Backfield in Motion

While the Broncos prepare for the second half of their big playoff game in the Colorado Legislature, why don't we just sit back and enjoy the halftime show?

The high-priced entertainment, of course, is reserved for the VIPs--the Very Important Politicians who will be voting on SB 171 (read: the Bronco Bailout Bill) over the next few weeks. But there are still some amusements offered up for the little people, the little people who will ante up the big bucks if the Broncos get their new stadium.

And they don't come much littler than at the Denver City Council.
On Monday, Pat Bowlen showed up at the weekly council meeting with three of his "no-limit soldiers": Terrell Davis, John Mobley and Billy Thompson. Bowlen came to city hall to accept a council resolution officially honoring the Broncos' Super Bowl win--but it clearly was the council that felt honored, bowled over by the presence of the team's owner, his athletes, his Lombardi Trophy and his omnipresent lobbyist, Porter "Razzle Dazzle" Wharton.

The reflected glory was enough to obscure the fact that the city had already officially honored the Broncos just five short weeks ago. That big-ticket celebration came complete with a parade through downtown and a crowd of 650,000 (give or take a few hundred thousand--but then, the legislature is asking us to give or take a few hundred million), speeches and, courtesy of Mayor Wellington Webb, the city's first outright endorsement of a new stadium to replace Mile High, where the team is supposed to play for the next twenty years. (Despite the Broncos' whining about that lease, Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson points out: "People need to put in perspective what this lease we have now does. If it's the worst in the NFL, then we must have the best for a city.")

In the ensuing weeks, though, the Broncos have been playing another important game, so you can hardly blame Bowlen for wanting his boys to make a few more very public appearances. And if the Boy Scout troop invited by Councilman Ed Thomas to greet the Broncos wasn't quite as raucous as the crowd cheering the team on in San Diego, every supporter helps when you're going for the big win, the stadium Super Bowl: an election next November. Everyone who votes to extend the Coors Field sales tax--just a penny on every $10!--gets a Bowlen merit badge and a no-limits salute. (Councilman Hiawatha Davis, who told Bowlen and the sparse audience that the Broncos deserved the best stadium our money can buy, apparently has already collected his.)

But first the Broncos must win this final playoff game at the State Capitol. And so, even as Bowlen's troops stage their halftime show, more action continues on the sidelines.

The Broncos came into this playoff game, held on the legislature's home field, with a big advantage--the unexpected Super Bowl win (fifth time's a charm!)--but some significant baggage.

The biggest load was the Metropolitan Football Stadium District Act, which looked so good when the Broncos fought for its passage two years ago. But that proposal--passed at the eleventh hour, and only after Bowlen scrawled a promise to offer plenty of jobs to minorities--limited the public subsidy on a new stadium to $180 million.

Time, and a big victory, inflated expectations--and the cost of the stadium Bowlen insists is needed to keep his team competitive. The price tag is now at least $100 million higher, he told legislators, and if he wants to keep his team competitive, he just can't chip in much more than the quarter-share he'd already committed to back in 1996. And while the legislature was making that small amendment raising the public portion, it would be nice if the public vote was moved to May rather than left on that inconvenient--but legal--November date that just happened to fall in the middle of the next, perhaps less competitive, season.

Senator Elsie "Win One for the Gypper" Lacy volunteered to carry the bill. But despite a flashy offensive series in the state Senate--including an appearance by Bowlen, at which lawmakers genuflected before his Super Bowl ring as though he were the Pope himself--by Friday, February 20, the ball was back, way back, inside the Broncos' $180 million-yard line. And you could kiss a May vote goodbye.

An unexpectedly tough fight by Denver senator Pat Pascoe had stalled Lacy's drive. While Lacy pushed hard with reminders of the Broncos' glorious victory in San Diego, Pascoe pushed back with reminders of Colorado's not-so-glorious poor, who would be "hit hardest" by the stadium sales tax. Before they broke for the weekend, the senators took a preliminary vote. It was 19-16 against boosting the taxpayers' share to $265 million from the $180 million approved two years ago. But today, Lacy sniffed, "that $180 million amount is basically useless."

Lacey called a time out over the weekend--and the Broncos got their backfield in motion.

On Saturday, "No Limits" Bowlen donned a cashmere sweater and headed to the public presentation of the two architecture firms vying for the Bronco stadium contract. The dog-and-pony show pitted Kansas City's HOK Sport, creator of Coors Field and the Pepsi Center, against Kansas City's HNTB. But while HOK, considered the front-runner, forgot to bring its dogs and ponies, HNTB put on a real show. In the center ring were two local architecture-firm affiliates--one minority-run and one featuring Curt Fentress, who brought us the tent-roof at DIA and the Tinkertoys outside the Colorado Convention Center--as well as a vision of what the stadium could look like. The swoosh to the roof looked suspiciously Nike-like, but it was enough to sway the stadium authority. Bowlen got some good press, and HNTB got the job--if there is a job, that is.

The real play, though, was behind the scenes. Forget Gary Zimmerman: The Broncos' beef in the trenches are its arm-twisting lobbyists and lawyers, Gary "The Fridge" Reiff and Steve "The Firm" Farber. By Monday, they'd identified two weak points in the Senate's defense--Democrats Stan Matsunaka and Peggy Reeves--and started worming their way through.

On Tuesday, the two legislators huddled with Porter Wharton and came up with a compromise that turned their no votes around.

It called for the Broncos to make a twenty-year commitment to stay in Denver (why does that sound familiar?), and, if the team just happened to somehow get sold, to promise a $1 million (or 2 percent of the net sales price) donation to youth charities. Conveniently, the $1 million promise was coupled with an increase on the cap to $266 million rather than $265 million. (Lawmakers aren't allowed to vote on the same figure twice--so naturally, they went up.)

