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Neighborhood Watch and Wait

Carole Jensen has two words of advice for neighborhoods trying to get disruptive bars to settle down: Be patient. "It's a long, involved endeavor," she says. "I think these things always get resolved eventually. But it's a slow process, so unbelievably slow. It has been interesting, however. Not to mention very, very frustrating."

Jensen moved into the Westwood community on the west edge of Denver two years ago and has been fighting with MGM's Restaurant and Lounge--whose location, at 4801 Morrison Street, is only a couple hundred feet from her home--ever since. But Jensen's had it relatively easy: Some of her neighbors have been battling with MGM's owner, Marco Martinez, for over five years.

Finally, though, residents who live in MGM's neighborhood--an area that includes Morrison Road, Wolff Street and Kentucky Avenue--feel that their efforts have been rewarded. Last week the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses worked out an agreement with Martinez that addresses the neighbors' concerns about loud music, rowdy patrons, garbage, and cars cruising down residential streets in the wee hours. To prevent such problems, Martinez must erect a fence around his property, hire two security officers each night, keep the bar door closed--even during the hot summer months, when residents say the music is loudest--and plant trees to further block sound.

Although Martinez agreed to the plan, he isn't pleased about spending more money. "I feel like I've done everything I could to make this neighborhood happy," he says. "It has cost me so much already, with the improvements they made me make to the building and the lawyers and everything. I just hope this makes them happy." In order to comply with the stipulations, he adds, he'll have to turn MGM's back into a restaurant, which it was before his dance club became such a hit. "You think you get to this point in your life," he says, "where the evidence of success means you don't have to work so hard, and then you have to go back in and work hard again to make a living."

Jensen can sympathize--to a point. "I do feel bad for Marco, because it shouldn't have had to come to this," she says. "If he had just done these things when we first asked him to, it wouldn't have gotten so ugly."

The ugliness started in 1993, when a neighbor complained to Excise and Licenses that music coming from the bar was loud enough to keep him awake until 2 a.m. Within a few months, the department had collected eleven more complaints about the same thing and had scheduled a show-cause hearing where MGM's had to defend its right to continue operations. And continue it did, despite the fact that the Westwood Neighborhood Association sued MGM's in late 1997 and District 4 detectives turned the bar in to the Denver Police Department's Public Nuisance Abatement unit.

Over the years the neighbors' complaints have expanded to include vandalism and political cronyism; Martinez, in turn, accuses the residents of being racist. The campaign against MGM's, he claims, is a massive conspiracy between the neighborhood and city agencies to "put the brown man out of business." Not only are several of the most vocal neighbors--all of whom are of Anglo descent--prejudiced against Hispanics, he says, but Beth McCann, director of Excise and Licenses, has a "history of problems with minorities." (McCann firmly refutes that accusation.)

Many of MGM's less-vocal neighbors say they've been afraid to complain about Martinez for fear that his patrons will retaliate by smashing their windows, urinating on their lawns and screaming obscenities at their houses. "Some of us have signed petitions supporting MGM's because we don't want to put our kids at risk," says one father who strongly opposed the bar until an MGM's customer threatened him on the street. "Can you imagine what it's like having to lie awake at night listening to drunk people passing by your house and wonder if they're going to throw a brick through your window?" And some neighbors say they feel they're not getting the kind of response they'd like to their complaints because Martinez's son, Marco Martinez Jr., is a police officer in District 4, an accusation District 4 captain Rudy Sandoval says is "ridiculous."

Regardless, Jan Marie Belle, director of the Southwest Improvement Council, isn't afraid to speak up. Belle, who's been very active in several battles with local bars, has been working at the SWIC community center for the past ten years. A Ruby Hill resident who previously lived in Westwood for 36 years, Belle met with Martinez many times to try to work out solutions to the problems the bar created in the neighborhood. "But I told Marco, the way he's been with his neighbors, it's like the tree that SWIC planted in front of his bar a few years ago," she says. "I told him, 'Marco, you didn't water that tree, and the tree died.' And he said, 'I was supposed to water the tree?' That's the problem with Marco--he doesn't water the trees. He doesn't take care of what needs to be taken care of so things can improve."

And over the past several years, Belle adds, MGM's patrons have been getting worse, not better. "Marco should look into his past, because something really changed with his clientele," she says. "I don't know for sure if this is the case, but I suspect that MGM's has become known as a place where people can misbehave and get away with it, because I don't hear about this many complaints against patrons at other area bars."

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