The whole thing turned out to be a scam. Schafer and Gellar had lied about having a $400 million line of credit to build the park, a fact that local reporters quickly sniffed out. Their principal investor was an immigrant who barely spoke English, and both men were arrested for convincing him to give up his life savings of $50,000. Aurora officials got caught in the scandal, too. Four dignitaries, including former mayor Fred Hood, were indicted for trying to use inside information to buy land adjacent to the proposed park in the hope of making a profit. One accused city councilman resigned in disgrace.

Malls became Aurora's principal diversion. According to another plaque at the Aurora History Museum, the 1990s saw the rise of "large strip shopping centers, containing grocery stores, movie theaters and fast food restaurants," which became "the neighborhood centers at prominent intersections." The exhibits at the museum suggest that Aurorans' cultural entertainment was similarly mundane. The glass case representing the '90s contains a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pez dispenser, an "Earring Magic" Ken doll and a football stamped with replica signatures of the 1996 Denver Broncos.

That's not to say that Aurora wasn't trying. In 1985, then-mayor Champine explored bringing a major-league baseball team to Aurora, and developers and the city have tried repeatedly to build a NASCAR track in the area. In 1995, the city council appointed the first-ever Visitors Promotion Advisory Board, a volunteer group made up of representatives from the city's hotels, downtown businesses and the chamber of commerce tasked with bringing more tourists to the city. The board focused mostly on the construction of the Aurora Sports Park, a sprawling outdoor complex offering 35 well-manicured playing fields that was funded by a bond issue and built in 2002.

"Once we had that, we were able to recruit large softball and soccer tournaments," says Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. "If you're a parent and you've ever traveled with these teams, you realize how much money they spend on gasoline and lodging." After a while, the board developed a strategy: Go after girls' tournaments. "When we would go after boys' tournaments, the parents would sometimes say, 'The coach is a good supervisor. We don't have to attend,'" Hougen explains. "But when young ladies attended, the whole family did."

Soon, the Sports Park was hosting a couple hundred thousand people a year. But Aurora wanted more. The city's businesses, medical and military facilities were growing, bringing more travelers to Aurora. In 2007, the University of Colorado opened a brand-new hospital on the site of the former Fitzsimons Army hospital, now known as the Anschutz Medical Campus. The Children's Hospital opened that same year, and a new Veterans Affairs Medical Center is expected to open in 2015. In addition, the Raytheon Company expanded its campus in Aurora, points out city spokeswoman Kim Stuart, and there has been massive construction at Buckley Air Force Base, which became an "active-duty" base in 2000. "With all that occurring at the same time, the council decided it was time to establish a full-time destination marketing organization," Stuart says.

Visit Aurora was born in 2010 as a nonprofit funded by a percentage of Aurora's 8 percent tax on hotel stays. The lodgers' tax had been adopted way back in 1983 to fund a tourism bureau. But a souring economy forced city officials to divert the money to more pressing needs, such as street maintenance and firefighters, Hougen says. As the economy recovered, the city was able to use a portion of the lodgers' tax to support the Visitors Promotion Advisory Board. Last year, the tax netted $4.4 million, 10 percent of which went to Visit Aurora, which gets some money from other city funds as well.

The 41-year-old Wheat was Visit Aurora's first employee. He came to Aurora from Longmont, where he'd served as the executive director of the Longmont Area Visitors Association. But before he was ever a tourism guy, he was a sports guy. Wheat started his career at the University of Southern Mississippi and Virginia Tech, doing media and marketing for the schools' sports teams. When his parents fell ill a few years later, he took a sports-tourism job in Tupelo, Mississippi, to be closer to them. "I just fell into it backwards by accident and found out I loved it and enjoyed it," he says.

From Mississippi, Wheat jumped to visitor bureaus in Waterloo, Iowa, and South Bend, Indiana, before migrating west to Colorado to be near his brother, who owns a guest ranch here. He started the Longmont visitors' association from scratch but was only there for two years before accepting the gig in Aurora, which has more than three times as many people. Aurora has a population of 335,105, making it the third-largest Colorado city behind Colorado Springs (416,000) and Denver (600,000).

Wheat opened shop at Visit Aurora in December 2010. One of his first calls was to Dan Gaudreau, a local electrical contractor who owns the Rocky Mountain Lifting Club, a cavernous gym next to a Holiday Inn in central Aurora.

*****

It's chilly inside the Rocky Mountain Lifting Club, but the dozen burly lifters dusted with grip-enhancing chalk still turn red when they attempt to hoist 680 pounds off the floor. In the corner room where the most hard-core weightlifting takes place, a Hank Williams Jr. song twangs loudly from an old-school boombox that sits on a shelf next to bottles of Lander's Baby Powder — "Soft as a Mother's Love" — which the athletes use to coat their thighs to avoid chafing on the deadlift. The room smells like a combination of wintergreen Bengay and burning wires from an overhead light that blew out earlier.

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8 comments
Payton_vege
Payton_vege

Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

Cécile Elliott
Cécile Elliott

Instead of trying to make Aurora a tourist destination they should think about making it bearable for its residents to live there. I live a mile from the City Center and I wouldn't recommend a tourist let alone residents to walk around the Aurora City Center at night. Aurora is Denver's ghetto. Their economic development board is WAY off if they think bringing powerlifting tournaments and tropical fish conventions to Aurora is the best way to help.

calhounp
calhounp

i'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with the author's full name and town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

lunkwill
lunkwill

You know, Aurora may not be exotic, but at least our street names are ... here's lookin' at you, Monaco, Quebec, Havana, Jamaica, Lima and Paris St...

Sabrina D'Agosta
Sabrina D'Agosta

I grew up in Aurora and about the only reason I'd even consider visiting nowadays is for the Fox Theater or if my kid needed emergency treatment at the new Children's Hospital. Good luck with that marketing campaign.

Krlkwil
Krlkwil

I also am a lifelong resident of Aurora Colorado it is an okay place to live but if I want entertainment of any kind generally I go to Denver. The city is definitely not a place to make as a destination for recreation. What a waste of tax dollars. Sad but true, If you do come to visit bring your bullet proof vest and pack a 9mm or better because the cops are completely worthless and run from the gangs not to them.

lunkwill
lunkwill

I'm an Aurora native, have spent decades living in every corner of the city, and have love and best wishes for this city as such... but I just made the mistake of trying to swallow my coffee at the same time I got to the part about Aurora "making sense" as a "destination city". Perhaps 'Visit Aurora' has yet to 'visit Aurora'.

If I ever get on Wheel of Fortune and win an exotic vacation to Aurora, I'll be pissed.

 
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