Hiking up the steep slopes of South Table Mountain is like stepping back in time. Prairie grasses shimmer in the sun and the wind whistles across the broad mesa, which rises 1,300 feet from the Colorado prairie west of Golden. Goldenrod, sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus stud the open fields, and foxes, coyotes and deer all call the mesa home.
The dun-colored mesa was formed millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions. But today it's almost completely surrounded by Denver suburbs. From the top, you can see DIA and downtown Denver on one side and the nineteenth-century brick storefronts of Golden's Washington Avenue on the other. On a typical afternoon, the mesa attracts dozens of hikers and an assortment of free spirits who fly kites or practice archery.
But most of these people are trespassing on private property.
"I hear 'em talk about our mountain all the time," says Golden attorney Leo Bradley, who, along with his friends and business partners at the giant Coors Brewing Company, owns much of the land on the west side of the mesa. "It's a subjective thing, but it's obviously private property. I think people are surprised when they find that out."
For years Bradley has been trying to develop his and Coors' land on top of the mesa. Those efforts have made the 72-year-old attorney one of the most unpopular men in his hometown.
Ideas have come and gone over the years about what to do with this seemingly public landmark that rests in private hands. At various times the mesa has been touted as a possible site for NORAD, the United Nations and an international airport. The latest development scheme is a proposal to build a 5,000-employee office complex for sportswear giant Nike Inc. And both Bradley and Coors have made it clear they're interested in doing the deal. "We think Nike would be an excellent corporate neighbor," says Coors spokesman Jon Goldman.
Nike is looking at sites in several states and has yet to commit to building anything in Colorado. But the company's interest in South Table Mountain has stirred up Jefferson County residents, who have been fighting Bradley for the past two decades over the future of the mesa.
Bradley has long been a controversial character in Golden. In 1972 he proposed building a fourteen-story high-rise, a plan that violated the town's height limit and set off a fight before city council. He lost that battle but went on to wage war for a massive gravel quarry, a proposal that was rejected by the county commissioners in 1988 after years of bitter confrontation. "I suppose I've been involved in controversies all my life," Bradley says. "That's the nature of the business I'm in."
The Nike flap, however, has led to an outpouring of animosity that is unusual in Golden. Locals who typically lead quiet lives are making angry accusations against Bradley, Peter Coors, economic development officials, Nike and their own city government. They have obtained letters that reveal that Golden officials--who publicly claim to be neutral on the issue--have actually worked behind the scenes to bring Nike to South Table. And they believe Jefferson County boosters are so enraptured by the idea of landing a corporate plum like Nike that they're willing to sacrifice a mountain that the county itself has been trying to purchase as open space for the last 25 years.
"The whole mountain is an undeveloped oasis in the metro area," says Don Parker, a Golden resident who is organizing opposition to Nike. "If we had 5,000 people up there, a car would be going up and down the mountain every five seconds. It would ruin the mesa."
Parker places the blame for the proposal on Golden's best-known business and the suds heir who runs it. "Coors is behind this," he says. "Leo Bradley takes the heat, but I understand that Peter Coors is the decision-maker."
Bradley makes no secret of the fact that he's working closely with Coors to market the land on South Table. The brewing company owns the largest part of the land that would house the proposed Nike complex, a parcel that lies just behind the distinctive Castle Rock formation that is part of Golden's city seal. Coors has handed over responsibility for negotiations with Nike to Bradley, who has counted Coors as a legal client for much of his adult life.
Nike is looking at 1,400 acres on the western end of South Table. Coors owns roughly two-thirds of that property, while Bradley and his wife own the rest. If Nike builds on the mesa, it would take up 300 to 400 acres on top of the mountain, and Bradley has ambitious plans to turn the rest of the property into a bustling commercial beehive with offices, retail and other uses.
Bradley has a folksy demeanor and easy laugh that seem out of character for a man many Goldenites regard as a marauder. While some residents view the mesa in almost spiritual terms as an island of natural serenity on the edge of metro Denver, he sees it as raw earth that's long overdue for development.
"There's nothing up there but a bunch of rattlesnakes," says Bradley. "But we'll come up with a good use for it one of these days. If we don't, the next generation will."
Leo Bradley came to own a big piece of South Table Mountain by virtue of his marriage to Patricia Quaintance, a descendant of one of Golden's original pioneer families. Before the turn of the century, the Quaintances bought up much of the land just beyond the mesa's signature Castle Rock, which looms over downtown Golden. In the late nineteenth century, Adolph Coors, founder of the famous brewery, went on his own shopping spree. Coors bought most of the mesa's northern slope all the way up to Castle Rock itself, which the brewery used as a symbol on its bottles for decades.
The Coors and Quaintance families have been in Golden so long that they could be considered part of a homegrown dynasty. "My grandson is the sixth generation of that family here in Golden," says a proud Bradley.
The Quaintance family has been involved in development schemes on South Table since the early twentieth century, and they've worked closely with their friends in the Coors family for more than eighty years. Patricia Quaintance's father was an attorney who worked for the Coorses, and the two families have cooperated on joint business ventures.
