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Nip It in the Bud

A gentleman entered a busy florist shop that displayed a large sign that read, "Say it with flowers."

"Wrap up one rose," he told the florist.
"Only one?" asked the florist.
"Just one," the customer replied. "I'm a man of few words."

The laughs are few and far between these days at Alpha Floral, where a yellowed copy of this joke is taped to the cash register. In fact, no one who walks in the door, through the thicket of discounted plants and up to the "Final Sale" sign, manages to stammer more than a sentence or two before being struck speechless by what has befallen the family store.

After almost a century in the flower business, the bloom is off this rose.
Alpha Floral has been given thirty days to vacate its storefront at 1521 Cleveland Place. The shop is standing in the way of progress: the new, improved Adam's Mark Hotel.

This is the big box made possible by a $25 million public subsidy, an investment rated so sound that when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority issued the bonds four months ago, they were quickly snapped up--by none other than Fred Kummer, who owns Adam's Mark and its St. Louis-based parent company, HBE Corporation. You would think Kummer could have invested the money directly into his own project and skipped the city middlemen, but that is not the way big business works.

Vern Oppenlander, president of Alpha Floral, wouldn't know about that. His is a family business (his daughter, Janet, is vice president), and it's a small business, the sort that used to give downtown Denver its small-town feel. Like his father Albert before him, Vern has done business on a handshake, not a shakedown. He's a man of few words. A man of his word.

Unlike the folks who occupy the executive suite upstairs at the Adam's Mark.
A year ago, right about the time the city finally surrendered to most of Kummer's demands and paved the way for the destruction of the hyperbolic paraboloid that once housed the May D&F department store, an Adam's Mark representative paid a visit to Alpha Floral. The terms of its lease would be changing, he told Vern Oppenlander. Rent would be going up, he said, and before the Oppenlanders could sign a new, three-year lease, they'd also need to do some redecorating--replace the light fixtures, get new plant stands. And if they needed it, he'd be glad to provide the name of an architect.

That seemed like a pretty expensive proposition for a floral shop that specializes in a dozen roses for $5.95--cash and carry--so Vern went on a month-to-month lease while he thought things over. When the landlord finally provided specifics of the rent increase, it was "way too high," Vern says. He sent over a counterproposal. "We never heard a word back."

Until another HBE representative delivered a letter dated August 30, 1996, and faxed from St. Louis headquarters to Denver. Alpha Floral had thirty days to vacate its space--and don't forget to turn in the keys and leave a forwarding address. But first, be sure to schedule an inspection of the space so the property manager can determine the "condition of the premises."

"They weren't even here when we moved in," says Janet Oppenlander. "How would they know what it looked like?"

Janet has changed some in appearance since then, too. Twenty-six years ago, when the family business consolidated operations in this spot, she was twelve. "All I've known is this floral shop," she says. "It's my life."

That last move also was made because of progress: RTD was tearing down a building at 15th and Broadway, where the Oppenlanders had their store, and constructing a bus station. But that time, Vern says, his old landlord eased the transition. "They treated us like family," he says of RTD officials, "and even helped us move."

Back then, the building the Oppenlanders were moving into housed a Hilton, whose management liked those plant stands enough that they ordered two for the Wickerworks bar. After that, the hotel became a Radisson, then Adam's Mark. And now, a bigger Adam's Mark. "We're in the way," says Vern. He looked at other locations but couldn't find anything downtown that wasn't priced out of the market--and the market isn't looking too hospitable, since Adam's Mark reportedly plans to open its own floral shop in the hotel. So at 77, Vern has decided to call it quits. "We shall reluctantly retire," he and Janet announce in their letter to their faithful customers, with "very fond memories of being your downtown florist for all these 94 years."

In the beginning, there was Alpha Elberfield, who opened a floral store in 1902 at 432 16th Street and named it after himself. Alpha soon moved on to Kansas City and another flower shop, but he left the original behind in Denver. Albert Oppenlander got into the business in 1912, and Vern joined his father 55 years ago. At one point the family had four different shops going, including the big spot in the future home of RTD. Janet remembers taking the bus downtown to help her father and grandfather there. "I don't know if I'll be able to work for another florist," she says.

"We've done our thing and worked hard and pleased a lot of customers," adds Vern.

Those customers keep stopping in, to pick up flowers and say a few heartfelt words. "I'm going to miss you guys," says one woman. "It just breaks my heart." She's been visiting Alpha--not just for the flowers, but also for the company--since she started working upstairs over three years ago.

Her workplace, however, is in no immediate danger of eviction. She works for the Denver County Court. Since 1992, the city has leased 21,245 square feet of space on the top floor of the hotel, where it's stashed five county courtrooms and assorted offices that once were shoehorned into overcrowded City Hall. Adam's Mark does not give this space to the city in exchange for the whopping subsidy it's received from DURA, or even out of gratitude for the city looking the other way when Kummer and HBE lost a court case because of racist behavior at their St. Louis Hotel (behavior that's spilled over into Denver, according to complaints filed by a half-dozen employees here).

No, Denver shells out $292,359 a year to Kummer for the space.
The city's lease goes through 2002; so far, HBE has not demanded an increase in rent.

On September 25 Adam's Mark will hold a "topping out" ceremony for its big box. From the roof, invited guests will be able to look out over downtown's changed landscape--a "major league" sports bar and a ballerina sculpture by a "nationally renowned artist" will stand where the hyperbolic paraboloid, that major-league building inspired by internationally renowned architect I.M. Pei, once soared--and sign the last beam before it's hoisted into place. On top of the beam will be an evergreen--not, however, one from Alpha Floral. The invitation, which is designed to look like a blueprint, has a box with design specs conveniently covering the section of the building currently occupied by small businesses that have been given thirty days to get out.

"Throughout history," the Adam's Mark invite advises, topping-out ceremonies "have included everything from human sacrifices to planting trees."

At Adam's Mark, human sacrifices are a time-honored tradition.
Wrap up one rose.

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