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The Jet Set

The go-go years of the 1980s resurface in a bid for the old Stapleton Airport.

The last time Denver super-developer-turned-S&L-deadbeat Bill Walters was heard from, he was lying low in his wife's California condo, ducking calls from the press and hoping not to hear a knock on the door from the G-men assigned to mop up the nation's thrift crisis. Walters had a lot to fear in those days; through a string of bum loans from Denver's ill-famed Silverado Banking, he had stiffed taxpayers for more than $100 million and been forced into bankruptcy. But wherever Walters is today, he must be smiling. After all these years, one of his old Denver buddies is back in the saddle--and gunning for 4,200 acres of publicly owned land at the former Stapleton Airport.

In some ways, the massive real estate deal proposed by former Walters attorney and business partner Harvey E. Deutsch is as brash as the ones Walters himself used to string together with his moneymen at Silverado: For $30 million in borrowed money, Deutsch and his five partners want to take Stapleton off Denver's hands.

The city would no longer bear the burden of wet-nursing the old airport, whose vacant runways and abandoned buildings now roll east from Quebec Street like an urban wilderness.

The airlines that relocated to Denver International Airport only to see Stapleton remain on Denver's books could breathe easier, assured that they no longer have to cover the costs for an aviation white elephant.

And Deutsch and his partners would gain clear title to the biggest piece of urban in-fill property in the United States.

For now, the Deutsch group's bid is notable as much for its chutzpah as for its chance of actually being accepted. "If the city did the deal with them, they'd look ridiculous," says one veteran Denver developer, adding that Deutsch lacks "the horsepower" to pull off such a gargantuan undertaking. Even Denver city councilman Ted Hackworth, a vocal advocate of selling Stapleton to the highest bidder, scoffs at the $30 million offer, noting that the city's share of environmental cleanup costs at the old airport could exceed that figure.

But the bid from out of the blue is no joke. Deutsch has done numerous deals since Walters left town, including the successful Gateway Village project in Montbello. He says his group has lined up Avanti Property Group, the giant Florida speculator whose logo can be seen on land parcels across the metro area, as a lender and equity investor. A politically palatable group of investors has signed on, including African-American construction contractor Charles C. Roberts, brother to former city councilman Bill Roberts. And a long line of other equity partners can be expected to pile aboard if the deal shows signs of life.

Whether the unsolicited bid will survive the next few weeks is now up to the city. But Deutsch's offer already has done what many observers believe was its true purpose: It has thrown a scare into an administration that, perhaps preoccupied with the Summit of the Eight and the Pepsi Center, had shunted Stapleton development to the back burner even as the local real estate market was boiling over. Says Errol Stevens, who until 1995 oversaw Stapleton development for the city and has since popped up as an equity partner in Deutsch's effort, "We deserve the Pulitzer Prize just for bringing this up."

The city has been talking about how to redevelop Stapleton since at least 1989, six years before the airport was mothballed to make room for DIA. First there was Stapleton 2000, the city agency set up by former mayor and DIA booster Federico Pena to try to figure out how to patch the giant hole in the city that would be left by his new airfield. Then there was the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation, a nonprofit company bankrolled for $4 million by some of Denver's biggest private companies and charitable foundations. Today the Stapleton Development Corporation, yet another nonprofit entity created by the city, serves as the former airport's de facto development arm, with a budget this year of $8.1 million.

And so far, just 500 acres of the original 4,700-acre property has been sold.

Most of what has been unloaded--a 273-acre chunk that went to the Union Pacific Realty Company and has since been flipped to another developer in a private deal--wasn't actually sold at all. Instead, the city traded the parcel on Stapleton's northeast side to Union Pacific as part of a land swap made necessary when Denver condemned a piece of UP land to make way for DIA. The rest of the acreage went to the parent company of grocery giant King Soopers on bargain-basement terms that were widely viewed as an attempt to mollify a large hometown employer.

Stapleton's fate seemed to have been sealed in 1995, when Mayor Wellington Webb and the Denver City Council created the SDC and set it on the road toward autonomy. The mayor got to name nine of the SDC boardmembers, including board chairman Harry T. Lewis, and the Webb-appointed Denver Urban Renewal Authority the other two. But despite that cozy arrangement, progress has been painfully slow. A final agreement has never actually been worked out, and behind the scenes, tempers have run hot.

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