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Trials and Tribulations

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

And, in fact, the redevelopment plan originally presented by National Image to the city council describes the project as an "office incubator where secretarial/clerical resources could be shared from a pool of personnel and office equipment." Those floor plans include 10,000 square feet of office space for National Image, along with office space for the Hispanic League, the Hispanic Bar Association and other Hispanic nonprofits. Until the group released a "revised" set of drawings, its official plan made no reference to an area for cultural and art displays.

To make matters worse, according to the asset management office, the original plan also overestimated the amount of space available for office use. According to a memo from Greene, National Image counted "stairways, hallways, some common areas [and] common restrooms" in its calculations of available space. And according to the memo, the group went on to base its financial projections on those overblown space presumptions.

Gomez, however, defends both his organization's plans and its intentions. "We wanted to present the community here with one-stop shopping for all of their needs," he says, by adding "social, economic and cultural self-help programs all in one space. And when we went to city council, we had overwhelming support, including 4,000 names on a petition. It's just one group, one single group, that doesn't support us. NEWSED."

City council staffers say that after searching through the minutes and viewing the videotape of the meeting in question, they can find no mention of a 4,000-signature petition being submitted to council. But Gomez does have at least one supporter for his view of NEWSED and its director, Veronica Barela. Reached at her Senate campaign headquarters, Martinez is quick to echo the assertion that the courthouse project has been assailed by but one troublemaker.

"It's just Veronica," says Martinez. "Veronica has a big problem with all this because it didn't go through her. It wasn't her project. I never knew Veronica didn't like the idea, but we don't need her permission. I don't think the community needs anyone's permission, including mine!"

Barela, though, isn't the lone voice against the project. The Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council has twice voted against supporting National Image's plan. Jim Martinez, the Webb aide who sits in on advisory council meetings, says the members felt the old DA's building could quickly turn into a black hole for grant money. "Everybody agreed that a Hispanic heritage center is something Denver ought to have," he says. "But they felt that too much money would be spent trying to get the old DA's building up to code, and money being tight like it is, it could be better spent for other programs and ideas."

In March 1995, one month shy of National Image's deadline, Coors agreed to donate the $410,000 purchase price of the building to National Image if the group could raise at least a quarter of the $2.25 million needed for renovation by December of that year. It was a commitment that thrilled National Image, relieved the city council and troubled Hispanic critics.

"It rubbed a lot of us the wrong way," explains Ken Sandoval. "There's still a boycott going on against Coors, you know [for alleged racist hiring practices]. It becomes a very divisive issue."

Gomez prickles at the mention of the boycott. "I really have a problem with people who say that," he says. "I'm not going to defend Coors. There were a lot of problems pre-1970s. But Gomez says the community's feud with the brewer was put to rest in 1984, when National Image and a number of other groups signed an agreement in which Coors promised to assist minority-owned businesses and make contributions to minority nonprofits.

When Coors made public its decision to put money up for the courthouse campaign, organizers wasted little time heralding the company's involvement. A press conference was held in front of the structure touting the unlikely alliance of Coors, National Image, Brother's Redevelopment, Ramona Martinez and Bernie Valdez, a longtime leader and activist in the Hispanic community for whom the building, National Image decided, was to be named. Bill Coors himself issued a statement proclaiming Coors "proud to be a catalyst in providing something special for the Hispanic community" and predicted the center would be a source of "pride for all of Denver" when it was completed.

Though Coors had yet to actually put any money on the table, tying its pledge to National Image's own ability to raise cash, the city council apparently viewed the conglomerate's entrance as a sign that it could stop paying attention. Timetables that had been laid out for progress reports and fundraising efforts were overlooked. There was even talk during one city council meeting of lifting the group's already long-blown April 1 deadline. A Denver boardmember of National Image, Tony Montoya, says he remembers a meeting eight or nine months ago in which the group was granted an extension. But while Martinez and Ortega both initially told Westword a vote had been taken rescinding the deadline, Ortega later called back to say she had checked the record and that no formal vote was ever taken. Regardless, the practical effect was the same: Council oversight of the project effectively ground to a halt.

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