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Glendale is set to move forward with its riverwalk project

Glendale isn't bitter. Not really, anyway.

So what if this landlocked island of a city — a 369-acre urban kingdom ruled by a libertaria n government and known as much for rugby, apartment complexes and big-box stores as it is for a strip club so iconic that some have dared call it "historic" — was passed over last year for big-money sales-tax rebates? Who cares if the state's economic-development officials decided that the city's plan for a "riverwalk entertainment district" along Cherry Creek wasn't "unique" and "extraordinary" enough to warrant more consideration?

Not Glendale. Glendale don't give a shit.

"Glendale always does it on their own," says Mike Dunafon, the sixty-year-old mayor who, since helping to take over the city government fifteen years ago, has returned Glendale to what he says are its roots. "You can't let a bunch of shortsighted individuals destroy your vision."

Those "shortsighted individuals" denied Glendale's application for tax incentives under the Regional Tourism Act, or RTA, a program created a few years ago to help cities and counties pay for blockbuster tourism projects. Instead, they approved two other projects, including an $800 million, 1,500-room Aurora hotel and conference center first proposed by the Gaylord Entertainment Company that is now mired in controversy.

But no matter. Glendale is moving forward anyway, with slightly less grand but still ambitious plans for a $400 million riverwalk in the 42-acre chunk of land bordered by Colorado Boulevard and Cherry Street, Virginia Avenue and Cherry Creek Drive.

The vision for the riverwalk is to create a half-mile-long party strip along the creek that would be full of restaurants, shops, theaters, nightclubs, and bars serving booze in plastic to-go cups. Glendale plans to build the public infrastructure — roadways, plazas, parking structures, pathways and green spaces — in the hopes that private investors will back the rest.

And the city will do it all without the state's illustrious blessing.

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Before LoDo became an every-weekend frat party, and before hip twenty-somethings began squeezing onto rooftop patios in lower Highland, there was Glendale.

Incorporated in 1952, Glendale was eventually surrounded on all sides by Denver. It supported itself with the tax revenue from a few dance clubs and bars, something that gave the city a reputation in the '60s, '70s and '80s as a nightlife hot spot. And thanks to several adult-only apartment buildings, Glendale's population matched its clientele; most residents were young, single renters who weren't looking to stay forever. Even today, the city of 4,600 people boasts that there are only three single-family homes within its borders.

Contributing to its high density are towering office buildings and mega-retailers like SuperTarget and King Soopers, whose Glendale locations are the only ones in the state licensed to sell liquor. Glendale is also known for strip joints, especially the high-visibility Shotgun Willie's at the corner of Virginia Avenue and busy Colorado Boulevard.

In the late '90s, however, the city's revenue stream was threatened from the inside. Then-mayor Joe Rice, a straitlaced ex-Army man who was elected on a promise to make Glendale more family-friendly, proposed restrictions on strip clubs that included raising the minimum age of dancers from 18 to 21. That rankled several Glendale loyalists, including Dunafon and his wife, Shotgun Willie's owner Debbie Matthews, who saw the rules as detrimental to her business. They and several others formed a political group called the Glendale Tea Party (taking the name long before its more recent political incarnation) and with the help of Matthews's buxom employees, launched a "Save Our Strippers" voter-registration campaign in 1998. In addition to attracting widespread attention from the press, it worked on residents — and the Tea Party candidates eventually gained control of Glendale's city council ("The Glendale T&A Party," January 20, 2000).

For his part, Dunafon, a former football and rugby player and businessman, became directly involved in plotting Glendale's future that year when he was appointed chairman of the city's strategic planning initiative. It was out of that effort, he says, that the riverwalk was born.

"Citizens, over a period of months, came forward to talk about what they would like to see in their home town," Dunafon recalls. "The two things they wanted to see were recreational opportunities for the citizens...and they wanted a revitalization of the entertainment district."

And what better place to revive the party than the banks of Cherry Creek?

"We've not taken advantage in this state of Cherry Creek as a water amenity," Dunafon says now. "We live in a high desert. The mistake made by Cherry Creek Shopping Center, for instance: They take this beautiful amenity and back it up to a parking garage."

Tea Party member and attorney Chuck Bonniwell, who is now the publisher of the Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle, says the idea for the riverwalk came about during a Tea Party brainstorming session. He remembers that the conversation revolved around "this wonderful entertainment district they did have that was killed by prior politicians and what could revive it. I'd been down to San Antonio and had been on the riverwalk...and saw how wonderful it was. So I thought that Cherry Creek could serve as that, potentially, for Glendale."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar