A quixotic effort to run English-style punts through downtown Denver got off to a slow start last summer, but that hasn't deterred promoters of the boat trips from planning a $2 million expansion of the unusual network of dams and locks along puny Cherry Creek.
Punt the Creek was launched last year by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation, which worked for years to clean up the South Platte River before turning its sights to Cherry Creek. The group came up with an idea that initially prompted guffaws among even the most ardent downtown boosters: to run English flat boats known as "punts" up and down the creek between Market and Delgany streets, guided by Venetian-style gondoliers who would regale riders with tales of Denver's Old West roots.
Jeff Shoemaker, director of the foundation, has heard all the jokes. But he insists that Punt the Creek will have the last laugh. Even though just 3,000 people rode the punts last summer, the attraction broke even, says Shoemaker, and he believes Punt the Creek will eventually be a Denver tradition.
"I don't claim this is a Disneyland ride, but it's a fun and different thing to do," says Shoemaker. "Our biggest challenge continues to be letting people know we exist. We're a weird new thing."
The group spent $50,000 to buy five punts from Cambridge boatmaker Cliff Ansel, who makes the famous punts that float down the River Cam in the English college town. With their flat bottoms, punts can carry a full load of passengers in water just one foot deep. The Cambridge punts pass under ancient stone bridges and sweep by willows and lush vines.
That's a far cry from the concrete walls of Cherry Creek, but Shoemaker hopes the punt tradition will take root in Denver. Many of those who rode the punts last year are said to have told the guides they wished the thirty-minute ride lasted longer. Shoemaker is now in the middle of raising $2 million--evenly divided between public and private sources--to extend the attraction all the way to the creek's confluence with the South Platte River. Upon completion, Punt the Creek will have five dams and four locks, and a round-trip ride will take sixty minutes.
For now, Cherry Creek's walls are still bare, and vines and flowers planted by Shoemaker's group have just started to grow. The punt guides tell their passengers the tale of Denver's birth as an isolated mining camp at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte. Shoemaker hopes to promote riding the punts as an offbeat activity for those already coming downtown to take in a baseball game or go out to dinner. "We've learned that we need to be partnered with other things," he says. "Nobody ever says, 'Let's go down and punt the creek.'"
The group's goal is to double ridership this summer. Punt the Creek runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and Shoemaker is working with seniors' groups, tour operators and hotels to widen the ride's appeal.
Besides a history lesson from the high-school students who guide the punts, the ride also includes a description of plans to open up Cherry Creek to lower downtown. Shoemaker hopes that one day the area along the banks of Cherry Creek will become a smaller version of San Antonio's famous Riverwalk.
He points to a proposed hotel along the banks of the creek at 14th and Market streets, which would include a creek-level cafe and a stairway from the street down to the water, as an example of the kind of development that will change Cherry Creek's image. "Over the next ten to fifteen years, there will be hotels and restaurants and access to the creek," predicts Shoemaker. "We don't claim this to be San Antonio yet, but Punt the Creek has made the area more desirable."
Shoemaker says his group can afford to wait for the punts to catch on, noting that it will take several years for the rides to become "a viable tourist attraction."
But some remain skeptical. City councilman Dennis Gallagher says most of the people he's talked to say the current Punt the Creek route leaves something to be desired. "Part of the problem is that it's such a short trip," says Gallagher. "They talk a lot about what's above the banks, but it's hard to see."
Before the city okays more funding for the project, Gallagher says, he wants to see more detailed information about Punt the Creek's finances.
Funding for the $1.5 million five-block route that opened last May came from the City of Denver, the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, and an alphabet soup of local foundations, including Gates, Boettcher and El Pomar. Trillium Corporation, which owns much of the land in the Central Platte Valley, also contributed. Shoemaker is approaching the same donors to fund the extension.
He says the city has nothing to lose in offering financial support. If the punts are abandoned, he says, Denver will be left with rock-lined creek banks, a new bike path, three new access ramps and significant landscaping. Denver officials believe the project is worthwhile, even if it attracts snickers.
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"We've been supportive from the beginning," says Bar Chadwick, the city's chief planner for the Central Platte Valley. "It's brought life and excitement to the creek. People still laugh about it, but how can you laugh until you try it? It really is great fun."
Chadwick says the city has dedicated its share of funding from the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District to the project. That agency gave Punt the Creek $268,500 for the first phase and may contribute $420,000 to the extension. Since urban-drainage money must be used to protect waterways, that funding paid for the boulders that line the creek to keep the creek banks from eroding. Punt the Creek is also angling for money from a state program that supports the construction of new trails, which would pay for extending the paved path on the north bank of the creek all the way to the Platte.
Gallagher notes that Cherry Creek has always attracted its share of dreamers. When nineteenth-century Denver was just a struggling shantytown in the middle of the wilderness, Rocky Mountain News publisher William Byers decided that a fictional account of regularly scheduled ship service along the South Platte River would help to reassure potential pioneers. He ran a fake column announcing departure times for ships to St. Louis and Omaha from the "port of Denver."
At least the punts on Cherry Creek are real. "Maybe this is a fulfillment of Byers's dream," says Gallagher.