Trials and Tribulations

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

It takes three Denver police cars and four officers to evict the spindly, aging man from his burrow in the old county courthouse at Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue. Two of the officers come up the front steps, carefully traversing broken glass and chunks of wood. The other two wait out in the fierce February cold, shaking their heads at the dismal sight of boarded windows, empty bottles and cigarette butts. One officer wonders aloud about what happened to the city's plans to renovate the building. "Wasn't there once some deal to make this place lofts?" he asks.

The homeless man eventually emerges, blinking in the sunlight and rubbing his bare hands. He doesn't have any of the answers. He was just looking for a place to get warm, which is why he started a gasoline fire in what used to be the finest courtroom of its time in the West.

Soon firefighters arrive to suffocate the blaze, drenching the ornately carved woodwork in the process. Soot covers the ivory moldings in dark, streaky clouds. The expanse of stone and plaster molding reeks of wet embers and human excrement. The politicians who made it this way are nowhere around.

Seventy-four years ago, the brick and gypsum building at the corner of Speer and Colfax made its debut as Denver's formal courthouse and city jail. Built in the days when municipal buildings were still intended as lasting monuments to civic pride, it boasted a mosaic tile entrance, arching twenty-foot windows and a circular internal balcony. The "Old Westside Courthouse" later became home to teams of busy city prosecutors and the county jail. Over the years, the city lowered the ceilings and lined them with sound-absorbing tile and even partitioned off some of the larger hearing rooms. But the innate grandeur of the simple structure was never lost. In 1984, when the Denver District Attorney's Office left for more modern digs farther down Colfax, the courthouse stood empty, awaiting another reincarnation worthy of its high ceilings and wide mountain views.

Twelve years later, it's still waiting.
If it weren't for the efforts of councilwoman-turned-U.S. Senate candidate Ramona Martinez, the building by now would have been transformed by a private developer into residential lofts. Instead, in a power play that included an end run around the city's normal bidding process--and a provocation of racial tensions that has sharply divided the city's Hispanic community--Martinez pushed through a plan to turn the courthouse into a Hispanic "cultural center." Since then the building has become a battleground between local police and transients, a magnet for crime and a money pit for the city.

It was in April 1994, after two years of haggling, that the Denver City Council endorsed Martinez's plan to put the building's fate in the hands of National Image, a national Hispanic advocacy group. Ninety percent of its members are federal employees, and until six months before, the group had spent its 22-year history headquartered in Washington, D.C. The idea was to turn the building, which is full of asbestos and far below city code, into state-of-the-art office space for Hispanic nonprofit groups, with common meeting areas devoted to art and history displays.

Today, a sign posted outside the old courthouse proudly declares it the home of the coming Bernie Valdez Hispanic Heritage Center. It heralds the involvement of Brother's Redevelopment Corporation, a local construction company that specializes in urban renewal. And at the bottom, in small print, the sign declares the Coors Brewing Company to be a proud sponsor.

But it's what the sign doesn't say that tells the real story: a tale of broken contracts, missed deadlines, political infighting and mismanagement of a project that--despite repeated warnings that it wasn't economically feasible--Martinez has used taxpayer dollars and her position as a city councilwoman to force into existence.

National Image was given a year to raise the funds needed to turn the building into a heritage center. Now, almost two years later, community support for the idealistic project is dwindling--and corporate sponsors, including Coors, are quickly disappearing. In the face of its failure, National Image has resorted to finger-pointing: blaming the city for not "showing support" when it turned down National Image's request for a $200,000 grant.

In the meantime, the once-shining building sits fallow, serving only as a shelter for those who kick in its windows, break bottles in its hallways and light gasoline fires in its alcoves. And though Mayor Wellington Webb has named Deputy Mayor Butch Montoya to monitor the project--and the city's asset management office has already poured more than $20,000 into upkeep--the city council has chosen to ignore the mess it created.

"It's not our fault the building's in such bad shape," argues Councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who has supported Martinez's push for a cultural center. "National Image doesn't even own it yet."

And thanks to the council, neither do Tom and Rike Wootton, a Denver father and son development team who three years ago were selected through the city's normal bidding process to buy, renovate and redevelop the old building. The Woottons were prepared to pay $410,000 to acquire the building from the city and then invest an additional $2 million of their own money to restore the structure and carve out lofts.