Senate Majority Leader Jeff Wells popped up with his own amendment, calling for the long-discussed retractable dome to top the stadium bill. Another idea, another $100 million (which just happened to be where the Broncos' contribution was now capped). Wells's amendment proposed that the fees from any stadium-naming rights go to paying off the new roof--even though the 1996 bill earmarked any such fees for paying off the stadium itself. Although Wells's proposal just added to the public's burden, it made the bill look like it might benefit someone other than the Broncos. Promoters of giant tractor pulls, for example. Throw in another people-pleasing amendment requiring mass transit to the Valvoline Tractor Pull and Football Stadium, and on February 25, Lacy scored a victory: 20-14.

But the halftime hijinks were just beginning.
The Broncos say they could live with a dome--hey! they're team players!--but they truly don't want it, and so the concept is doomed. After all, the roof's biggest supporter was the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, which has always played ball with Bowlen. And already Lacy's been chatting with state representative Doug "No Nickname" Dean, tapped to quarterback the second half of the game, about splitting the dome into a separate ballot issue.

Other opponents are raising the roof, too. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, who would applaud the Broncos a few days later, complained to Wells that her constituents had not been consulted about a domed stadium and were worried that increased use would harm the neighborhood. Although neighbors of Mile High may not have much political clout, another dome opponent definitely does. At a town meeting last Thursday night, Mayor Webb asked a gathering of northeast Denverites: "Has anybody ever seen a working retractable roof? What does this remind you of?"

Since the meeting was only a hop, skip and a jump from Denver International Airport, the crowd could be forgiven if the controversial retractable roof reminded them of, say, the once controversial tent roof at DIA. But Webb had in mind another DIA snafu, the automated baggage system that had never been tried before DIA--and has never worked there, either. In this country, the only retractable roof over a stadium is at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, which doesn't officially open until the end of the month. In the meantime, that stadium project is already $75 million over budget, with much of the overrun attributed to the roof--which may or may not retract on game day.

But the whole stadium deal is reminiscent of DIA for another reason: costs that are vague but obviously out of sight.

Although she was defeated in the Senate, Pascoe hasn't given up. If the sales tax is extended, she points out, it could raise as much as $562 million by 2012--and there's nothing in SB 171 that prohibits the stadium from absorbing every penny of it. And even if the costs of a new stadium are held at $366 million, interest alone will more than double that price tag.

In a remarkable bit of undervaluing, stadium authority chairman Ray Baker--who also chaired the authority that built Coors Field--admits that the actual cost of the stadium is the "$64,000 question." Four months ago, when the authority did its last study, it averaged the cost of the four football stadiums built over the past three years--and came up with well over $300 million in hard costs. No interest. "My job is to provide hard costs," he says.

From the sidelines, architect Stuart Ohlson watches the numbers go up. A year ago he threw the Broncos into a tizzy with his suggestion--backed with actual plans--that Mile High could be remodeled for far less than $180 million. To be sporting, the city asked HOK to consider the possibility of rehabbing the old stadium--and HOK came up with an estimate of $211 million, which pretty much shot down Ohlson's proposal.

Now, however, it's looking, if not practical, at least concrete. After all, we know where Mile High is and what it looks like--which is more than we know about the proposed new Broncos stadium. "I think there's more predictability in a rebuilt stadium," says Ohlson. "Particularly in the infrastructure and all of the costs that go into getting ready to build a building. At the moment, nobody knows what this pie is going to be made of--and I believe that the appetite of the citizens, and maybe the administration, is that this should be a wondrous and intriguing building."

Ohlson thinks Mile High made new could be wondrous and intriguing, too, complete with shops that would make the stadium work not ten days a year, not thirty or forty days a year (he hasn't done a dome design), but year-round. And since Denver would still own the facility, sales tax from those shops could go to the city--instead of to the Broncos, who will likely receive every revenue stream from a new stadium, just as all funds collected at Coors Field flow to the Rockies. Keeping the old stadium would also keep $5 million going to the city each year from seat taxes, parking and concessions; what kind of concessions would be needed to allow the Broncos to break their lease, the city still isn't saying.

But what's another unknown figure on top of countless other unknown figures?
On Monday, the Independence Institute showed off some more number-crunching. Working off a report produced by a think-tank in Chicago, the institute reported that building a new stadium for the Broncos amounts to "football socialism." These large public-works projects never prove to be the economic boon they're billed as, the institute argues, and, in fact, offer no more than "tiny" economic benefits. "The Pat Bowlen welfare bill is grossly unfair to Denver taxpayers," says David Kopel, research director at the institute. "A family of four in Denver will have to give Pat Bowlen at least $530, and as much as a thousand dollars, if the Bowlen welfare bill became law."

Of course, Bowlen won't be standing along the Auraria Parkway in his leather Shaft jacket, holding his hands out for donations. He'll let his no-limits soldiers do the dirty work.

Time to run out for refreshments. The second half of the game begins next week, in the Local Government Committee of the House.

And just in case the legislature fails to provide, the Broncos have their bases covered: They've already sent a signed football to Cardinal Stafford, our man in Rome.

Given the lobbying team the Broncos are fielding, though, the House will probably fall just as the Senate did. The public has the right to vote on this issue, lawmakers say. But they fail to acknowledge that the public also has a right to assume that its lawmakers are negotiating the best possible deal--for the public, not for an NFL owner who cries poverty.

Even Webb sees the light on this one. As he told that neighborhood gathering, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a rich rich owner of the Broncos instead of a poor rich owner?

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