Big Boss Man

Jim Hannifin commands a ready-made urban army—and he keeps winning his battles.

Above Jim Hannifin's cluttered desk is an award, inked in amateur calligraphy and framed in fake wood.

Hannifin tacked the prize to his wall in February 1995, shortly after he moved his business, Ready Temporary Services, to 1915 East Colfax Avenue. Leaders of the local business group Colfax on the Hill, Inc., stopped by to present Hannifin with the Chairman's Award, a friendly welcome-to-the-neighborhood gesture.

The chairman herself, Margot Crowe, owner and proprietor of the cozy bed-and-breakfast directly across the street from Hannifin, made the presentation. Crowe wasn't just a fixture on East Colfax, she was a legend. Crowe's family had owned the Holiday Chalet since 1912; she liked to tell people that she was conceived on Colfax, born on Colfax, lives on Colfax, plays on Colfax and wants to die on Colfax. And so like warm neighbors often do, when Hannifin moved in, Crowe invited all the local business owners to gather for a continental breakfast at the Ramada Inn to meet the new guy.

She's seen enough: Margot Crowe, owner of the Holiday Chalet, says Jim Hannifin sued her "as a warning."
She's seen enough: Margot Crowe, owner of the Holiday Chalet, says Jim Hannifin sued her "as a warning."
She's seen enough: Margot Crowe, owner of the Holiday Chalet, says Jim Hannifin sued her "as a warning."
James Bludworth
She's seen enough: Margot Crowe, owner of the Holiday Chalet, says Jim Hannifin sued her "as a warning."

While the business owners sipped hot coffee and munched buttered croissants, Crowe spoke highly of Hannifin. She said she was glad he had purchased that shabby old building across the street and turned it into something presentable. She noted that Hannifin's business and its 500 employees would bring a $5 million payroll to the neglected strip of East Colfax. Crowe spoke glowingly of Jim Hannifin's strong reputation for diving into neighborhood issues, for taking charge in the community.

"Outspoken and direct in his views," Crowe said, "he believes COTH should not be an approving or disapproving arbiter of existing businesses; rather, that its primary function should be to encourage all businesses here to succeed and to help bring more business into the district."

But even as Crowe uttered those words of praise, she knew Hannifin was a neighborhood bully. Sure, she'd heard that Hannifin dove into neighborhood issues, but she'd also heard he did it nails first.

The Chairman's Award, it turned out, wasn't just a pat on the back -- it was a deep massage. "It was largely tongue-in-cheek," recalls Buzz Geller, current chairman of Colfax on the Hill and owner of a Paradise Cleaners at Colfax and Adams. "It was along the logic of, 'Here's an award -- now play ball with the rest of us, would you?'"

Other Denver neighborhoods, such as the Golden Triangle, were getting city planners to rezone their commercial strips to block out the seedy businesses that kept them in the gutter and out of the economic high times of the '90s. For their own piece of the world, the Colfax on the Hill business owners wanted to freeze out any new tattoo shops, adult bookstores and, eventually, temporary labor shops like Jim Hannifin's.

Don't worry, they told Hannifin. You'll be grandfathered in, and your competition will be kept away.

Over the course of the next four years, the business owners held meetings with the neighbors, lobbied the city's planning office and dreamt of a new world. But Hannifin, the 6' 5" Irishman with the booming voice and the cut-to-the-quick snarls, wasn't playing ball. He quickly accused his neighbors of trouncing the working poor to achieve their own goals, of going so far as to practice "economic cleansing."

When the dispute turned into a fight and then a brawl, Hannifin unleashed his brand of "urban guerrilla warfare" on his neighbors. He paid his scraggly "Ready Men" employees to picket in front of Geller's business with signs that read, "Paradise Cleaners Is Against the Working Poor." He sued Crowe for slander. He sent out his employees to collect signatures against the rezoning plan and came up with 3,200 of them -- a mother lode of support. And when the rezoning plan was finally scheduled to go before the city's Land Use Committee this past June, Hannifin didn't hesitate to throw his cash around. He hired CRL, the most influential lobbying firm in Denver (see "Big Boss Lady," in this week's issue).

"I make no secrets about hiring CRL," Hannifin says, spreading out his long arms like Christ. "I was facing these neighborhood organizations who have full-time executive directors that go out and lobby for what they want. I didn't have that kind of time. I didn't know how to work the system like they did. And you know what happens if you don't know how to work the system? You can end up stepping on your own dick."

Out on East Colfax, people think Jim Hannifin is either a saint or a sonuvabitch. Mostly, they're thinking sonuvabitch.


Growing up, Jim Hannifin learned people can hate you for the damnedest reasons.

Hannifin was raised in an Irish ghetto in Butte, Montana, a hard mining town loaded with more booze than copper. His father quit school after the eighth grade and provided for the family by running gambling halls. At age eight, Jim earned $1 a week for delivering popcorn and candy to the old ladies who spent their evenings playing bingo. As a young child, Hannifin didn't know being Irish, Catholic and blue-collar wasn't exactly chic. He would find that out later as he traveled with his high school basketball team to the big cities, like Billings.

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