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Hiking up the steep slopes of South Table Mountain is like stepping back in time. Prairie grasses shimmer in the sun and the wind whistles across the broad mesa, which rises 1,300 feet from the Colorado prairie west of Golden. Goldenrod, sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus stud the open fields, and foxes, coyotes and deer all call the mesa home.
The dun-colored mesa was formed millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions. But today it's almost completely surrounded by Denver suburbs. From the top, you can see DIA and downtown Denver on one side and the nineteenth-century brick storefronts of Golden's Washington Avenue on the other. On a typical afternoon, the mesa attracts dozens of hikers and an assortment of free spirits who fly kites or practice archery.
But most of these people are trespassing on private property.
"I hear 'em talk about our mountain all the time," says Golden attorney Leo Bradley, who, along with his friends and business partners at the giant Coors Brewing Company, owns much of the land on the west side of the mesa. "It's a subjective thing, but it's obviously private property. I think people are surprised when they find that out."
For years Bradley has been trying to develop his and Coors' land on top of the mesa. Those efforts have made the 72-year-old attorney one of the most unpopular men in his hometown.
Ideas have come and gone over the years about what to do with this seemingly public landmark that rests in private hands. At various times the mesa has been touted as a possible site for NORAD, the United Nations and an international airport. The latest development scheme is a proposal to build a 5,000-employee office complex for sportswear giant Nike Inc. And both Bradley and Coors have made it clear they're interested in doing the deal. "We think Nike would be an excellent corporate neighbor," says Coors spokesman Jon Goldman.
Nike is looking at sites in several states and has yet to commit to building anything in Colorado. But the company's interest in South Table Mountain has stirred up Jefferson County residents, who have been fighting Bradley for the past two decades over the future of the mesa.
Bradley has long been a controversial character in Golden. In 1972 he proposed building a fourteen-story high-rise, a plan that violated the town's height limit and set off a fight before city council. He lost that battle but went on to wage war for a massive gravel quarry, a proposal that was rejected by the county commissioners in 1988 after years of bitter confrontation. "I suppose I've been involved in controversies all my life," Bradley says. "That's the nature of the business I'm in."
The Nike flap, however, has led to an outpouring of animosity that is unusual in Golden. Locals who typically lead quiet lives are making angry accusations against Bradley, Peter Coors, economic development officials, Nike and their own city government. They have obtained letters that reveal that Golden officials--who publicly claim to be neutral on the issue--have actually worked behind the scenes to bring Nike to South Table. And they believe Jefferson County boosters are so enraptured by the idea of landing a corporate plum like Nike that they're willing to sacrifice a mountain that the county itself has been trying to purchase as open space for the last 25 years.
"The whole mountain is an undeveloped oasis in the metro area," says Don Parker, a Golden resident who is organizing opposition to Nike. "If we had 5,000 people up there, a car would be going up and down the mountain every five seconds. It would ruin the mesa."
Parker places the blame for the proposal on Golden's best-known business and the suds heir who runs it. "Coors is behind this," he says. "Leo Bradley takes the heat, but I understand that Peter Coors is the decision-maker."
Bradley makes no secret of the fact that he's working closely with Coors to market the land on South Table. The brewing company owns the largest part of the land that would house the proposed Nike complex, a parcel that lies just behind the distinctive Castle Rock formation that is part of Golden's city seal. Coors has handed over responsibility for negotiations with Nike to Bradley, who has counted Coors as a legal client for much of his adult life.
Nike is looking at 1,400 acres on the western end of South Table. Coors owns roughly two-thirds of that property, while Bradley and his wife own the rest. If Nike builds on the mesa, it would take up 300 to 400 acres on top of the mountain, and Bradley has ambitious plans to turn the rest of the property into a bustling commercial beehive with offices, retail and other uses.
Bradley has a folksy demeanor and easy laugh that seem out of character for a man many Goldenites regard as a marauder. While some residents view the mesa in almost spiritual terms as an island of natural serenity on the edge of metro Denver, he sees it as raw earth that's long overdue for development.
"There's nothing up there but a bunch of rattlesnakes," says Bradley. "But we'll come up with a good use for it one of these days. If we don't, the next generation will."