In his younger years, 66-year-old Bernard Hurley spent $120 a month at the prison canteen. Last month, the Denver inmate-turned-developer dropped $5.8 million on property in the River North Art District.
“I wake up in the morning, and I don’t know how I got here,” said Hurley in an interview at RiNo co-working space, Industry. “I’m not supposed to be here. People like me are not supposed to be successful, but I made some decisions when I was in prison to change the direction of my life and did a lot of reading, and I got out and started working hard and now have myself in a position where I can be an example to others of what could be possible.”
The first phase of Hurley Place, a mixed-use development between the Blue Moon Brewing Co. and the Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse along the South Platte River, should break ground within the next 60 days, Hurley said. Phase one will consist of two 12-foot towers featuring 330,000 square feet of commercial space, 202 multi-family residential units and 22,000 square feet of retail space.
Hurley describes RiNo as a second-chance neighborhood and himself as a second-chance guy.
He intends to do development differently, prioritizing doing the right thing above profits, he said. For Hurley, the right thing means hiring the formerly incarcerated, immigrants, people of color, women and other marginalized groups first and providing job-training opportunities and mentorship. It means using contractors, construction companies and supplies from businesses owned by underrepresented groups. It means seeking out diverse retailers for his development and making the area full of welcoming green space.
“We’re going to show it’s good business to be kind because people want to see people succeed and people want to see people have second chances,” Hurley said. “They just have to get over a lot of phobias and fears. Be accepting of people and give people a chance. You’d be amazed if you give them a chance what they can do.”
“The nadir of his existence”
Hurley had a turbulent youth in and out of juvenile detention in California followed by a federal prison sentence on a drug conviction from 1982 to 1990.
“He was as close as you could get to the nadir of his existence as you can be,” said Marianne Bachers, who was Hurley’s public defender for the case that sent him to federal prison. “He was addicted to meth, he was manufacturing meth, he had been in and out of the California state prison system. This was his first federal offense and the DEA and U.S. attorney’s office felt he had earned this charge, and they wanted to throw the book at him.”
Hurley was faced with a life sentence without parole. But Bachers put together a big presentation at Hurley’s sentencing hearing on what his life could be if salvaged and ended up getting his sentence significantly reduced.
“This was because I could see that he had qualities and also had the support of his family that might allow him to transform his life and, in fact, that’s what happened,” Bachers said. “He has used the lessons that he learned along the way to lift other people up, and I feel like he moved mountains to change his own life and now he’s trying to move mountains to help other people change their lives, too. That’s the most remarkable thing I can think of for somebody who is facing a sentence like that.”
While locked up, books shifted Hurley’s mindset and made him want to get out and do better. Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance” particularly impacted Hurley and piqued his interest in the environment.
When Hurley was released on Sept. 3, 1990, he bought five air sampling pumps with $1,500 his dad loaned him and became a one-man environmental company specializing in asbestos consultation.
Hurley researched environmental programs and chose to come to Colorado because he said Front Range Community College had an environmental management program that suited his needs.
Over the years, his business grew into a thriving environmental disaster response company, Family Environmental, which has its headquarters in Denver.
Hurley’s environmental business allowed him to begin amassing around 6 acres of RiNo real estate, purchasing his first property in 1997 for about $250,000.
His real estate collection is beginning to take shape with Hurley Place.
“An outsider in my own community”
New development in Teresa Ortiz’s neighborhood typically sets off alarm bells for the Denverite born and raised on Delgany Street, a block away from Hurley Place.
“I wished that a developer would have held a block meeting or block party or even mailed us fliers or something about what’s going on instead of them constantly trying to purchase our homes and get more property,” Ortiz said. “It was always more like ‘we need you to go so we can do this is’ instead of ‘can you come and join us.’ That was something that wasn’t right with me.”
Ortiz, 26, went into real estate and, with an eye toward helping her neighborhood, joined the RiNo General Improvement District board, which helps fund infrastructure projects for the community.
Ortiz met Hurley through the board after he asked her how she felt about the development in her area.
“I was very candid,” Ortiz said. “I said nobody asked us about what we needed or how we felt or what we were wanting to see in the future, so I just felt like an outsider in my own community.”
About nine months ago, Hurley asked Ortiz to join his team as a project assistant and Hurley Place community advocate giving Ortiz an opportunity to share her insights.
“I’m in a position where I can hold people like Bernard accountable and share a raw, authentic opinion about what feels right and what doesn’t feel right in terms of development and how we’re approaching our community and if we’re even including our community,” Ortiz said. “It feels great to be in a position where I can implement these things that I initially felt were not possible. Bernard is a great person to be around.”
Doing things with the right heart
Hurley is etched in tattoos and wore a brightly colored shirt with a tiger wearing a crown on the back.
As a means of survival, Hurley said he got white supremacist tattoos while in prison, which he has since covered up and said he deeply regrets.
“Now I try to hire as many minorities,” Hurley said.
Andre Walker, a 47-year-old Black man who lives in Aurora, said Hurley was the only one who would hire him after his three-year prison stint because of a felony misuse of a social security card.
Hurley connected Walker with asbestos testing courses and now Walker helps oversee Hurley’s projects.
“Every month, I would wonder where my check was going to come from and how I was going to support myself,” Walker said. “Now I don’t have to worry about that because I have a real good job and I know I’m going to make it.”
Hurley said that kind of hope is what he wants to inspire in those who feel they’re stuck in life.
“We owe it as a society to try to fix some of this stuff to create inclusive environments and show people their dreams can be realized and that we will stand behind them and support them as long as they do things with meaning and purpose and with the right heart,” Hurley said.
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