Jack Pappalardo, the lawyer and arts champion who helped turn Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe into a national model for urban renewal, died at the age of 60 on Dec. 3, according to his family.
Pappalardo had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the disease moved quickly, said his wife, the Denver-based artist and Habitat Gallery co-owner Georgia Amar. He died at Porter Adventist Hospital.
“He was a very ethical, equitable human being and had just the perfect temperament for this work,” Amar said. “He tried hard to accommodate everybody, no matter who they were.”
The Art District on Santa Fe — along with the city of Salida — became the state’s first certified creative district in 2012, channeling grants and marketing resources to local galleries, studios and other businesses. Even before then, its free, First Friday art walks and fine-tuned business/arts model attracted international attention and praise while providing a blueprint for Colorado’s ever-expanding arts districts.
Pappalardo, a Deadhead and fan of hockey, led efforts to form the nonprofit district in 2003, teaming with city agencies, arts and tourism groups while bringing his real estate-law and business experience to bear on the neighborhood.
He served as president of the nonprofit community membership group from 2004 to 2008, and again from 2011 to 2016.
“The neighborhood wouldn’t look the way it does without him,” said Shaina Belton, current president of the Art District on Santa Fe. “It’s a huge, huge loss … . We’re working on ideas for a memorial for him.”
The art district’s First Fridays, which at one point were drawing an estimated 20,000 people per night, are among the most visible legacies of Pappalardo and his co-founders’ work. But his life before Denver reveals a business acumen that helped make his creative dreams a reality.
Born Jan. 16, 1960, in the Jericho neighborhood of New York’s Long Island, Jack Douglas Pappalardo met future wife Amar in upstate New York more than three decades ago, working as a litigator before moving into real estate law. Quizno’s, the Denver-based sandwich chain, hired Pappalardo when he and Amar were living in Canada to move here and manage the company’s Canadian franchisees.
“They were having trouble with their franchisees, who weren’t compliant, so that’s how we ended up in Colorado,” said Amar, a French citizen born in North Africa. “It worked out for him to have a Canadian law license.”
With Pappalardo as the businessman and Amar as the artist, the couple formed a team that worked tirelessly to find opportunities for artists and people in the neighborhood and abroad, Amar said.
“We used to get calls from the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Qatar asking how we did it,” she said of the creative district. “People with huge, multimillion-dollar budgets from all over the world. I think we helped put Denver on the map.”
Instead of whitewashing the gritty stretch of Santa Fe Drive, Pappalardo reached out to people experiencing homelessness to offer jobs fixing up the neighborhood. Where some saw disused buildings and urban blight, Pappalardo saw historic character, small-business entrepreneurship and the early makings of Denver’s contemporary street- and public-art scene (though he was also proud of controlling graffiti in the neighborhood).
He won a Mayor’s Award for the Arts in 2012 for his work and has been recognized by numerous civic and business groups.
“He was literally one of the first people I met when I moved here in 2013,” said Margaret Hunt, executive director of Colorado Creative Industries, which certifies state arts districts. “He was such a champion for the artists and galleries in the creative district, but he also had a lot of influence politically, as he was close with Crisanta Duran” — the current speaker of the House for the Colorado legislature.
Pappalardo advocated for laws friendly to artists, ones that allowed artists to own and operate their spaces. That paved the way for successful followers such as the River North Art District, whose leader, Tracy Weil, has credited Pappalardo’s work in RiNo’s success.
“Part of his legacy is stepping back and letting new leadership step forward,” Hunt said. “Part of it is helping California, Washington and Nebraska advance their own art-district legislation, which has now passed and is building on the foundation that was established many years ago here.”
“It’s a loss not just for me,” Amar said, “but also for the city.”
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