Trials and Tribulations

As plans for a Hispanic cultural center crash, Denver's old county courthouse burns.

Four days later, Webb agreed to yet another delay at the request of Martinez, who brought Ortega with her to the meeting. That thirty-day extension gave Martinez and National Image time to try to beat the Woottons' $410,000 offer and to line up the financing necessary to accomplish renovation. But for all the support the councilwoman was giving to National Image, it was clear that the group was woefully short of cash--not to mention organizational and fundraising skills. When no plan surfaced, the effort stalled, and in February, Martinez and Ortega again wrote to the mayor requesting another 45-day extension. It, too, was granted.

National Image and Brother's Redevelopment finally submitted a proposal to the mayor in late February. It offered a promissory note for $410,000 to purchase the property and projected that the renovation would cost $2.2 million. Along with the proposal came letters of intent to occupy the space; National Image was planning to offset maintenance costs for the building through office leases. But just how those costs were supposed to be recouped was unclear. The proposed tenants were all Hispanic nonprofits such as the Colorado Hispanic Media Association (whose president is Ortega's legislative aide, Judy Montero), the Hispanic Women's Caucus and the Genealogical Society of Hispanic America. Almost none of the groups could afford to buy adequate space for their operations at the usual $80-per-foot construction cost expected on such noncommercial projects, much less pay $200 per foot for renovated space--the estimate that the Woottons had projected for their similarly thorough renovation.

According to an analysis by the asset management office, the National Image proposal was a blueprint for a financial bust. As a result, Webb turned down the proposal and instead submitted the Woottons' winning bid to the city council for approval. It was a move that set off an ugly and very public battle between Martinez and Webb.

"Ramona ran all over Denver trying to make it a black/brown issue," remembers Veronica Barela, executive director of NEWSED, the west Denver economic development agency. "She was telling people that the mayor gave the Five Points Media Center to the blacks and that he should give something to us. It was really divisive. The mayor really got it in the teeth."

Martinez calls Barela's account of her anti-Webb campaign "absolutely false. I didn't run all over the city like that," says the councilwoman. "I just told the community of our vision."

But Webb took Martinez's criticisms personally. In a letter dated March 9, the mayor took umbrage at the councilwoman's accusations and recounted a chronology of her repeated requests for delays in the process--all of which, he noted, had been granted. In closing, Webb defended his decision to bring the Woottons' plan to the table.

"I gave you ample time and consideration," he wrote. "However, you have failed to bring back any tangible proposal that can be considered, much less accepted. I find your recent attitude and manner of handling this issue appalling. If you want to lobby your council colleagues to turn down the proposal we have on the table, then so be it."

Which is exactly what Martinez did. On April 12, 1994, the city council voted to give National Image and Brother's Redevelopment yet another delay to finalize its plans. Three weeks later, the council, at Martinez's urging, approved a resolution promising to sell the building to National Image if its members could raise the money by April 1, 1995. The Woottons were to be recontacted should the fundraising effort fail.

By then, Webb and the Woottons weren't the only ones unhappy with the situation.

Certain factions in the Hispanic community were anything but pleased by National Image's victory at city council. Some dissenters objected to a national organization like National Image sucking up the limited resources available at a local level. Others decried the "leasehold" arrangement National Image had proposed, accusing the group of emphasizing its own needs over those of the community. Still others had problems with the national group's apparent lack of commitment to the "cultural" aspects of what was beginning to look more and more like an office complex.

"The plans don't look like anything but an office space, with National Image being the landlord," says local Hispanic activist Pierre Jimenez. "What kind of a cultural center is that?"

"I have plenty of art in my office," booms Barela from behind her desk at NEWSED. "And I don't call this place a cultural center."

Such criticisms irk Thomas Gomez, who as National Image's Denver-based chief operating officer was the group's point man on the project. Gomez recently served out his term as the head of National Image and returned full-time to an executive position in the human resources department of the federal Bureau of Reclamation's Denver office. But for four years he collected his federal salary while on "executive loan" to National Image. And he remains the unofficial leader of the $2.6 million courthouse project.

"I won't even address that notion," Gomez says of the suggestion that National Image may be more interested in office space than it is in cultural enlightenment. "Our plans set aside fully 8,000 square feet of space for permanent cultural and travel displays." Ken Sandoval, though, says he finds it bizarre that National Image would need to talk about "setting aside" room for cultural activities in a building touted as a heritage center.

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