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Walk Softly and Carry A Big Hockey Stick

You think the Avalanche won big Monday night? The real game begins when the triumphant hockey team's owner, Ascent Entertainment Group, tries to have its cake and ice it, too, by freezing out any objections to its revamped plans for the Pepsi Center.

But if this city's track record is any indication, it should be smooth skating for Ascent. Since the company gave Denver what it so desperately wanted--its first major-sport professional championship--why wouldn't Denver give Ascent whatever it wants?

So far, Ascent, which also owns the currently feeble Denver Nuggets, has played the game beautifully. After its initial plans for a purportedly privately funded arena to replace McNichols were knocked out by a last-second legislative veto, Ascent waited almost a year, until its new team was swinging a big hockey stick, to propose a change in the rules. And then, when Ascent bemoaned how costs had gone up since the first Pepsi Center proposal was announced in early 1995--a winning hockey team doesn't come cheap--its lament fell on far-from-deaf ears. After all, the city has handed over a lot more for a lot less.

See, for example, Zeckendorf Plaza, where Denver's last public ice rink will soon be a hotel portico lined with bronze ballerinas.

Or cast your eye over at Mile High Stadium.
Of all the people with an interest in the outcome of that last Stanley Cup game, no one should have been watching more intently than Pat Bowlen. The owner of the Denver Broncos needs to steal a page from the Avalanche playbook: If you want taxpayers to toss aside a perfectly good sports stadium and build you a new one, it helps to have a winning team.

Up until this point, Bowlen has played the game largely behind the scenes--with a major offensive at the Colorado legislature to get a new, six-county football authority established and put a new, taxpayer-supported football stadium on the ballot. This was much the same strategy that helped gain approval of an all-baseball stadium a half-dozen years ago, although at the time Colorado didn't even have a baseball team, much less a winning one, and Mickey Monus, one of the owners of that still-hypothetical team, would soon be indicted for numerous financial shenanigans back in Ohio. (The final finances of Coors Field were hardly what had been initially presented to voters, either--but when you sit in the summer sun watching the Rockies, it's hard to remember those past dark days.)

And Bowlen put even more muscle into his drive than baseball's supporters had. While his lobbyists twisted the right arms, made the right promises (Bowlen himself scrawled a shameless, last-second commitment for minority work on the project, although the promise isn't worth the paper it was scribbled on), and conveniently glossed over any right reading of the financial realities of maintaining Mile High Stadium, Bowlen assumed the correct supplicant's posture. Colorado lawmakers love watching a millionaire grovel--and then usually reward the performance by giving the millionaire anything he asks for.

The year before, of course, legislators had given Comsat (which was soon to be reincarnated as Ascent) exactly what it wanted. That time, though, lobbyists were working on an even tighter schedule, pushing through legislation at the eleventh hour of the last day that defied the Colorado Supreme Court--but saved a much-desired tax break for the Pepsi Center. In April 1995 the state's highest court had ended a seven-year-old fight when it ruled that private companies doing business on public lands should not be exempt from property taxes. The case concerned a concessionaire at Mesa Verde, but the court's ruling affected ventures across the state--including the Pepsi Center.

Like Monday night's hockey game, the scheme went into overtime. Ultimately, outrage over the closed-door dealings (among other things, an assistant for Governor Roy Romer had helped proposed language for the measure) led Romer to veto the big-business bail-out bill--and Comsat to put its arena plans on ice. For a while, at least.

Lobbyists managed to push through an almost identical tax break in the 1996 session. But they took their time this year so that legislators couldn't pretend they didn't understand the rules of the game. The passage of SB 218--signed into law with hardly a peep of protest--paves the way to a new Pepsi Center, one in which a break on property taxes is just the start of the potential subsidies. And if the parties Monday were any indication--they made that Cinco de Mayo traffic jam look like a day at the playa--the public will enthusiastically support building a new home for their new hometown heroes.

Which means that this is no time for the Broncos to start horsing around. No matter how much Ascent extracts from the public, Bowlen is going for more--at last count $180 million from taxpayers (not including interest), to be collected through a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax. For bucks that big, Broncos fans--who now have other teams on which they can lavish their blind loyalty--are bound to expect something in return...like more than mediocrity. But by pushing for a vote in November 1997, Bowlen has time to improve his odds--and also neatly avoids holding a vote on election day 1996, which follows a Monday night game. Nothing like disgruntled Tuesday morning quarterbacks to throw an election.

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