Getting Denver Ready for the DNC

Denver needs to raise a total of $55 million before the DNC hits town next August. And then there are the real challenges...

Hundreds of journalists descended on Denver this week for a Democratic National Convention briefing at the Pepsi Center, just a taste of the tens of thousands who will hit this city next August.

On Monday night, many of those journalists got their own first taste of Denver at a reception at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, the town's first, and still largest, brewpub, which a geeky, unemployed geologist with the unlikely name of John Hickenlooper and a handful of slightly more experienced partners opened in the just-designated Lower Downtown Historic District back in the fall of 1988.

On opening day nineteen years ago, the Wynkoop invited media types to lunch in a part of the city that few had experienced before. But because there wasn't a lot going on in depressed Denver — and because the beer would be free — hordes of hacks headed to the brewpub, overwhelming the place. Although many never got to eat, they didn't care, because the beer kept flowing. And so did the quips from Hickenlooper, who displayed an unanticipated flair for dealing with the press. Unanticipated, perhaps, even by him.

The Wynkoop was much better prepared for Monday night's festivities — and the journalists were much better behaved. They mingled with members of the DNC Host Committee, flipped through the Denver's Favorite Places gift book (which looks suspiciously like a Little Golden Book), compared notes on the Coors Field tour given that afternoon, and even left full pitchers of beer on the table (but then, many of them were on expense accounts and were heading off to sample more of this town's liquid assets). Unfortunately, a glitchy sound system swallowed up whatever one-liners now-Mayor (and no longer pub owner) John Hickenlooper may have uttered.

Denver's not quite ready for its close-up.

That was clear before last week, when Denver voters proved willing to take on another $576 million in tax and bond obligations — but only after the city called in the SWAT team to count the votes. It was obvious even before the Colorado Rockies played their first inning of the World Series, when the team's owners struck out with their online ticket sales scheme. It's apparent in gaps small and large, political potholes we keep stumbling in across this city.

Denver doesn't have time to demand an election recount or a Red Sox replay before the Democratic National Convention arrives, but there's still plenty we can do to make this truly a World Series-class city. A starter set of ten suggestions, both silly and serious, in no particular order:

1) What's in a name? After his election, Hickenlooper quickly replaced those giant pictures of Wellington Webb at Denver International Airport with stunning Colorado scenes. But while he may not want to frighten visitors with his mug, there's no reason for the modest mayor to keep his identity quiet in the recorded message recently added to inbound trains at DIA (along with inexplicable music that sounds like the Munsters theme song). For that matter, there's no reason for him to repeat the baggage-area information that's also delivered in Alan Roach's hearty, Rockies-style recording. As long as the mayor of Denver is going to greet people as they arrive in Denver, why not let people know that he is the mayor? Not only is Hickenlooper's name sure to lighten the load, but this sound system would have no problem airing one of his quips.

(Although DIA's security system — which recently racked up the longest waits in the country — is a public-relations nightmare, at least people don't experience it until they're heading out of the city. Denver can deal with that in September, once the DNC has left town.)

2) You can't get there from here. It wasn't long ago that I-70 didn't have a sign indicating the exit for downtown Denver. Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, sure, but not the state's biggest city. That gap — the result of some unfortunate bureaucratic bickering — has been resolved, but for drivers heading to Denver from both the east and west, explanatory signage is still in short supply. We don't need to make an international reporter so cranky that he decides to blow his budget in Vail rather than maneuver the tangle of turns around the Coliseum.

3) Green achers. Although Greenprint Denver promises to make this the most environmentally friendly city in the country, so far neither LoDo nor the 16th Street Mall has made the acquaintance of a recycling container — and recycling spots aren't much more common at DIA.

4) Bolo contendere. "The road to the White House leads through the West," DNC chairman Howard Dean told the assembled members of the media on Tuesday, vowing that this will be a truly "Western convention." The DNC can prove it by issuing bolo name tags.

5) Dress for success: The city's working hard to alleviate the area's homeless problem, but by next August there will still be eight years to go in the decade-long Denver Road Home project that's supposed to end homelessness altogether, and shipping all those unsightly bums off to summer camp really isn't practical. Or legal. Instead, the city could simply issue Old West costumes for the few stubborn vagabonds who slump on the mall, dressing them like those exhausted fortune hunters who started coming to Colorado 150 years ago, when gold was first discovered here in 1858. As for those panhandlers giving their First Amendment rights such a workout on street corners around town, why not Uncle Sam outfits? Will beg for free speech!

6) Why not wi-fi? Although much of the 16th Street Mall has wireless access, the promised wi-fi has yet to materialize in the Civic Center. And thanks to an extremely shortsighted, big-business-friendly move by the Colorado Legislature a few years ago, municipalities are technically prohibited from providing their citizens with Internet service, whether wired or wireless. But if Governor Bill Ritter can issue an executive order to make state government union-friendly, he can certainly pull the plug on this prohibition, opening the way for the wild, wired West.

7) You'd better shop around: A recent tourism survey had the 16th Street Mall edging out the Cherry Creek Shopping Center as the area's most popular shopping destination — and if you believe that, I've got a "pedestrian-friendly" bridge over I-25 to sell you around midnight. Have you tried buying a gift for someone you like on the mall? On a trek last week, a stalwart crew of souvenir hounds found bad T-shirts, a bag of candy shaped like elk droppings, a jar of candy shaped like rocks and a blow-up swimming tube with the head of a Bronco (go to www.westword.com for a complete shopping list) — but nothing Katie Couric is going to want to take home to the kids.

Nine months isn't time to birth an entire shopping renaissance for the mall, but for starters, Evan Makovsky and other developers should beg local artists to temporarily take over empty storefronts, which they can fill with affordable art and creative energy. Without any kind of subsidies, artists have transformed neighborhoods across this city; imagine what they could do on the mall with a little assist.

8) Taxi dance: Finding a cab at two in the morning is close to impossible — but it's not easy at other times of the day. One educator in town recently waited an hour for a cab, finally gave up, and vowed that the next time his school held auditions in the West, it would do so in a place where taxis are more plentiful. Death Valley, maybe. And ever the full-service mayor, a few months ago Hickenlooper wound up offering a ride to two tired, elderly vendors who couldn't find a cab at the Colorado Convention Center — where they'd gone for a taxicab convention.

9) Can we talk? A few years ago, Colorado had little money to market itself — but all that's changed. In 2005, Denver-ites voted for a hike in the lodging tax that last year poured another $4.1 million into the coffers of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. And in 2006, the state legislature earmarked another $19 million for the state's tourism marketing efforts. Which Colorado promptly used to hire an out-of-state company that came up with this oh-so-'80s slogan: "Let's Talk Colorado." And the Denver Partnership's "Elevate Your Urban" campaign for the mall isn't much better.

Can we talk about letting Colorado speak for itself? In this case, one good picture is definitely worth a thousand words.

10) Beer today, gone tomorrow: When all else fails, keep the free drinks coming. And get those liquor stores open on Sunday!


View to a Thrill

"What does Colorado look like to you?" That's what Denver International Airport wants to know — and no fair answering "Like the guy's butt I've been standing behind in the security line for the past hour." No, DIA wants serious answers — fifty words or less, please — from Coloradans for a show that will pair the winning statements with artists' interpretations. Entries should be submitted at www.flydenver.com/art; the deadline is November 26.

Since the show will be up through the DNC, it's time for some unconventional thinking!

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