"We envisioned a grand residential building sitting on a prominent corner directly across from the Convention Center," says Tom Wootton. "Our intent was to take advantage of the way the building was originally designed, reusing all the plaster-cast moldings, the arches, the great construction."

That dream would have taken twelve months at the outside to realize, says Wootton, if it had been allowed to proceed.

It wasn't.

Unknown to Wootton, at the time he and his son bid on the property, the courthouse had a history of botched plans and political broadsides.

In 1985, a year after the Denver DA moved out of the building because an inspector had deemed it "unsafe," the administration of former mayor Federico Pea put it up for sale, reasoning that it would cost far too much to convert it to a city office building. The move caused a storm of protest and sparked a "save our building" effort. Lane Ittelson, the former president of Historic Denver, Inc., led the fight to preserve the structure, which he feared would be demolished by a developer. Eventually, the city was forced to promise that it would sell the building only to someone who pledged not to level it.

That same year, the city's Commission on Cultural Affairs (now the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film) asked the asset management office to study the feasibility of converting the building into a cultural center. In March 1986 the commission got its answer: Given the estimated costs of renovation and the trickle of revenue likely to result from such a venture, it amounted to economic suicide.

Ever since, ideas about what to do with the building have been raised only to be quickly squelched. For a while the courthouse and its diminutive jail starred in a series of made-for-TV Perry Mason movies. After the stage lights and sound system were removed, the city decided to try to sell the building again. The loft boom sweeping Denver in the early 1990s made it likely a developer could be found who would agree to preserve the structure. But Martinez had other plans for it--plans brought to her by National Image.

It isn't quite clear why National Image approached Martinez and not Ortega: After all, the building falls within Ortega's council district. But after Martinez picked up the fight, Ortega chose to support the effort, one she thought would help heal wounds created when predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods were bulldozed in the early 1970s to make way for college classrooms.

"It symbolizes so much," says Ortega. "The Auraria campus wiped out a wide segment of the community. [The DA's building] is the entry way to a long-term solid community, right here in west Denver."

Other Hispanic groups also liked the idea of a cultural center but claim they were forced out of the process. Ken Sandoval, a consultant with SEDCO, a Denver economic development consulting company, was president of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC) back in 1992, when he says the city council was first asked to consider reserving the old DA's building for a nonprofit use.

"CHAC, El Centro Su Teatro and the Museo de las Americas had all been discussing using the building as a cultural heritage center," says Sandoval. "We thought of it as a place where we could display the works of [Denver activist] Corky Gonzales, the whole collection, writings, original documentation, that sort of thing, about the Crusade for Justice in the Sixties. It would have tied into the Chicano studies department at Metro. But we met with Ramona, and she said that the city and county's Hispanic population wouldn't support such a center. We were all ostracized by that comment."

According to Sandoval, Martinez knew exactly whom she wanted to get the project: National Image. And in October 1992, Martinez first intervened in the city's plan to sell the building, asking Webb to hold up the request-for-proposal process "for a few weeks" so she and National Image could tour the place. After the initial tour, the asset management office conducted six months of meetings with Martinez and groups including National Image, trying to help them draw up a workable plan for a cultural center. But the cultural center didn't make any more financial sense in 1993 than it had seven years earlier. A memo to the city council from former city asset manager Myrtle-Rose Greene noted that the series of meetings "produced no tangible results." The city put the building up for sale in June 1993, and the deadline for bids passed that August without a proposal from National Image or Brother's Redevelopment.

But Martinez wasn't about to let the matter go. She wheedled Webb into reopening the bidding in September in order for Brother's to submit its own proposal (which, when finally completed, offered a purchase price of $10). But the city's Development Review Committee found the Wootton plan far superior and gave the father-son team the nod in November. In a letter to Webb, Martinez called the selection of the Woottons' offer unfair and warned that she would hold up the council's approval of the sale unless the mayor agreed to a meeting. Martinez then wrote to Greene requesting that the sale to the Woottons not be finalized prior to January 14, 1994, the day she was scheduled to meet with Webb.

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.

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.

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.

Not for everyone. The Woottons, who are reluctant to criticize their treatment at the hands of the city council two years ago, say they're still willing to come back and build lofts in the courthouse--"if the city wants to deal in good faith."

Which would be fine with Pierre Jimenez, who hasn't understood the project from the beginning. "The building used to be a jail, for God's sake," he moans. "Why would it be a monument to our ancestors?

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