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Neighborhood Botch

Squabbles over money plague one of Denver's Oldest neighborhoods.

Once the railroad jobs left, a lot of industries located in north Denver followed suit, and new businesses never materialized to take their place. A neighborhood that used to be self-contained--with retail shops, the old Alpine Theatre, clothing stores, grocery stores--disintegrated.

Several years ago Father Mark Pranaitis started Neighborhood Partners, a house-renovation project in Cole that has managed to buy, renovate and sell fifteen houses to low-income families. The project, though successful, didn't create "a strong internal economy," says Pranaitis. "The neighborhood imports everything and exports nothing but labor," which, he points out, goes to companies not based in the neighborhood.

By the mid-Eighties the neighborhood had bottomed out. "It wasn't located right next to downtown," says ex-city official Billie Bramhall. "It wasn't like Curtis Park, where you had beautiful old historic homes and some of it might be gentrified. It was small brick houses that were quite old. It didn't have an exciting shopping street, and the people were poor." Gangs had settled in, crime was soaring, and most anyone with the money to leave was doing so. The stage was set for the many players who in the 1990s would attempt Cole's resurrection.

In 1989 city officials and neighborhood leaders slowly came together (each group claiming credit for the initial idea) to address the problems of Cole.

That year the city council appropriated $665,000 (from the Capital Improvement Budget, an unprecedented move), which would be followed by appropriations of $1 million in each of the next two years. On February 17, 1990, Mayor Federico Pena presented a symbolic check for the $665,000 to the Cole Coalition--which at that point was not an incorporated nonprofit but rather a collective of residents. Pena reportedly promised the neighbors that they, not the city, would control how the money was spent.

"At the very beginning, it was very idealistic," former longtime resident Rae McDowell recalls. "It was put together by people working in the neighborhood a long time." There was little hierarchy and plenty of support. Meetings drew anywhere from thirty to a hundred people, she says. (These days, a Weed and Seed meeting that draws a dozen people is viewed as encouraging.)

In the early going, egos seemed subdued, enthusiasm remarkably high. The residents voted to have a fifteen-person board, comprising business leaders, officials of nonprofits, city officials and residents. The Central Bank of Denver earmarked $300,000 for the neighborhood, which it gave directly to the coalition. The work in Cole focused primarily on housing rehab and beautification efforts. The latter included landscaping, tree planting, trash pickup and improved lights, signs and sewers. Residents were eligible to receive $5,000 to rehab the exteriors of their homes. A later program offered residents low-interest loans of $7,000 to renovate interiors.

Coalition leaders estimate that between 300 and 400 homes in the neighborhood were worked on, and between that and an improved real estate market, the rate of home ownership increased to 60 percent in 1992. The renovations, says McDowell, allowed many "to stay comfortably in the neighborhood for another five or ten years."

Then, in 1991, everything changed. Pena didn't run for re-election, and Wellington Webb became mayor, which meant a whole host of new city officials. "Every new administration wants to do things differently," says Billie Bramhall, whose former department, the Community Development Agency, helped oversee the administering of the money. "It always takes a year to get your feet wet and figure out what you want to continue and what you don't."

Webb, who grew up in Cole, presented the coalition its third symbolic check in 1992, but some say the new administration was less interested in Cole; at the same time, the first wave of volunteers who had put the coalition together was burning out. It was time for some fresh faces, and into the wake stepped an unknown to the neighborhood, a black woman named Barbara Semien.

Semien, a former bank employee, had moved into Cole five years earlier and decided she wanted to get involved. She joined the coalition and within a year ran for president.

"Barbara was elected as a compromise between competing factions," says Denver City Councilman Hiawatha Davis. "She was an unknown, and she ended up being a real terror."

As many neighborhood insiders tell it, the day Semien showed up was the day the coalition started to fall apart. Semien is, her critics charge, defensive, distrustful, paranoid and hard to get along with. "She had her own agenda that never got shared with a lot of folks," says McDowell. "She's very bright, knows how to do her homework--but she can be quite acerbic. It got to be you asked a question and she said, 'It's none of your business.' There was a lot of fallout, bad feelings, accusations."

Semien has her supporters, but not many. "To me, personally, her heart was in the right place," says Chuck Phillips, who owns a vocational-training center in north-central Cole. "She's a fighter. There's always somebody who doesn't like you for the way you walk or talk."

While critics paint her as a coalition-wrecker, Semien says the organization was running into trouble long before she got there. "I believe there is no organization that in one day turns into something else," she says. "The whole organization has a history of problems that existed long before I came along."

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