The Revolution Will Not Be Televised!

How Denver’s Hispanic community lost a cable-TV channel but gained a “heritage center.” Maybe.

On Wednesday, February 23, Sharon Vigil and Scott Flores, the president and chairman of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, respectively, posed in front of the former Denver District Attorney's building at the busy corner of Colfax Avenue and Speer Boulevard. They were announcing that the Hispanic Chamber would be moving into the dilapidated structure and helping to renovate the building that had stood empty for years.

The old DA's building would finally become the cultural center that Denver's Hispanic community had long hoped for, they said. Corporate giants such as Coors, US West and AT&T were making sizable donations to see it happen. The center would be named for longtime Hispanic activist Bernie Valdez, who'd founded the Latin American Education Foundation to give scholarships to Latino students, helped guide the Denver school board through the tumultuous desegregation years of the 1970s, and also spent sixteen years running the Denver Department of Social Services.

But even though the structure is to be rechristened as a "Hispanic heritage center," it may wind up as an office building that has very little to do with Hispanic culture. And it turns out that $300,000 of the money being donated by AT&T was earmarked more than fifteen years ago for an entirely different project -- a Hispanic TV channel -- that now will never happen. That little part of Denver's Hispanic heritage is destined to remain forgotten.

Cable ready? The old Denver DA's building at Speer and Colfax.
Cable ready? The old Denver DA's building at Speer and Colfax.
Mi casa es su casa: Scott Flores, chairman of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, looks forward to a new home in the old DA's building.
Anthony Camera
Mi casa es su casa: Scott Flores, chairman of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, looks forward to a new home in the old DA's building.

In the late '70s and early '80s, cable television was a relatively new phenomenon, and Denver was an untapped market. Three companies vied to gain the franchise and win the right to install the new technology throughout the city: United Cable; Television and Teleprompter; and Mile Hi Cablevision, formed by late local cable magnate Bill Daniels along with American Television and Communications, a subsidiary of Time Inc. that owned HBO.

The Denver City Council pointed out that the city would "look with favor upon" a proposal that demonstrated "significant bona-fide investment" by local citizens. And so each of the three companies proposed ways to bring that about. Teleprompter offered to donate 20 percent of its earnings to a public trust. United proposed to sell 600,000 shares at $10 a share to 1,800 local people -- a 17 percent stake in the company.

Mile Hi's efforts were more focused: It offered 15 percent of its proposed franchise in the form of stock to a select 22 Denverites. Asking price: $100,000 per person. Mile Hi even offered to loan its prospective stockholders virtually the entire cost of the stock, a practice common in the industry but one that observers derisively dubbed "Rent-A-Citizen."

Another fact wasn't lost on Mile Hi: City officials also wanted to see adequate minority participation in the new franchise, so of the 22 people Mile Hi contacted, six were Latino and seven were black. Many of them were (and are) among Denver's minority elite: Hiawatha Davis, who was soon to begin a long run on the Denver City Council; Rachel Noel, then chair of the University of Colorado Board of Regents; broadcaster Reynelda Muse; lobbyist Maria Garcia (now Garcia Berry); and Ruben Valdez, who at the time was with the Colorado Department of Social Services. In 1980, the company threw a party for minority reporters to score points for its proposal, which weighed a total of forty pounds.

Going the extra mile paid off. On February 22, 1982, the city council voted to award its new cable franchise to Mile Hi. Litigation surrounding the language of the deal tied things up until June 1984, when voters finally approved the franchise deal. As part of the agreement, Mile Hi was to "provide a total of more than one million ($1,000,000.00) in loans, in-kind services and equity investments for developing a Hispanic entrepreneurial channel and a black entrepreneurial channel. The company also will commit five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00) to the formation of a business-development company to assist minority-owned small business."

The money earmarked for the minority-owned small business was later amended out of the franchise agreement, as Mile Hi looked for ways to reduce its financial commitment. But the Hispanic and black entrepreneurial channel requirements remained. Mile Hi was to help create two 24-hour cable channels fully dedicated to minority programming, and it had until June 1999 -- when its franchise deal with the city ran out -- to do so.

One channel would be run by African-American entrepreneurs, the other by Hispanic entrepreneurs. There would be no strings attached to Mile Hi's commitment -- just a half-million in financial support per channel, guaranteed. Mile Hi's money was never meant to be the sole source of income for either channel; it was merely intended to provide a head start for what were referred to as HEC and BEC. Mile Hi officials expected that the entrepreneurs at each channel would locate other investors or sources of funding. But the agreement was vaguely worded, and many people involved in the franchise fight debated whether it was a sincere effort at inclusion or only a sop to blacks and Latinos.

Either way, the idea was ahead of its time; Univision didn't start broadcasting in Denver until 1989. HEC and BEC were to air whatever programming the minority owners could buy or produce themselves -- but finding minority programmers with sufficient experience and access to revenue-generating advertisers was daunting in early-'80s Denver. Still, after years of false starts and litigation with would-be cable entrepreneurs, the Black Entrepreneurial Channel is scheduled to debut in the next few months (see sidebar).

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