Published: June 11, 2021

Alumni say lessons from contest and classes helping them create early impact in real estate industry.

Four male and two female students pose as a group in professional dress.

The six Leeds alumni who proposed the Meadow Station project that won this year's Rocky Mountain Real Estate Challenge. From left are Jesus Banuelos-Rivera, Erika Vette, Joe Plastino, Paula Chavarria, Kyle Clinton and Simon Egerton. All graduated in spring 2021 after completing the competition.

Mayor John Widerman sees growth potential for the town of Minturn, especially in drawing tourists to its Meadow Mountain location full of historic charm. 

But Minturn isn’t Vail or Beaver Creek—and he doesn’t want a development project that turns his home into a resort. 

“We’re a proud, funky mountain town,” Widerman said. “We certainly don’t fit the mold for what would be a normal real estate project.” 

So when it came to a strategy for a 15-acre parcel called Dowd Junction, Minturn was eager to parter with NAIOP in becoming the focal point for the annual Rocky Mountain Real Estate Challenge. The competition pits student teams from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Denver against each other to design a plan for an underused space. 

In this year’s competition—the first to feature a project outside the Denver metropolitan area—the team from the Leeds School of Business won handily with Meadow Station, a mixed-use design featuring affordable housing, dining, a hospitality component with tiny homes and a transit station. 

In coming up with a winning design, the team melted a lot of shoe leather, walking the streets of Minturn to meet with locals and understand their needs.

“Locals would tell us, we’re not a resort town—we have personality, we want to keep this place unique,” said Paula Chavarria MRelEst’21, a real estate analyst for McWhinney. “The challenge for us was to design something that reflected Minturn’s personality, and wasn’t just a bunch of concrete buildings—so you’d have something made for locals, but welcome to tourists.”

In fact, as a result of those conversations, the team adjusted its design to include a grocery store. That made an impression on Greg Gastineau, of Urban Development Co., a Minturn resident and a competition judge.  

“I spoke to people in town who made it clear that there were students coming up, asking questions and trying to get a feel for things, which I think is an excellent approach,” Gastineau said. “I think the fruits of that reflect in the fact that you’re proposing a grocery in town, which is something that has been long needed and long talked about.”

A sense of empathy

Growing up in a small town helped Jesus Banuelos-Rivera MRelEst’21, a field engineer with Milender White, appreciate the challenges described by Minturn residents. 

“You have to drive to bigger towns to go on a date, to see a movie, get groceries—it's hard to have any sort of local economic life,” Banuelos-Rivera said. “It helped me empathize with people, to explain that we’re not trying to change the whole character of the town, we just want to create a nice community.” 

The students designed Meadow Station around four themes: Attainable housing, the incorporation of green initiatives, authentic engagement and a design complementary to the environment—especially as a gateway to the historic train station and nearby backcountry trails for hiking and skiing. 

Those are not typical considerations for the contest, which tends to focus on more urbanized areas. That encouraged creativity, but was not without challenges, said Erika Vette MBA’21, an associate in Prologis’ credit risk management area. 

“The grocery store was a great example,” she said. “Here’s something everyone wants, but we had to do a lot of research to identify the right grocer and figure out how to make it work. But we got a lot of help from the industry—everyone in the realm of commercial real estate was willing to help us.”

The team also got help from Leeds faculty within the CU Real Estate Center, which offers academic programs and research aligned to the complex, changing nature of the industry. 

'Lessons aren't just theoretical'

“We have a long track record of helping students get excellent jobs in the commercial real estate industry, and that’s a result of our faculty and our curriculum,” said Michael P. Kercheval, executive director of the CU Real Estate Center. “This competition shows our students that their lessons aren’t just theoretical—that, in fact, a holistic approach is required in creatively solving problems and bringing new developments online. I’m extremely proud of our students for putting together such an impressive project.”

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“They sent me a few financial modeling questions, which I knocked out of the park because it was exactly the kind of work I did with this project.”

Simon Egerton MRelEst'21

For Simon Egerton MRelEst’21, the experience of working on the project was extremely tangible: He landed his new job at Piper Sandler by impressing a banker during a Meadow Station consult. 

“He said to me, ‘You’re actually getting pretty good at this. We have a job opening, if you’re interested,’” Egerton said. “They sent me a few financial modeling questions, which I knocked out of the park because it was exactly the kind of work I did with this project.” 

Meanwhile, Kyle Clinton MRelEst’21, an intern with Bespoke Holdings, and Joe Plastino MBA’21, who’s in sales at PURO Lighting, said the durable skills they formed by working closely together helped them stand out in interviews. 

“What I’ve talked about most in interviews is not the project, but the teamwork element,” Plastino said. “Interviewers have been really interested in the team dynamics, division of labor and effective communication components of the work.” 

Meadow Station has offered potential impact to the graduates, but also to Minturn itself; its mayor praised the students’ enthusiasm. 

“Without the help of the students and sponsors behind this project, we don’t think we would have gotten the creativity required to put this project on the map,” Widerman said. 

A rendering of Meadow Station, including the four new buildings the team designed for the site.

One of the team's renderings of Meadow Station. Toward the back is The Quarry, an affordable housing building, and immediately in the foreground is The Roundhouse retail concept. The grocery store would go just behind The Roundhouse.