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FOR YOUR AMUSEMENT

THE CITY IS UP TO ITS NECK IN THE OLD ELITCH'S--AND NOW IT'S CLAMMING UP.QUEASY RIDERS THE BATTLE OVER THE OLD ELITCH'S THROWS A CITY COUNCILMAN--AND HIS CONSTITUENTS--FOR A LOOP.

It's unclear which "renters" Gurtler is referring to. But it is true that the "Councilman's Committee on the Rezoning of Elitch's" is full of Gallagher supporters--including Gary Sulley, the group's chairman. Sulley is a longtime Democratic district captain and the husband of Gallagher aide (and former Scheitler aide) Dawn Sulley.

The bad blood between Gurtler and the others goes back as long as anyone in the neighborhood can remember. Most recently, Gurtler went ballistic when, just as he was struggling to line up financing for his proposed downtown amusement park last year, Gallagher and Hernandez raised questions about the propriety of city pension funds investing in the project. He also clashed with the two over their suggestion that he had meddled in a local school-board election by pressuring his attorney to withdraw as a candidate because Elitch's hired political consultants, Rick White and David Cole, were running the campaign of a rival candidate. That charge led White to opine that Hernandez had been "smoking bad dope."

Gallagher is tight-lipped about the long-running feud, again citing Mount Airy as proscribing his right to comment on anything even remotely associated with the rezoning. He does say he's willing to meet with Gurtler to discuss the redevelopment. "But then, I'll meet with anyone," he adds.

Gurtler says that if not for the politicking that's been going on, people would realize he's just as protective of the old Elitch's as its neighbors. "Remember, I grew up there," he says.

But Gurtler says he's also realistic about development prospects for the old site. "Thirty-eighth Avenue, I mean, who's kidding who?" he asks. "It's never going to be a quiet street." Adds Gurtler, "The last thing I want to see is an architecturally nice strip mall that doesn't make any money. We need economically viable ventures."

Making development prospects all the more dicey is a movement to get the Elitch Gardens Theater designated as a Denver historic landmark. Gurtler, whose family built the theater in 1889, is against the idea. At a July 11 meeting of the Denver Landmarks Commission, Gurtler spokesman Jack Hoagland argued that because a state-funded study of historic sites at the old amusement park is already under way, any city action would be premature. The commission apparently agreed, postponing consideration until September 19.

Gurtler insists that he wants to save the theater, noting that he has a deal with the Auraria Higher Education Center to move the historic structure to that downtown site. But members of the Colorado Alliance for State Theater (CAST), the group backing the effort to obtain landmark designation for the theater, aren't buying the Auraria deal. CAST spokesman Stuart Bechman says Hoagland "constantly tells us how interested Sandy is. He also says they're in touch with Auraria, but when we call over there, no one at Auraria knows anything about it."

Gurtler bristles at the accusation. "Then they're talking with the wrong people," he says. "Talk to JoAnn Soker." JoAnn Soker, however, has resigned her position as Auraria's executive vice president. And Rosemary Fetter, current spokeswoman for the campus, says, "There are no active plans to move the theater here. There's no money for it, anyhow."

Bechman and CAST member Beki Pineda say there's yet another wrinkle to the theater saga. "Back in 1989 or 1990 Debbie Reynolds actually offered [Gurtler] something like $5 million to save the theater," Bechman claims. "He didn't take it. Probably because it would've made it difficult to sell the package."

Gurtler says the Reynolds story is a longstanding local legend that simply isn't true. "Debbie Reynolds made a statement about it in some book," he says, "but it never happened." Reynolds herself doesn't remember making a statement about it at all. "It's a nice theater, and it should be preserved," she says in a statement relayed by an assistant. "But I never offered 5 million."

Gurtler remains vehement about his dedication to the theater's preservation. "We have no intention of tearing it down," he says. "Not as long as I'm alive. You've got to understand that some people in CAST are ex-employees. They've got their own agendas."

Gurtler insists he's committed to doing right by the neighborhood--not just on the theater but on the entire 26 acres. He claims his contract with Biehl is contingent on his personal satisfaction with whatever plan the developer ultimately comes up with. "If they decide to build a hypermart," Gurtler says, "I take it back."

Biehl says he isn't sure "the provision is that unilateral," but he doesn't seem worried about it. "The spirit of it is that we have an obligation to work with each other in order to come up with a plan the community is going to endorse," Biehl says. And Gurtler, it seems, is the least of Biehl's problems when it comes to the Elitch's site.

"Everybody is an expert and everybody has an opinion," says the developer. "It's all gotten so politicized. Some of the political people went off half-cocked. You know, people like Bill Scheitler. It was an election. They needed issues. I certainly didn't think it was going to get as blasphemous as it got."

If Biehl thinks it's been bad so far, he's in for quite a ride. At a recent meeting of the Councilman's Committee on the Rezoning of Elitch's, the notion of a "formal legal protest" was discussed. In such a protest, if 20 percent of the property owners within 200 feet of a piece of land being rezoned sign a petition and present it to the city council, they can force a supermajority vote on the matter. That means any rezoning would need ten council votes to pass, instead of the usual seven. Ned Burke, a member of the councilman's panel, says "neighborhood people were just studying their options" when they brought up the prospect of a protest. "Nothing's been decided yet."

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