Trials and Tribulations

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

Thomas Gomez continued his fundraising efforts after the Coors press conference but kept running into limited purse strings, a divided community and a dearth of public funding. In December 1995, the Coors contract quietly lapsed--taking with it the pledge for $410,000. National Image was left further from its goal than it had ever been. And no one contacted the Woottons.

"In the beginning they told us that we'd be copied on everything," Rike Wootton says. "And then we just started not being." Wootton says it was only through the grapevine that he heard National Image had lost the Coors money. "We waited to hear something official," he adds. "But we never did."

No one seems sure of how much money National Image has actually managed to raise so far. But everyone agrees it isn't anywhere close to the nearly $3 million needed for the acquisition and renovation.

Butch Montoya, the city's newly proclaimed "point person" on the issue and the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Webb cabinet, says he thinks the group has collected about $25,000, a figure also cited by Tony Montoya, the National Image boardmember. Mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson says he thinks the figure is closer to $60,000. Ortega and Martinez say they have no idea how much the group has raised. Gomez, meanwhile, gives the highest estimate of his fundraising accomplishments: "Somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000," he says. But he won't disclose how much of that represents pledges as opposed to actual donations.

And Gomez blames the mayor's office for his group's inability to raise the money, noting in particular the city's refusal to award grant money to the project. "One of the key things in order to get corporate America on board a project like this," Gomez says, "is to be able to show them that you have solid support from the city. They're waiting to see what the city is doing."

Butch Montoya confirms that National Image has asked several times for as much as $200,000 from Community Development Block Grant money that Denver receives from the federal government. And the city has turned the group down every time. Montoya says National Image has yet to present "a viable business plan with a capacity to see the project come to fruition. A lot of the nonprofits that they were looking to move in there were not groups that were self-sustaining. It becomes a burden. How do you bring another nonprofit into a nonprofit building? There's no revenue stream."

Barela is more concerned with the prospect that the city might "just give" money to National Image. "They should try to do like everyone else does it," she says, noting that organizations such as hers often borrow money from the city at low rates, rather than expecting grants. "Why shouldn't they follow the process, too?" she asks.

But in a wrinkle Gomez failed to mention in the redevelopment plan he submitted to the city council, National Image's board of directors won't allow the organization to carry debt. That decision has forced National Image to rely exclusively on donations.

Butch Montoya says the city has offered National Image a number of cheaper, more readily available sites on which it could build a cultural center. But he says National Image's Gomez refused to discuss other sites, claiming that if he did, Coors would pull out.

Coors spokesman Joe Fuentes, however, says his company was never asked whether it would agree to commit the money to a different building: "We were never approached."

And National Image's Tony Montoya says he doesn't remember Coors being asked about new sites, either. The mayor's office once offered the old firehouse in Five Points, he says, but his group refused because "it wasn't our neighborhood."

Among project supporters, only Ortega places the blame--however gently--on National Image's shoulders. The group's lack of professional fundraising expertise played to the detriment of the effort, she says. Meetings are now taking place, Ortega adds, to try to "restructure" the management of the project. But she won't go so far as to say that National Image may be replaced.

And while Ortega acknowledges the missteps on the way, she staunchly defends the project and its goals. "The choice between some lofts and a Hispanic heritage center," she says, "is quite clear."

Ramona Martinez, meanwhile, has little time to discuss the plight of west Denver neighborhoods. Her campaign for Hank Brown's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat is running at full steam, and she says the polls are looking good.

"I don't know where they are with the process, really," she says when asked about National Image and the old courthouse. "I'm so out of the loop with this campaign, I said [to National Image], 'Carry this on your own.'" Martinez does take a moment to deny Barela's charge that the councilwoman never enjoyed significant popular support for the cultural center. "I have statewide support for this project," she says. "I get people stopping me on the street all the time asking 'What's up with our center.'" But Martinez has to pause mid-sentence to take a call from "Linda, our pollster in Washington, D.C." When Martinez gets back on the line she is jubilant. "Things are just going so well," she says.

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