DIA’s 25th anniversary offers a reminder that while much of the city’s attention in 1995 was focused on the historic opening of a new airport, a small group of civic-minded Denverites had been hard at work for years on a plan that would guide the use of the 4,400 acres it left behind.
One of those people was Sam Gary, a name most people in NE Denver now associate with the Stapleton library. Gary made a tremendous fortune in the oil and gas industry—and made a commitment to use his fortune to give back to the community. “Sam’s vision was to find the ways to make a big impact on the community—and he never really cared if he got the credit,” says Mike Johnston, a former state senator and Stapleton resident who was just recently named CEO of Gary’s charitable organizations, the Piton Foundation and Gary Community Investments (GCI).
“Sam was one of the initial visionaries with the idea to turn the former airport into a new mixed-use retail/residential neighborhood. The general thinking at the time was that it would be industrial. His vision was to actually say, ‘No, this could be a great residential neighborhood.’ He was able to engage the stakeholders and partners to start the process—and eventually for the City to take it on. But I think Sam was one of the initial drivers to really develop the vision and build the coalition of people who wanted to make it happen.”
Johnston, whose career over the past 25 years has included being a teacher, a principal, a state legislator, and starting and leading nonprofit and for-profit organizations, says he has always focused on organizations that could make an impact on issues he cares most about. After dropping out of the U.S. Senate race last fall, he asked himself, “Where is the place I could have the biggest impact on the issues I care most about? I think one of the most pressing issues in Colorado and across the country continues to be inequality. How do we make sure everybody has access to opportunities?” Key areas of concern include access to quality early childhood education, quality K-12 education, preparing workers for the next generation of jobs, and ensuring that economic development is happening in all communities. “This job was an incredible opportunity to have an immediate impact on a lot of the policy issues I’ve been working on over the last decade—directly putting resources to work in communities today to deliver real results.”
Sam Gary’s organizations are structured unlike other foundations, says Johnston. “Sam, as someone who came out of the private sector, believes there are a lot of problems for which nonprofits are the right solution—but when policy or politics are the right solution, a for-profit organization might actually be the right solution. For example, the Garys gave a million dollars to the Denver Preschool Program ballot measure to help make sure it passed. You can’t do that through a nonprofit, but you can do it through an LLC, so that’s why we have both….That structure of the organization gives us maximum flexibility to invest in any good idea if it advances our outcomes,” says Johnston.
GCI will lead a statewide ballot measure this November to create universal preschool for four-year-olds all over Colorado through a tax on tobacco and vaping products.
Sam Gary’s organizations will not exist in perpetuity. They have a sunset provision, planned for approximately 2035. “Instead of relying on philanthropy as a perpetual solution, we get involved in trying to change the systems in an ongoing way. For us, that adds real urgency and focus on getting the work done,” says Johnston. “The idea is that every dollar will have to be invested in the community in organizations that will do work in an ongoing way. If you’re a foundation that’s set to exist in perpetuity, you have to be much more cautious about what you do. This allows us to make some real big bets that we think could make a big impact if we find those opportunities.”
A Statewide Childcare System for COVID Emergency Responders
Gary Community Investments (GCI) is able to “make a big impact when we find those opportunities,” says CEO Mike Johnston. GCI just put that statement into action and is being recognized nationally for their response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Schools and businesses were closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, hopefully giving hospitals time to ramp up for the cases to come. “That would only work if all of our emergency workers could still get to work,” says Johnston. But with schools and childcare centers closed, would they be unable to work due to lack of childcare?
That realization led Johnston and GCI to play a leading role in creating a partnership with the state and other foundations and providers to build a statewide system that would help connect the emergency workers to available childcare in their communities.
“In just 7 days, we look to be the only state in the country that has built a statewide system offering free childcare for emergency workers—designed and led by a public-private partnership. We matched more than 1,700 families last weekend—and they are now receiving child care this week,” Johnston told us by email. “It will make Colorado a model for the rest of the country on how people can pull together and solve big problems in a crisis.”
For more info visit covidchildcarecolorado.com/