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Neighborhood Botch

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

The hard feelings in Cole cannot easily be boiled down, but near the root is the question of whether the substantial dollars earmarked for the neighborhood were to be controlled by the city or the coalition.

"This was supposed to be a historical project--the first time a poor neighborhood was given the means by which to improve itself," says Semien. "It was dependent on the community. All the city was supposed to do was advising."

According to court documents, the city contracted several times with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority--and not the coalition--to actually implement various programs in the neighborhood. The coalition, according to the documents, had only advisory roles in "implementing guidelines" and determining "the appropriate reuse of targeted property."

Still, most agree it was the coalition and not DURA making the decisions as to how the money was spent, and many in the neighborhood felt, as did Semien, that the money belonged to the coalition. "Dealing with the government--information just wasn't very easy to get," says McDowell. "There was a certain frustration that we weren't getting information, we weren't getting the truth."

The problems between the city and the coalition--and within the coalition itself--started brewing over a giant, derelict Victorian house, probably the largest in the neighborhood. It was bought by the coalition from the city for $5,000 in order to be renovated and used as a job-training or educational center. The coalition, with the city's approval, had set aside $400,000 to be used for economic-development projects, money that would have renovated the Victorian.

The house at 3806 Gilpin had been identified early on by coalition block captains as a site worth saving. At various meetings, the community voted overwhelmingly to rehab the property, even though the specifics of the project were at that time vague.

"I felt pressured to get answers," Semien says. "How, in three years, if there was money and the community wanted to do it--how come it hasn't happened? That's what the big discontent was."

What's worse, she says, the neighborhood's activists were splitting into two factions. One group thought the funds for the project were a done deal and wanted things to get rolling. Another group thought that the $400,000 in economic-development money that would have funded the renovation was the final chunk of money the neighborhood could expect and wanted to look into other options for spending it. "Nobody could ever get it together to turn in a business plan, and I don't know why," says Tony Tichy, a former coalition leader.

Soon the coalition turned to Hiawatha Davis for help. "The staff of the Community Development Agency--they were asking for bureaucratic justification, which frustrated the coalition," Davis says. "All the maneuvering was transferred to me. They felt I should just go and cut through the red tape for them. I wasn't ready to try and cut through the bureaucratic mess at CDA."

Which, he says, made him a convenient target for the coalition--a symbol of an ineffective city trying to control "funds they felt they had exclusive rights to," as he puts it.

Then the situation became even more inflamed. In May 1995, on the eve of city council elections, Semien and the coalition distributed fliers campaigning against Davis. The only problem was, they used volunteers from Americorps, the federal domestic version of the Peace Corps, to pass them out.

Semien says that the coalition never did any campaigning and that the fliers were merely announcing a forum for city council candidates for the purpose of trying to get answers from a recalcitrant city government. But that July, the Governor's Commission on National and Community Service concluded that the coalition had inappropriately gotten involved in the election, and it stripped the coalition of a $1.2 million Americorps grant.

To this day, Semien denies any wrongdoing. "We watched our labor go down the drain," Semien says. "And the questions we wanted answered, we never got answered. We were just trying to get answers from the city why the funds were not being released."

On the heels of the Americorps fiasco, the city withheld from the coalition the remaining chunk of the promised $2.7 million--about $815,000. It offered the money up for bid to other nonprofits in the neighborhood. Some of the funds came from $360,000 in housing-rehab money that DURA was holding on to but that had never been spent. Most of the rest was the $400,000 the coalition had set aside to rehab 3806 Gilpin.

At the time, the city argued that the coalition just didn't have its act together, but coalition leaders took the city to court, saying the coalition was a third-party beneficiary all along, that it was essentially controlling where the money was spent, even if DURA was actually holding some of the funds. The coalition's request for a freeze on the money was denied, though Judge Edward Simmons did write that the city, in withholding funds, was getting back at the coalition for distributing the fliers against Davis. "Political retribution against plaintiff is the only reasonable inference which can be drawn from the actions of [the city]," Simmons wrote in his finding.

Now the city and the coalition are in the process of settling the dispute, for a reported $125,000, but nothing is officially on the table.

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