Veronica Barela has risen from an impoverished girl raised on welfare in the West Side projects to one of the city’s most influential economic leaders. As president and CEO of the NEWSED nonprofit community development corporation, she has helped move more than 800 families into home ownership and built out more than 600,000 square feet of housing and commercial real estate in the West Side neighborhood and beyond. A housing unit made up of 38 low-income apartments bears her name at Santa Fe Drive and West 10th Avenue — La Villa De Barela. And she’s credited with starting some of Denver’s largest cultural celebrations, including Cinco de Mayo in 1987.

Veronica Barela's retirement party Jan. 27, 2018 (85)Andrea Barela, NEWSED’s development director, says the word that best describes her mother is “transformation.” The lives she’s made better. The neighborhood from blighted to beautiful. And her own rise from the projects.

“Even as a young girl, I would go outside to play, and I’d fantasize about how to make the house across the street, or the landscaping along Santa Fe, more beautiful,” said Veronica.

Which is pretty much just what she has done for 33 years overseeing the economic revitalization of Santa Fe, which from Third through 13th avenues boasts 300 businesses, 64 of them galleries or arts-related companies. But the economic downturn has caused a 25 percent rise in vacancies along Santa Fe in the past two years.

“The Santa Fe Arts District only exists because it’s a dream that Veronica saw a long time ago,” said Anthony Garcia, artistic director of the strip’s newest tenant, the Su Teatro performing arts center at the Civic Theatre. “In terms of growing the arts, there have been a lot of key players. But in terms of the economic development of the arts district, Veronica is the key player.”

At times, Barela has governed her turf with the gentle brushstroke of a master painter — at others with the pounding fist of the defiant political activist who grew up and out of the civil-rights movement.

“Veronica is obviously very passionate,” Garcia said. “You might talk to people who will say it’s much better to be on Veronica’s good side than on her bad side.”

Barela doesn’t disagree.

“I enjoy confronting injustices,” she said. “I get real feisty when I find people who are attacking other people’s rights.”

Growing up in the North Lincoln projects on Mariposa Street, Barela didn’t know what poor was until her piano teacher had her perform recitals in wealthy people’s homes. “Then I would go back to the projects, and the stark reality about being poor would really hit me,” she said.

In the 1950s, the West Side neighborhood was like the United Nations: “There were Jews, Germans, Latinos, Italians,” she said, a real mix of immigrants working for the nearby railroads. It didn’t become predominantly Latino until the out-migration to the suburbs in the early 1960s.

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“I think being poor helped me to better understand people’s situations in life, particularly understanding how to help people without judging them,” said Barela, who studied public administration at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, graduated from Metro State and then set aside aspirations for a medical or legal career to join the board of a then-fledgling NEWSED.

Named director in 1978, Barela set out to preserve the integrity and continuity of the Santa Fe business corridor with a coordinated strategy: buying at least one building on both sides of every block so that no developer could come in and bulldoze an entire block. “And we almost succeeded,” she said, failing only to secure land on the 600 block of Santa Fe.

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NEWSED operates on about a $1 million a year from federal, foundation and private grants.

The national proliferation of nonprofit community development corporations, or CDCs, started with Robert and Ethel Kennedy. About 2,500 CDCs now provide services for low-income residents in struggling neighborhoods. Barela considers the CDC movement to be as important as the civil-rights and labor movements.

“CDCs were started as a response to what was taking place in the ’60s and ’70s, when the cities were being abandoned,” Garcia added. “NEWSED was very much an outgrowth of the Chicano movement. It was all these activists saying, ‘Our communities are being blighted. There are no jobs for our people. We don’t have any control over anything.’ So it was a move to try to create our own community foundation.”

Political activism and economic empowerment have been interconnected from the start. “Changing zoning laws were starting to segregate neighborhoods by ethnicity, creating welfare states,” Barela said. “So one of the reasons CDCs were started was to create more of a balance in these neighborhoods by investing in businesses for people of color.”

