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The Name of the Game

This city for sale.

As this column went to press, the Metropolitan Football Stadium District announced that it was suspending naming-rights negotiations -- at least for now.

"Some things should just not be for sale," said Wellington Webb.

Denver's mayor was talking -- to just about anyone who would listen last week, including National Public Radio, the New York Times and USA Today -- about a name for the as-yet nameless new Denver Broncos stadium growing alongside old Mile High. Two years ago, after a heavy-pressure pro-stadium campaign that made this election's anti-Amendment 24 gang seem like Bill Romanowski without supplements, taxpayers in a six-county district voted to extend Coors Field's penny-per-ten-dollar sales tax until it also covered 75 percent of a $360 million pigskin palace. The taxpayers committed to paying their $270 million -- whether or not the Broncos won another Super Bowl (they won't); whether or not Pat Bowlen hiked ticket prices in that new stadium sky-high (he did); and whether or not the stadium's name was sold.

Sold, for example, to a company like AT&T Broadband, one of rapidly disintegrating AT&T's four bastard children, although AT&T Broadband Stadium sounds more like a Lazy Boy-equipped, cable-ready home entertainment center than it does a football arena. But Big Bucks Mutual Fund Stadium doesn't sound much better, not even if it's attached by a hyphen to the Mile High moniker. And so last Friday, Webb wrote to Ray Baker, chairman of the Metropolitan Football Stadium District, and asked the district to postpone entering into any naming-rights agreement until an independent audit could determine the value of the 38-year-old "Mile High Stadium" name, introduced when the Broncos first began playing football in the Mile High City.

"Some things should just not be for sale."

Hold that thought, Your Honor.

"Notice: United Airlines has purchased the football stadium -- all games will be Delayed or Canceled," announces the flier one anonymous jokester recently stuffed in a kiosk at Denver International Airport.

DIA: That's the airport Denver taxpayers voted to build a decade ago, a massive public-works project that was supposed to jumpstart business development in the northeast metro area. But today the city has plans to subsidize a new 500-room hotel at the airport -- because no private company has come up with the financing. This isn't the first hotel Denver has subsidized, either. Fred Kummer's Adam's Mark received a $25 million handout from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, which helped make it possible for Kummer to knock down I.M. Pei's landmark hyperbolic paraboloid and replace it with a boxy hotel addition guarded by ugly bronze ballet dancers. (Kummer recently showed his thanks, and his endless love of art, by donating a hefty chunk to a pet city project, the new Martin Luther King statue set for City Park.) And the city's still promising to fork over as much as $55 million so that Bruce Berger, who's already knocked down the old Denver Post building, can build a $217 million convention-center hotel bigger than the Adam's Mark, which would allow the city to wipe out Currigan Hall and build the convention-center expansion that Denver voters passed at the same time they approved the new stadium.

Although the convention-center project was contingent on a convention-center hotel, the Metropolitan Football Stadium District had a clear path once voters fell for the Broncos' offensive line in November 1998. Despite the fact that the team had two dozen years left on its lease with the city, Bowlen made a convincing argument that without a new stadium, he simply couldn't keep a winning team in Denver, where he'd long ago sold off his skybox rights and other tricks of the owner's trade. So metro-area residents voted to keep the Broncos, relying on the promise that the MFSD, created by the Colorado Legislature back in 1996, and its nine-member board would watch out for their interests. "We have to pay attention to the law," says district spokesman Matt Sugar, and that includes minimizing taxpayer expense as well as tracking public sentiment.

Maybe the MFSD board thought that all public sentiment would be expressed as loudly as the cheer that shook the decrepit Mile High on October 1, landing Denver -- for at least a minute -- in the Guinness Book of World Records. (No, not as biggest suckers.) Although relatively few citizens showed up at district meetings to discuss the stadium, they spoke out overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the Mile High name; this summer, when the grassroots group led by John Hickenlooper -- and fueled by beer -- polled the populace, almost 70 percent said they'd be willing to pay the tax longer if it meant keeping the Mile High name.

Because some things should just not be for sale.

Hold that thought.

Webb's been thinking a lot lately about another Denver amenity: Winter Park. Although most major American cities would kill -- or at least tax themselves to death -- to possess a football team, none will ever own a ski area, as Denver does.

But Winter Park grew out of a city's love for a sport -- and as with football-stadium deals today, that's not what modern ski resorts are about. Now skiing is secondary (if it ranks that high) to big real estate deals, as well as all the ancillary income from shops and restaurants and hotels that turn the resorts into frigid Disney Worlds. Because it was owned by Denver rather than by a big, hungry, publicly traded company, Winter Park escaped the emphasis on ever-bigger base-development deals and carved out a niche as a Front Range favorite, home of a truly worthy athletic endeavor: the country's premier handicapped ski program.

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