In 1913 the Quaintance family opened a funicular railway that ran from Golden to the top of South Table, where they built a dance hall and restaurant on top of Castle Rock. Adolph Coors himself gave the Quaintances permission to run the rail line over his property on the northwest side of the mountain, just across from the brewery. A trip to the dance hall became a popular outing for residents, and at one point, donkey rides were also offered up the mesa. The railway tracks were torn up for scrap iron during World War I, and the dance hall burned down in 1927.
South Table became a more ominous landmark during the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan had widespread influence in Colorado. Local Klansmen held rallies on top of the mountain and burned huge crosses at the tip of Castle Rock. The promontory has also been the site of murder. In 1943 Golden was riveted by a sensational trial as sixteen-year-old William Eugene Wymer was convicted of murdering two younger boys by pushing them off the side of Castle Rock.
After World War II, metro Denver began a decades-long boom that brought once-distant suburbs to the edge of Golden. But while subdivisions spread all around South Table, the mesa itself remained largely untouched.
Residents have fought for years to keep it that way. Ever since Jefferson County voters approved their pioneering open-space program in the 1970s, acquisition of South Table Mountain has been near the top of the county's wish list. But the county has never been able to persuade Bradley and Coors to sell the land for open space, and residents have watched in frustration as development schemes have come and gone.
Now some wonder if the county is working both sides of the fence. Both Bradley and Coors say they were approached about possibly locating the Nike facility on South Table by the Jefferson Economic Council, an economic-development group that receives the majority of its funding--$327,000 last year--from the county.
"The JEC came to us and said a company was looking for a spectacular site," says Bradley. At first the group wouldn't tell him which company was interested, but Bradley says he soon discovered it was Nike and told the JEC that he and Coors would be interested in selling their land to the sportswear company.
The state's Office of Business Development has also played a big role in trying to interest Nike in Colorado, last year adding South Table Mountain to its list of possible sites for the company. The involvement of taxpayer-funded groups in marketing a site long coveted for open space infuriates many of those opposed to development on the mesa.
"I think the JEC screwed up on this," says Parker. "I think they misled Nike to think this would be okay with the people who live here."
Holli Baumunk, acting president of the JEC, was not available for comment. While Baumunk has stopped talking to the press, the JEC did find the time to hire a Golden-based public-relations firm, Sharon Kent Freeman Inc.; a spokesman for the firm claims that the JEC isn't actively recruiting Nike but simply provided a list of possible sites to the company.
Having two government-supported entities working at cross purposes is not that unusual, says Ray Printz, the longtime director of the Jefferson County open-space program who retired in 1996. "When you're trying to satisfy diverse needs of a community, quite often they come in direct conflict with each other," he says.
Printz says his agency approached Bradley about acquiring land on South Table repeatedly, last talking to him in 1994. "He never wanted to consider selling that property to us," says Printz. "We offered to negotiate for the land, and he declined."
Bradley claims he hasn't ruled out selling the land for open space but makes it clear he'd prefer to see it developed. "The west side of town is short of class-A office developments," he says. "We have to take care of economic development if we're going to continue to survive."
According to Bradley, he's already met with Nike several times to discuss a possible sale of the land on South Table. He says Nike representatives showed him several renditions of their proposed office complex, which would include elaborate trails, playing fields and swimming pools. Bradley declines to name his asking price for the property, but sources in the real estate community say he told Nike he wanted $100,000 an acre, a figure one describes as "preposterous" for undeveloped land with no services. Under its current agricultural zoning, the land is probably worth about $5,000 per acre.
One problem with building on top of South Table is that there's no public road to serve the property. Originally, Bradley had hoped to extend a road from developer Greg Stevinson's Denver West office park up the relatively low southern slope of the mesa. But Stevinson, who also heads up Jefferson County's open-space advisory board, refused to give Bradley permission to run a road from Denver West.
Stevinson says Denver West already has enough traffic problems without adding 5,000 commuters driving up and down South Table. Traffic from Denver West spills over into adjacent subdivisions, and Stevinson insists he won't do anything to make those problems worse. "People are already filtering through the neighborhoods because of traffic," he says.
Stevinson is working on plans for a major shopping center next to his office park, and he's one of the most powerful developers in Jefferson County. But he makes it clear he would prefer to see South Table remain as open space, and he says if Nike is allowed to build there, the county needs to take action to protect the remaining land on the mesa.
"Nike will either be a catalyst for industrialization of the mountaintop or for preserving the balance of the land," says Stevinson. "Everybody ought to be concerned with the future of North and South Table Mountains. We need to open up a dialogue to talk about what happens on these geologic landmarks."
Stevinson has told the City of Lakewood that he doesn't want it to use Denver West as a stepping stone to annex South Table, and Lakewood officials say they won't try to get their hands on the mesa. But Bradley notes that in order to obtain the services necessary to build on South Table, somebody will have to annex the property.
