Mall Rats

Student activists plan a sneaker attack on the Denver Pavilions.

This weekend the kids will head to the mall--where else?
But when several dozen members of Students for Justice drop by the new Denver Pavilions at noon Saturday, it won't be to do any Christmas shopping. Instead, they plan to protest the $24 million in "corporate welfare" sucked from taxpayers to build the swanky shopping center and to lure one of its incoming tenants: NikeTown.

Their rallying cry: "Do It Just."
This won't be their first trip to the mall. While Denver's dailies gushed over the Pavilions' November 5 grand opening, Students for Justice gathered to protest the lavish, invitation-only party that honored local pols, developers and business-friendly VIPs. The students didn't get much response, they say, except from a Hard Rock Cafe waitress who came outside to make fun of their demonstration.

Although many of the Pavilions' key renters cater to the youth market--the Gap, Hard Rock Cafe, the fifteen-screen United Artists movie theater--the student group has focused its efforts on the Virgin Megastore and the new Nike store, scheduled to open next summer and designed to make shoppers feel like they've just stepped into a high-tech footwear commercial.

"You look at the people who own those companies--they're billionaires. They don't need that money, especially from us," says Janet Damon, a Metropolitan State College senior who visits local high schools to recruit Students for Justice members. "That money could have been funding schools and teachers. Kids are in classes where there aren't enough desks in the classroom. Or the heater doesn't work. Or the books have copyright dates that are, like, 1983. We're talking basic, basic necessities."

Maria Macias, a West High sophomore whose adolescent energy bounces across a room like a pair of Air Jordans with springs, first got the activist bug this fall while registering voters with Rock the Vote. Then she got to thinking about the need for repairs and equipment in her own school, where the ratio of students to computers is more than 150 to one and kids can't take textbooks home because there aren't enough to go around. The blinds in one of her classrooms were so dilapidated that students plastered Diana DeGette campaign signs over the windows to block out the glare. "We call them 'de ghetto' blinds," she laughs.

Now Macias, an intern with Students for Justice, and other members of the group are polling West High teachers about what repairs and supplies their classrooms need. The group also supports a Corporate Responsibility Ordinance, requiring businesses that receive "economic incentives" to pay workers at least $7.73 an hour, the minimum to keep a family of four above the poverty level, and plans to ask Denver City Council and Mayor Wellington Webb to sign off on it. (A measure to raise Denver's minimum wage to $7.15 was defeated by three-fourths of local voters in 1996.)

Even more optimistic, the group will ask stores at Denver Pavilions to return 5 to 10 percent of their profits to the community for schools or youth programs and to offer school groups and students free or reduced admission prices for special events.

Like the Broadway Marketplace on South Broadway and the old Denver Dry Goods Building on the 16th Street Mall housing Mediaplay and TJ Maxx, the Pavilions was built on land declared a "tax increment finance district" by the city. For the Pavilions project, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority gave its blessing for the sale of $24 million in bonds, which helped pay for land acquisition, a parking garage and other specific features of the $107 million project, says Pavilions general manager Susan Spencer. Bondholders will be repaid through the sales and property taxes generated by the stores, which pay rents comparable to other downtown tenants.

"It's not like they took money from the schools" to build the complex, says Spencer. "Once the bonds are paid off, those taxes will go to the city." And that could ultimately help the schools, she points out.

"That's years down the road," says Carolyn Siegel of ACORN, a national nonprofit group that will join Students for Justice at its Pavilions protest. In the meantime, the tax dollars going to pay off bonds will not be going into city coffers--and that's a form of corporate welfare, says Siegel. "We have no issue with the city investing in economic development," she adds, but encouraging businesses that create more low-wage service-sector jobs is not the way to get there.

"Corporate welfare" has become a political buzzword across the country; according to a series in Time last month, the federal government spends $125 billion a year to give business a break. And Denver-area teenagers don't have to look far for examples: Their parents just added to the tally by voting to help pay for a new Broncos stadium (despite an anti-stadium campaign that labeled the tax "corporate welfare").

It's a complex, real-world economics lesson for students like Macias. But even as minors and non-voters, she says, "we do know we have a strong and powerful voice."

Students for Justice grew out of the Colorado Progressive Coalition (www.freespeech.org/CPC), a nonprofit consortium of fifty progressive organizations founded two and a half years ago. In 1997 several Jefferson County teenagers approached CPC and asked about forming a group for high school students. Today Students for Justice draws many of its 100-plus members from black, Hispanic and Asian high school student alliances and advertises internships "to get school credit just for raisin' hell!"

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