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By Patricia Calhoun
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No, what the group is set up for is to be a place to trade information.
For years, the Mommies have posted crime alerts to their message board. Though they turned down a request from a Denver Police Department commander to join the group, the Mommies routinely forward alerts to the District 1 station, which covers northwest Denver. Lieutenant Paul Pazen says the Mommies have helped identify crime patterns and provide descriptions of suspects in robberies and other crimes. "Because they're such a strong network of moms, they are able to just keep track of their neighborhood," he says. "It's almost an electronic version of Neighborhood Watch."
Last year, the city council issued a proclamation to the Highlands Mommies, which was penned and sponsored by Garcia. It recognized the group as a robust social network dedicated to improving northwest Denver. It also noted their help in arresting suspects in a string of break-ins in the neighborhood, "proving once again that the concept of talking to neighbors and sharing information can be effective."
The network works for less serious things, too. Lost dogs. Misplaced iPhones. Stuffed animals accidentally left at the park. "Today, my daughter left her stuffed monkey at Sloan's Lake," one post said. "If anyone picked him up to help out, or because they did not realize he was a best friend to a 3-year-old, PLEASE, please give me a call."
But it's commerce that gets the most attention.
"That's one thing that can be scary with Highlands Mommies," says non-member Sarah Johnson of Stroller Strides, a franchised workout program that incorporates strollers. "As a business owner, they can help you or hurt you. Luckily, they help me."
Several other neighborhood business owners say the same thing. Even those who have received occasional negative reviews heap praise on the Mommies.
"I have had very good experiences," says Jay Hodges, the owner of Just Pipes Plumbing, which has received both negative and positive reviews from Highlands Mommies. "I get half of my business from the Mommies list."
"I'm pretty sure they're pretty happy with us," says Phillip Szczytowski, the office manager of Highland Smiles, a dentist's office on West 32nd Avenue. Though the majority of reviews for Highland Smiles are gushingly positive, a few Mommies have been unhappy with the service — and said so.
As for the Winejester's Smith, she asked a friend who belongs to the Highlands Mommies to post a polite response she'd written in which she asked "to put behind us any negative feelings." "It was just a fluke, an accidental thing," Smith says. Though she says the Mommy in question is still upset, Smith says she gets a lot of support from the group as a whole. "I haven't had any bad experiences with the Highlands Mommies."
To cut down on negative rants, the Mommies have another rule: If you're angry about the way you were treated by a car mechanic, or you think your housekeeper sucks, wait 24 hours before writing about it online. Then, if you're still upset, consider posting a vague message that says something like, "I had a bad experience with a contractor in the neighborhood. If you'd like more information, please contact me."
"You have to remember there are two sides to every story," Herrera-Hay says. "So you had a bad experience in a restaurant, or you think somebody did a really bad job in cutting all your hair off. It isn't fair to that business or that other person that only your side gets represented." The rule is unenforceable, but the managing directors do their best to send out regular reminders. They will often remove posts that bash a business.
It's a policy that's sparked sometimes heated debate among the Mommies. Everyone agrees they should be able to post positive reviews about local businesses — "shout-outs," they call them — so why not negative ones, too?
Because, as Herrera-Hay points out, "When you hit the 'send' button and get that instant gratification, you don't realize what damage you could be doing to somebody."
But the Mommies listserv works the other way, too. Many businesses credit their success to the group — especially businesses owned by Mommies themselves.
Andrea Flanagan joined the Highlands Mommies in 2004, when it was a Yahoo group of about 200 members. A former fashion photographer, Flanagan, now 36, was looking to start her own portrait business, partly so she could spend more time with her infant daughter. She decided to offer a 30 percent discount to all Mommies.
"I just posted something on the site, and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom! — I was booked," Flanagan says. She went from shooting portraits in her living room and filling out invoices at her kitchen table to having her own studio and hiring an assistant. She's now booked for months in advance.
"It's all because I'm a Highlands Mommy," she says.
A group of four Highlands Mommies has taken that concept even further. This past fall, they formed a for-profit LLC called the Highlands Business Group. Its aim is to boost northwest Denver businesses through events such as the recent Winter Market at Valdez Elementary, a dual-language school that sits in the shadow of North High on West 29th Avenue.