders Construction, another contractor on the project, released this statement Thursday afternoon: 

“Saunders Construction is proud of our work to date - and the efforts of all of our partners - on the Great Hall project. We are committed to a seamless and professional transition of work to [DIA] in the coming months.

Saunders remains ever-focused on providing top-notch client service while delivering premier projects in an honest, timely and safe manner. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve as the construction partner to many leading projects throughout the region. We sincerely value the continued trust we have formed with our partners, including [DIA] and the City and County of Denver, as well as the broader community.”

As for Great Hall Partners, read their full statement below: 

“We are disappointed with [DIA]s decision and strongly disagree with their characterizations of how we have arrived at this point.  We categorically reject their allegations around safety and change directives.  As a firm, we have among the best track records in the world for adhering to the highest standards for safety.  Indeed, the concerns we raised over concrete that was weaker than initially represented by [DIA], were an important part of our safety analysis.  In fact, the project contractor has a “recordable incident rate” of almost half of the national rate and has a zero “lost time injury rate.” 

Unfortunately, until this point, confidentiality provisions in our contract prevented us from rebutting over the last several weeks a stream of unfounded complaints and allegations.  The reality is that the Project’s time and cost overruns are a direct result of the discovery of weak concrete in some areas of the Terminal, which [DIA] did not disclose to GHP at the outset of the Project, and more than 20 large-scale, badly timed and unnecessary change directives issued by [DIA} to the design they had previously approved.  

As [DIA] itself said in its press conference today, our Company has extensive global experience in successfully delivering major projects such as this on time and on budget.  We would have preferred to work with [DIA] to bring this important project to successful fruition and believed with thoughtful intervention that this was still possible.  We wish the people of Denver well and are committed to a professional and smooth withdrawal.”

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