The Jet Set

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

On the same day the Journal article appeared, Deutsch and his partners made their play. And they saw no reason to inform the SDC. Instead, Deutsch sent a letter to Webb, pitching the mayor directly on the privatization of Stapleton. He made sure to send copies to the city council, just in case word didn't leak to the press.

If the snub got under the skin of SDC boardmembers--and by all accounts, it did--the offense was definitely intended. Deutsch and his partners openly ridicule the nonprofit agency, charging that it operates in secret--in fact, the SDC recently refused a Denver Post request to review copies of its leases and employment contracts--and that it has allowed some of Stapleton's buildings to deteriorate. They also mock the lack of development expertise on the nonprofit's board, whose political roots are hard to conceal: Along with the Reverend Martin, the group includes former Denver school-board president Ed Garner, who now runs a janitorial service, and a representative from the League of Women Voters.

"One of the things lacking at the SDC is anyone with any experience in the real estate business," says Deutsch. "Nobody on that team has that perspective." Errol Stevens, who serves as Deutsch's eyes and ears at city hall, says he's been struck by how few of the boardmembers even bother to show up at their own meetings. He attended SDC board meetings for six months last year, he adds, and saw that generally fewer than half of the members bothered to appear.

"My read is there is a great deal of feeling in the city and on the SDC board that things are not going well," says Stevens, who during his days with the city was never a fan of the communal process that led to a plan calling for "urban villages" against the industrial backdrop of I-70. "The whole real estate community says, 'My God, what's going on?'"

"To really know," adds Deutsch, who clearly is enjoying his jousting with the city, "we'll have to wait for the Kitty Kelley book."

Deutsch's letter to Webb, however, has none of the drama of a typical Kelley creation. Instead, the six-page missive is a straight-ahead business proposition, alternately cocksure and deferential in tone. It pledges to uphold the urban-village vision of the Stapleton Redevelopment Plan, for instance, while noting that the plan will need to be "updated periodically to reflect current market conditions." And it includes frequent references to the sheer expense of subsidizing the Stapleton Development Corporation.

The city's current plan calls for funding the SDC's "ongoing operation and maintenance expenses" via at least $63 million in bond debt that would be repaid by tapping DIA revenues. Though that approach is widely considered a political winner for Webb--it involves no new direct taxes--it essentially amounts to sticking airlines with the cost of redeveloping an airport the airlines didn't want shut down in the first place. The airlines could in turn be counted on to stick it to their passengers. Selling outright would avoid that onerous process altogether--one reason United Airlines, which accounts for most of the revenues at the new airport and has threatened to take the city to court if it tries to issue Stapleton bonds, has signaled its support for a sale of the property.

In his letter, Deutsch gave Webb until September 8 to respond. On September 2 he received a letter from Webb chief of staff Stephanie Foote, who took the trouble to scratch out the typed "Dear Mr. Deutsch" greeting of her secretary and replace it with a friendlier "Harvey" written in longhand. Despite the familiar tone, though, Foote was careful not to tip the city's hand. On the one hand, her two-paragraph letter notes that the city is still talking to the SDC about the transfer of the Stapleton property and "has not made a policy decision to solicit further interest from other parties in the Stapleton property." On the other hand, Foote says the city wants to schedule a meeting with the Deutsch group as soon as possible to discuss specific terms. Deutsch responded by sending the city a letter extending the offer to October 8 and waiting by the phone. At last word, he was still waiting.

In the meantime, SDC president Andy Barnes, a hired gun brought in last year from Washington, D.C., to jump-start the development process, has told the press that at least two other private investment groups have expressed an interest in buying Stapleton. And while the Webb administration has remained coy on the question of a bulk sale, the SDC has launched what by its own somnolent standards may actually represent a counter-attack.

Chairman Lewis, a reserved investment banker who has done volunteer work for the city for years, emerged from his shell a few days after the Deutsch bid to declare himself "befuddled" by the offer. Lewis now goes so far as to accuse Deutsch of trying to "steal" Stapleton. And though he admits Deutsch's move will likely prompt the administration to accept bids on large tracts of Stapleton land, he says it's highly unlikely that Deutsch or anyone else will ever actually buy the airport outright. "Your holding costs would eat you alive," says Lewis, noting that a developer would have to spend millions of dollars just to maintain the property while seeking buyers. Lewis also notes that the Deutsch offer arrived while the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines are in the midst of negotiating who will pay the environmental cleanup costs at the old airport, which could run anywhere from $31 million to $85 million. It's folly, he says, to think any lender would put up the money for a purchase without knowing exactly who will have to foot the bill for the pollution.

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