"I've been here twenty years," Ronald Ford says from behind the only register at Scott's Market. "I didn't even realize twenty years had gone by. You stay in this little place, and you're cut off from the rest of the world."
For two decades Ford has helped the people who frequent this little place, a century-old neighborhood market at 1736 East 31st Avenue: showing the woman who shuffled over in her bunny slippers where to find the bread, packaging up special Scott's Market sausage, noticing how the newborn baby looked just like the grandmother holding her.
And then one day three summers ago, the world walked in the door.
In June 1992, Darrell Jackson, an economic-development specialist with the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, stopped by to tell the Fords about a business opportunity. A great business opportunity. As Ron and his wife, Joyce Chandler-Ford, remember it, Jackson couldn't say enough about JC's Deli in Five Points Plaza, just a few blocks away on Welton Street. Sure, the last owner had given up on the spot, but with the right people running JC's, it would do well. The Fords were the right people. And the time was right, too.
"He was hooking it to downtown, to Coors Field," says Joyce. "It was an opportunity to redevelop and revitalize Five Points, link it to downtown...It was garbage."
But the deal didn't stink at first.
Jackson called and came by several more times that summer to talk about the possibilities. He brought by Tom Yates, the developer who'd used a $1.5 million MOED loan in the Eighties to build Five Points Plaza, the facility that now boasted such a can't-miss vacancy. When the Fords, who'd just finished updating the Victorian storefront that houses Scott's, told Jackson they had only $10,000 to invest in any new venture, he made it clear that getting money from the city would be no problem. And, they say, he provided projections for the Welton store that indicated paying back the MOED loan would be easy: According to one plan, the store would gross $275,000 a year.
What year, though, was never clear. It certainly wasn't going to be 1993. The Fords took over JC's that April, when Welton was torn up because of light-rail construction. That had never figured into Jackson's calculations. The only customers who ventured through the maze were construction workers or people who needed a cold drink after a long wait to get plates for their cars or to have their driver's licenses renewed: Five Points Plaza's plum tenant is a Division of Motor Vehicles branch office. According to Joyce, the store never grossed more than $9,500 a month.
Irma Arevala worked for the Fords for six years. She heard the sales pitch of city officials, including Jackson, who were "more than eager" to have the couple take over the Welton store. "It did have some business, but it wasn't what we were told," she says. "There were lots of problems with parking. Friends went to try to eat there and gave up."
In October 1994, the Fords did, too. The last straw came when light rail was finally up and running--and they discovered that RTD had neglected to plan a stop at 27th and Welton. By now, the Fords felt the city had taken them for a ride--and they weren't about to pay. Even if they could. Trying to keep the Welton business going, they'd let their employees go, sold their house in southeast Aurora and moved above Scott's Market, into a space where no one had lived for half a century.
The Fords have never contested the fact that they've failed to repay their loans: the $90,000 they assumed from the original JC's owners and $62,000 more from MOED. But you don't have to travel far down Welton Street to find other failed ventures that the city has forgiven in its eagerness to redevelop the area. The old owners of JC's were allowed to walk on their loan. The city has poured millions into the renovation of the old Rossonian Hotel, whose major tenant is HUD; in spring 1994 the building was transferred to a nonprofit group when its developer, Tom Yates, was accused of misleading state regulators liquidating his defunct insurance company. Through September 1994, MOED had made 385 loans totaling more than $43 million during its ten-year history. Of those, 153 had been paid off; 197 remained outstanding; 35 loans worth about $4 million had fallen into default; and another 17 had been categorized as "liquidations," although the agency was still trying to work with the debtors. It took a lot to make MOED demand its money.
But then the Fords filed suit against the city, claiming they'd been "bamboozled."
On Monday they were in Denver District Judge Federico Alvarez's courtroom, ready for a four-day jury trial in their case against the City and County of Denver, Wellington Webb (in his capacity as mayor) and Darrell Jackson (who says he cannot comment on the case). But within an hour, Alvarez had granted the city's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. The Fords, he said, had failed to provide evidence of "affirmative misconduct" by the defendants, who, as municipal entities and employees, are immunized from most legal actions.
Alvarez would have seen plenty of evidence if he'd let them try the case, the Fords say. They have the projections calculated by Jackson. They have Yates's brochure of Five Points Plaza, with plenty of free parking on paper that failed to materialize on pavement. Arevala was ready to testify that Jackson had called many times, encouraging the Fords to do the deal. Even former King Soopers exec Jim Baldwin was listed as a witness; he'd been paired with Joyce in a chamber of commerce mentoring program. "I like them," he says. "They have a successful business at Scott's."
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And now the Fords wonder how long they'll have that. They plan to appeal Alvarez's ruling, but if they lose the legal fight they'll have to declare personal bankruptcy--and they don't know how that will affect Scott's Market. They don't know if Five Points will lose a longtime landmark just because its owners were suckered by the city's sales pitch.
Faithful Scott's customers planned to go to court Monday. Instead they gathered at the store, where they signed a petition supporting the couple's right to a jury trial. "We did not go to the Mayor's Office to request a loan," it notes. "How many of you would not have believed these professionals that represent our City and County of Denver? Is it possible that my husband and I are the only people as gullible as we have been?"
"It's just like you buy a car," Ron Ford says, "and it's a lemon and it doesn't run, but you still pay for it."
As a grocer, he knows his lemons. And he knows when he's been squeezed.