Aug 9, 2022 - Business

How the Walton family became the most influential player in Colorado

Rob Walton is the lead buyer of the Denver Broncos. Photo: Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images

Rob Walton is the lead buyer of the Denver Broncos. Photo: Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images

The Walton family is now the most influential force in Colorado.

Driving the news: Rob Walton's $4.65 billion purchase of the Denver Broncos β€” set to become official Tuesday β€” is the most visible example.

But behind the scenes, the Walton family's reach extends further, an Axios review of federal filings, tax records and other documents reveals.

  • The heirs to the Walmart fortune have infused tens of millions of dollars into the state's most prominent institutions β€” government agencies, schools, sports teams, media outlets and nonprofits.
  • Ann Walton Kroenke, a cousin to Rob Walton, is married to the owner of the Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Rapids and Colorado Mammoth β€” giving the family control of all the state's sports franchises except the Rockies.

Why it matters: The financial holdings, combined with robust philanthropic work, help America's wealthiest family advance their business interests and policy agenda, leaving an indelible footprint on Colorado.

State of play: Outside of Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is based, the Walton family's connections appear concentrated in Colorado, where multiple family members attended college, own property and manage foundations.

The bulk of the influence extends from the Walton Family Foundation, which has an office in Denver, but also through other entities managed by family members.

  • The foundation made at least 470 grants to Colorado-related organizations and causes over the last two decades, according to an Axios Denver analysis of its financial filings. Since 2000, the foundation's giving has totaled more than $300 million, a spokesperson said, with most going to local environmental and education policy organizations.
  • The largest donations went to sustainability efforts surrounding the Colorado River, which have drawn skepticism and scrutiny related to managing usage. The group has given the Colorado Water Trust a total of $2.25 million since 2015.
  • It also helped fund Northern Colorado public radio station KUNC's reporting on water issues.

The Zoma Foundation, tied to Rob Walton's son Ben Walton, who lives in Denver and attended the University of Colorado, helped fund a position in Gov. Jared Polis' office to improve economic security.

  • More recently, the foundation spent millions to help the state respond to COVID-19 through a pandemic relief loan program, adding to donations from his brother Sam Walton's Catena Foundation in Carbondale.

Meanwhile, Cantena helped cover the cost of a special climate and energy adviser in the governor's office starting in 2020, and recently developed bike trails on property the family owns near Redstone.

Denver's Wend Collective, run by James Walton, a cousin of Ben and Sam, donated to two dozen organizations across Colorado in 2019, according to its most recent tax filing available.

  • Wend and Catena also fund reporting positions related to education and trails at the Colorado Sun.

The intrigue: In the political sphere, individual members of the Walton family have donated more than $2 million to state-level campaigns, supporting a variety of conservative and liberal causes and candidates, a review found.

Of note: The campaign contributions and nonprofit donations discovered as part of this analysis likely represent a sliver of the total impact the family has in Colorado because much remains undisclosed.

  • Rob Walton, the Broncos' lead owner, runs his own foundation that has contributed to Colorado causes in recent years, too.
  • Numerous Walton family representatives did not return calls related to this story.

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