A River of Money Runs Through It

"A miserable yellow melancholy stream"--that's how Mark Twain saw the Platte River. In his book Roughing It, Twain described his first encounter with the pathetic little trickle, which fellow travelers had the nerve to say was "up." If that was so, Twain replied, he'd hate to see it when it was down.

Over the past 150 years, the Platte River has seen a lot of downtime--and so have the dreamers who floated big schemes for the stretch of land at the confluence of the Platte and Cherry Creek. They would have done well to heed the warnings of the area's original residents, who pointed to the high-water marks from the flood of 1844, some twenty feet above that melancholy stream. Instead, they conjured up plans for steamships and aquariums and amusement parks, failing to recognize that even when a river is too shallow to be navigable, it still can flood.

Which Cherry Creek did in 1965, a $325 million disaster that washed away a century of half-baked ideas and haphazard development. What was left in its wake, though, again looked like endless opportunity. When then-mayor Tom Currigan surveyed the newly emptied Central Platte Valley, he envisioned a 500-acre recreational area.

"Why didn't he create that when land prices were cheaper?" moans Andrew Wallach, Platte River Corridor project director for the city, which just committed to the equivalent of $800,000 an acre for thirty acres of future park in the Platte Valley.

Thirty years after Currigan proposed his recreational Eden, the Platte Valley is still no picnic.

It was Spiro Agnew who officially tagged the area as open for business. The soon-to-be-deposed vice president came to Colorado in 1973 to dedicate Chatfield Dam. With that project in place, the Platte was supposed to flood only when it was deemed proper--say, when another vice president, Al Gore, popped in this summer for a photo op in front of the rampaging river. No melancholy trickle for him.

But even as the rivers were tamed, Denver's economy was about to take off on one hell of a roller-coaster ride. In the early Seventies Burlington Northern looked at its land behind Union Station and saw "New Town," a giant housing development, but voters saw a boondoggle and turned the plan down. The area was still a tangle of tumbleweeds a decade later, when the City of Denver decided to build a convention center there. The voters turned that down, too; an economic downturn grounded the rest.

It wasn't until 1989 that things started looking up again in the Platte Valley. That was the year voters finally approved a plan for the area--a $14 million bond issue to cover infrastructure costs. But Denver residents thought they were getting something more glamorous for their money than mere roads: a new, improved Elitch's amusement park. In fact, the bond issue was sold with the slogan "Vote for Elitch's--It's Denver."

Not anymore, it isn't. On Tuesday Sandy Gurtler, president of Elitch Gardens, announced that he has entered into a contract to sell the "world-famous" amusement park--another Platte Valley pioneer swamped by its own enthusiasm.

The purchaser, Premier Parks, started out in Oklahoma City as a real estate company; it's now the fourth largest regional amusement-park operator in the country, based in New York and traded publicly. In announcing the deal, Gurtler noted that each of Premier's seven parks "has its own distinct theme and personality, just like Elitch's."

Just like Elitch's, that is, if you want to compare something called Splashwater Kingdom Fun Park with an institution whose century-long history stretches almost as far back as Denver's. At its original location in northwest Denver, Elitch Gardens was famous for its theatrical productions, the peacocks beloved by its founder, Mary Elitch, and, of course, its gardens.

But by the late Eighties, Elitch's--or at least its ambitions--had outgrown its old home. And the amusement park would need more than the bond money if it was to make a move to the Platte Valley rather than, say, the suburbs. "The physical constraints of its present site have made it unable to grow, leading to a substantial risk that it will not be able to maintain its operations as expenses increase," Elitch's warned in a 1994 application for city funds.

And Denver, which had been listening to the Platte's siren song for over a century, answered the call, pouring $15 million into Elitch's 67.7-acre new site--split between a Denver Urban Renewal Authority subsidy and a loan from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, with the old Elitch's as collateral (that property had been appraised--generously--at $4 million).

From the moment the new Elitch's opened two seasons ago, though, the place was an ill a minute. Fans of the old park complained about the long lines, the lack of landscaping, the no-picnic rule that seemed so Scroogelike, so very un-Denver. Attendance was disappointingly--some say disastrously--low. And at the same time people whined about the new Elitch's, neighbors of the original location fretted that developers would pave it over into one giant mall.

That fear was calmed by the entry of a new developer this summer. But it was too little, too late for Gurtler, who just hopped off the merry-go-round.

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