A slow-growth political insurgency that's stirred up traditionally conservative Golden will mount its biggest challenge yet in next week's election, when three candidates who have operated a "shadow council" for the past several months make a bid for seats on the city council.
They promise to change the pro-business slant of Golden city government.
The small city of 14,000 residents will also vote on a proposal to ban city subsidies for new development unless those subsidies are approved by voters.
Quiet and a little out of the way, Golden is an improbable locale for one of the metro area's most divisive political campaigns, but many people were jolted out of their complacency by a plan floated last year to build a massive, 5,000-employee campus for Nike on the top of South Table Mountain -- a longtime symbol of the city.
Shock turned to anger when they discovered that Golden officials had written a letter encouraging the project and even suggested that city subsidies might be available to Nike ("If the Shoe Fits," March 12, 1998).
"We couldn't believe it," says Don Parker, the Golden man who is behind the ballot initiative. During the battle over the proposed development, Parker says many people were convinced that the Golden city council was encouraging out-of-control growth. "We decided we needed to get some new people on council."
Nike eventually backed out of the South Table deal, and Jefferson County may buy much of the land for open space, but many Golden residents haven't forgiven the city, and they aim to make it impossible for Golden to offer subsidies to any developer without voter approval.
The three challengers to incumbent councilmembers include Valerie Walker, who is running against Councilman Bill McKee in District 1; William Simpson, who is challenging District 2 incumbent Chuck Baroch; and Dave Kibler, who is running for the at-large council seat now held by Carol Johnson.
Walker says a group of town residents borrowed the idea for a "shadow council" from British prime minister Tony Blair's Labour Party, which formed a similar council when it was out of power. For much of the past year, the Golden group has criticized the city council's actions. An effort to encourage new retail development on the south side of town has been the major target of the shadow group's criticism.
Like most Colorado cities, Golden is dependent on sales tax to fund municipal government, and the city has actively sought new retail projects by offering rebates on sales tax collected at new shopping centers. The Golden Town Center, which is anchored by King Soopers, got a $3.7 million subsidy package, and earlier this year, the city council approved another $3.7 million for InterPlaza West, which is now under construction near the junction of I-70 and U.S. Highway 6. That shopping center will host a Home Depot and a Kohl's department store.
The InterPlaza West subsidy angered critics like Parker, since Golden voters had turned down a proposed $8 million subsidy for the same center in 1995. "I thought it was an ideal location for a development, and it wasn't necessary to give a subsidy," says Parker. "It would probably happen anyway."
"It's corporate welfare," adds candidate Walker. "I'm not sure Home Depot needs any welfare."
Walker says retail developers in Colorado play neighboring cities against each other, trying to garner the biggest subsidies they can for their projects. Golden, for example, fears that many of its residents will shop at the Denver West shopping center in Lakewood, which is one of the reasons the council decided to offer the subsidy to InterPlaza West. Walker says this competition for sales tax between cities is helping to fuel urban sprawl along the Front Range. "This issue of one community winning sales tax at the expense of another has got to stop," she says.
But Councilman McKee says the current council has worked hard to balance development with Golden's small-town charm. He says Walker and her allies may do long-term damage to Golden if they restrict the city's ability to attract new retailers. "If they discourage projects here, in five or ten years we'll have less tax revenue in Golden," he predicts.
Golden faced hard times during the regional recession of the late 1980s, when the city had to scrape to find the money to fund basic services. Golden's limited retail development was part of the problem, says McKee, and the city decided it had to beef up its retail sector to provide a continuing revenue stream. He says the proposed ballot initiative could harm Golden down the road by putting it at a disadvantage against other cities. "It's an overreaction to one project," he says. "To say all tax rebates are pandering to developers is serious misrepresentation."
As for Nike, McKee says most of the city council was unaware that the mayor and city planning director had written a letter encouraging the project. "The mayor was the only one who knew anything about it," he says. "This whole idea we were trying to grease the skids for Nike is somebody's pipe dream."
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McKee believes Golden has made real progress in improving its quality of life during the past few years, including redeveloping the historic downtown and opening a popular recreation center and kayak course. He says much of the anger directed at the council was triggered by the growth taking place elsewhere along the Front Range. "Everybody is frustrated about what to do about growth," he says. "Some people just want to keep the town the way it used to be."
But Walker vows to shake things up if she's elected next week. If all three shadow council candidates win their races, they could probably form a working majority with the support of incumbent councilman Brian Starling, who is frequently at odds with his colleagues. If the shadow council comes to power, Walker says the old days of a city council dominated by the chamber of commerce will come to an end.
"There's a coalition on council that thinks that growth is good," says Walker. "I think it's time to revisit that assumption."