By Joel Warner
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For years, former residents of the neighborhood wiped out by Denver's Auraria campus in the 1970s have claimed that authorities stiffed them out of money after forcing them from their homes. Now they've turned to the Colorado legislature for help--and have come up empty-handed.
The residents, who call themselves "displaced Aurarians," say they were promised financial aid for education before the Denver Urban Renewal Authority bulldozed their houses to make way for the Auraria complex. The money, they say, was supposed to help pay tuition costs for them and their children at the three schools on the campus.
Representative Celina Benavidez introduced a bill at the start of this year's session that would have set aside $100,000 in scholarship money for the Aurarians. But the bill died in the House Education Committee last week.
"It's just another example of false promises being made by government to poor people," says Debbie Ortega, a Denver city councilwoman and a proponent of the measure.
Benavidez vows to continue pushing for state assistance for the group. "There's a wrong here," she says, "and I'm trying to make it right."
Today the 170-acre Auraria campus is occupied by the University of Colorado at Denver, the Community College of Denver and Metropolitan State College. It comprises a central library, classrooms, academic office buildings and several large parking lots.
But the area, formerly known as the "West Side," once was home to several hundred people, most of them poor and Hispanic. When DURA announced plans in 1967 to demolish the neighborhood and build the campus in its place, many bitterly opposed the move.
City voters approved Auraria's construction in a bond election in 1975. DURA condemned most of the buildings, paid property owners for their land and helped relocate residents to other parts of the city.
It was then that officials assured residents "that we would be able to go to school down here for free," says John Nieto, president of the Displaced Aurarians Association. Nieto says his group has had a difficult time obtaining "hard-core documentation" of the assurances made to the residents--and of who was doing the assuring. But he says he has interviewed more than 100 former residents of the neighborhood, all of whom insist that promises of financial aid were made by officials orchestrating Auraria's construction.
Representative Norma Anderson, a House Republican who chairs the Education Committee and who helped kill the Benavidez bill last week, says she has no doubts the Aurarians were promised financial aid. But she contends that the guarantee came from Denver's then-mayor Bill McNichols and representatives of DURA. "It was never proven to us that the state ever promised anything," Anderson says. "Denver should be putting the money aside."
Ortega disagrees, saying that because the campus was built for the sake of three state-run schools the state has a duty to help the former residents.
There is a dose of good news for the Aurarians. Spokesmen for two of the schools on the campus say the institutions have agreed to set aside some scholarship money for the former residents and their descendants.
Metro State has vouched to give $12,500 next fall and will try to raise $25,000 a year after that through the college foundation. And UC Denver, though it has not yet determined how much, will be "earmarking scholarship dollars" for the group, says spokesman Bob Nero.
"It's the first time that any one of the three institutions down here has said we need to really follow through on this promise that was made decades ago," Metro State spokesman Bob Brock says.
Still, former residents of the area say they are owed a lot more.
"It's a little bit too late and not enough," says Pete Garcia, the former pastor at St. Cajetan's Catholic Church and a leader of the neighborhood fight against the construction of the campus. "I sat there in the meetings and heard them pronounce all these great things that would happen in our community, especially educational opportunities. And it hasn't happened yet.