2015 Colorado Legacy Award Winner Gene Commander: Finding a Way Forward
Denver construction attorney recognized for his years of skillful mediation and volunteer efforts across the industry B
When ENR Mountain States announced that Denver attorney Gene Commander would be honored with the magazine’s 2015 Legacy Award for Colorado, fellow attorney Ryan Warren promised a resounding roast at the awards ceremony. Commander just smiled and told Warren, “Remember, I get to go on after you.”
The quip is emblematic of what people around the Denver office of law firm Polsinelli call “Gene-isms” and what Commander’s grown son and daughter refer to as “Dad-isms.”
Other examples: “That’s why they call it work.” And, “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.”
An attorney for more than 35 years and the managing shareholder of Polsinelli’s Denver office from 2011 until his retirement in July, Commander is famous for working hard while displaying an affable nature that encourages people to come together on anything from untangling thorny disputes to developing downtown Denver. Although he has left Polsinelli, Commander isn’t retired from the world of work. He has hung out his own shingle as a professional mediator in a move he hopes will leave more time for personal and family pursuits while keeping him connected to the Denver legal and business communities.
It’s safe to say that Denver’s construction and development industries would look a lot different without Commander, whose enthusiastic participation in the local business scene has involved near-endless volunteer hours, including a one-year stint as chair of the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), an organization that has helped shape Denver’s skyline.
“He’s recognized as being one of the individuals who, through the years, has not just held a leadership position, but has been proactively engaged in really making things happen,” says Tami Door, DDP’s executive director. “Whether it’s advancing a policy issue, bringing other businesses to the table to be part of the conversation, raising funds or resources or addressing legal issues on behalf of the organization, he truly understands the projects, programs and events that we work on, and he gets in there and he gets things done.”
A key to Denver’s development has been Commander’s ability to help people see their common interests, says Michael Gifford, president and CEO of Associated General Contractors. “When you see all those cranes downtown, it’s a collaboration of a bunch of different interests that puts the region of Denver ahead of anyone’s individual interest,” Gifford says. “It’s people like Gene, saying, ‘Hey, we can do this, here’s where we can go, and here’s how we can do it.’”
Commander is particularly proud of contributing to DDP’s efforts in developing Denver’s Lower Downtown, a neighborhood bookended by Coors Field and the Pepsi Center. A run-down jumble of abandoned buildings and lonely rail yards just 20 years ago, LoDo has been transformed into a vibrant neighborhood of restaurants, nightclubs, apartments and offices. It has become a magnet for young adults moving to Denver.
Commander says construction of the ballpark and the arena, in particular, “really allowed Lower Downtown to earn the respectability it needed for people to be willing to bring the substantial investments that they’ve made in the area.”
Architectural Training Commander was a young man when he arrived in Denver in 1981. He had graduated with a degree in architecture in 1975 from Iowa State University, but layoffs at architecture and engineering firms persuaded him to attend law school at the University of Iowa. Nonetheless, his continuing love of architecture led him into construction law, where he says his understanding of technical issues has provided a “unique perspective” in resolving disputes.
As Denver recovered from the recession of the early 1980s, Commander’s practice grew, along with his reputation as a cool head who could help contractors, owners and others navigate their differences. He has spent much of the past 15 years as a mediator with the American Arbitration Association and has been working in private mediation for more than five years.
“I’ve learned a lot watching and listening to my clients as they’ve gone through (the mediation) process over the years,” Commander says. “And I’ve learned a lot by watching other neutral parties serving as mediators and arbitrators. I think I’ve recognized that there’s a need for people in those roles who think proactively and want to work with business people who want to think and work proactively to solve their disputes.”
Says Warren, “I know that Gene values significantly the idea of getting a dispute resolved ahead of time through the mediation process rather than have all the parties spend so much money on litigation. I think he takes significant pride in being able to get folks to a resolution on a sticky problem.”
A central goal in Commander’s new post-Polsinelli venture is staying close to the regional construction industry. After more than three decades of practicing law, he still retains his love of architecture and watching buildings go up.
“I joke with my clients that when they’re done with a project, they’ve got a beautiful structure that everyone can admire for years and years, and when you’re a lawyer and you finish a project, you’ve got a bunch of boxes full of paper,” he says.
That notwithstanding, those boxes represent deals done and disputes resolved, in a life’s work that continues to help create the city that fuels Commander’s passion. And if you were to sift through the files, you might even discover a few Gene-isms that lightened the negotiations and ultimately led to another high-rise on the Denver skyline