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Barela took over NEWSED the same year one-third of Denver’s Latino community was forcibly displaced from their West Side homes to make room for the Auraria campus. “This community did not want the campus, but they just ram-rodded it down people’s throats,” she said.

Mixing politics with activism has led to skirmishes in which Barela has taken up causes that aren’t always popular.

She was vilified in her own community, for example, for taking Coors sponsorship money for Cinco de Mayo. Barela asked Garcia if he would boycott over it. “And I said, ‘Yeah, and everybody else is, too.”

A Metro student group “went berserk on me over that,” Barela said, “and I told them to take a hike, really. I wasn’t going to tell people what kind of beer they can drink. Prohibition is dead.”

She also took on the University of Colorado-Denver when it tried to put up an international student housing complex, in violation of a promise that the campus would never creep south of Colfax. And she won.

She jumped in head-first in the early 1990s when it was discovered that banks were violating the Community Reinvestment Act, which outlawed redlining — denying services, access to jobs or health care to residents in racially determined areas.

“The banks just don’t want to lend in our community neighborhoods; they really don’t,” Barela said. “That’s the bottom line. So you need to ‘negotiate’ with them, and really point out to them that when you look at the statistics, poor people pay their bills better than middle class or rich people. That’s just a given fact.”

She’s  been involved with the Committee for Airport Fairness, which seeks equitable distribution of DIA contracts. And Arizona’s immigration battle has her back in 1960s protest form.

“Passing legislation that says we cannot know our own history is totally outrageous, and I would go down there and fight that in a second,” she said.

Barela, 64, is a mother of two, grandmother of four and wife of 45 years. She envisions retirement in a few years, proud that daughter Andrea has devoted her life to this same work since she was old enough to reach the buttons on the Xerox machine.

But at a time when the economic downturn has brought new vacancies to Santa Fe, and when gentrification has brought the Latino population down from 99 percent a decade ago, Barela said, to 75 percent in 2009, there is still work to be done.

But there have been recent victories as well. Su Teatro’s relocation brought “absolute elation,” said Barela, not only for the artistic infusion it will bring, but for the secondary boost to neighboring businesses. And last month’s opening of Metro State’s Visual Arts Center at 965 Santa Fe Drive was a sure sign of healing and reunification.

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Tony Garcia, Su Teatros Executive Director believed that Barela’s clout has only grew during the economic downturn because “the only money available anywhere in the city right was federal stimulus funding,” he said. NEWSED is among three local CDCs that were named to dole out a shared $10 million from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Judy Montero, in besting Barela in that 2003 city council race, discovered in her “an excellent fighter and a very worthy opponent.” She now counts Barela among her best friends.

“I believe Veronica’s ideas about cultural and artistic diversity as a means to revitalize a neighborhood economy are truly guiding principles,” Montero said.

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“Think of where she came from, and where she is now. I think her story tells young girls that there is positive opportunity in every life experience you have. If you choose to believe that you can make your block better, your neighborhood better, your world better — then Veronica is a shining example that you can.”

John Moore: 303-954-1056 or

NEWSED’s priorities

New West Side Economic Development, or NEWSED, is a nonprofit community development corporation (CDC) founded in 1973 to serve as a catalyst for the comprehensive economic development and beautification of the Santa Fe Drive arts and business corridor.

Economic initiatives: Revitalizing businesses along Santa Fe Drive in cooperation with the Santa Fe Redevelopment Corporation merchants association.

Housing: Buying, rehabbing and selling up to 30 HUD houses per year throughout the metro area; building low-income rental housing; helping low-income residents get back into home ownership; assisting neighbors through foreclosures.

Events: Hosting Latino cultural events, including Cinco de Mayo, the First Friday Arts Walk and the Civil Rights Awards

Counseling: In areas of housing, jobs, mental-health care and cultural development.