That means the future of South Table Mountain will likely be determined by Golden. City officials in Golden publicly claim they won't take a position on annexing the mesa until Nike makes a formal proposal. But letters obtained last week by Nike opponents reveal that Golden's mayor and planning director have been actively encouraging Nike to come to South Table since last summer.
In an August letter to Sam Cassidy, former president of the Jefferson Economic Council, Golden mayor Jan Schenck, who also serves as the president of the city council, wrote that "the potential for an environmentally conscious company to develop that location is truly awesome!" Schenck went on to say that city officials were eager "to bring this concept to reality" and predicted that the Golden City Council would support development of the mesa.
In an accompanying letter, Golden planning director Steve Glueck said the city was prepared to offer water and utility service to an office complex on South Table. Noting that as much as three million square feet of commercial space could be built on the land, Glueck told Cassidy that Golden could provide as much water as necessary for the project, as well as treatment of wastewater. He also dangled the possibility of tax breaks from the city, including a sales-tax waiver and "phasing" of utility development fees.
A project outline submitted to Nike by the city in cooperation with the JEC says development on South Table is "supported by the state of Colorado, Jefferson County, and the City of Golden." That outline also notes that Nike would be eligible for 50 percent property-tax rebates from Jefferson County and the Jefferson County R-1 school district for four years if it chooses to build on South Table (the county offers similar tax breaks to all large new employers).
Opponents of developing South Table say the letters from Schenck and Glueck prove that city officials misled them when they claimed Golden hadn't yet taken a position on Nike. "This exposes them as liars," says Doug Ohmans, a member of a citizens' group called Save the Mesas. "No one could ever trust them again. Eighty percent of the people in Golden are against this, but eighty percent of the politicians seem to be in favor of it." (Although no one has conducted a scientific poll of Goldenites, the Golden Transcript has sponsored a weekly straw poll on the issue and has found that an overwhelming number of respondents favor keeping the mesa as open space.)
Schenck says the letter he wrote has been "taken out of context" by activists like Ohmans, and he notes that it's the city's policy to foster economic development wherever it can. "The letter was an encouragement to Jefferson County for them to come forward with some development plan that we could look at," says Schenck. "In no way did it commit city council to do anything. As the mayor, I have to try to encourage economic development."
Schenck still claims he hasn't taken a position on a potential Nike complex. "I can be for it or against it depending on what is proposed," he says.
Golden city manager Mike Bestor found himself on the hot seat along with Schenck last week after a letter he wrote to a Nike official describing the company's plans as "exciting" was obtained by the project's critics through an open-records request. But Bestor speculates that if Nike really does decide it wants to come to Golden, the issue may ultimately be settled by city voters, who could overturn a council decision through a special ballot issue. "If people don't like what council does, it can be referred to a referendum," he says.
To get thousands of commuters up and down the mountain, the city would have to build a road that connects to C-470 and Sixth Avenue. The most likely route would be past the Jefferson County Government Center, across Old Golden Road and up the southwest side of South Table.
And Bradley makes it clear that, once that road is built, he sees a Nike complex as just the beginning. He envisions a thriving corporate community on top of the mesa, with dozens of buildings housing businesses, retail centers and even wholesale fashion outlets. "The Bradley and Coors families believe in unified planning for all of the top of that mountain," says Bradley.
Nike has yet to make any decision about where or even whether it will build a new corporate campus. The company is looking in several Western states and makes it clear that it will take as much time as it likes before making a commitment. "We have some further research to do and are under no self-imposed deadline to conclude our selection process," says Nike spokesman Lee Weinstein.
Weinstein declines to comment on Nike's interest in South Table, but high-level Nike executives have met repeatedly with Bradley and with Golden officials. Colorado is said to be favored over several other states the company has investigated, although some believe Nike is conducting its highly visible search in order to pressure Oregon officials to cut the company a better deal there.
If Nike does go ahead with its plans, it will likely find itself embroiled in a zoning battle in Golden. In that event, Nike executives might find themselves experiencing dejà vu, since the company first started looking at sites in Colorado and other states after it became entangled in a zoning dispute in Beaverton, Oregon, the Portland suburb Nike calls home.
The sportswear company acquired 74 acres of land near its current Beaverton headquarters in 1996. That land was zoned for multiple uses, and Nike officials asked the city to let it build a corporate campus for 5,000 new employees there. However, the land is along a light-rail line, and city officials want to see housing built there to bolster ridership on the line. The city told Nike it would have to use 20 percent of the land for housing, prompting furious Nike officials to start their out-of-state search.
The company has also complained that Oregon officials were courting California semiconductor companies with hefty tax breaks but neglecting a homegrown business that wanted to expand. And it hasn't hesitated to use Table Mountain as a bargaining chip. "We hope that Oregon would want to see expansion," Nike president Tom Clarke told the Portland Oregonian last spring. "There's no way the state of Colorado isn't going to be excited."
Whether or not Nike is serious about South Table Mountain, its interest in the site has triggered a firestorm in Golden. And the flareup is only the latest chapter in the battle over the mountain.
Besides the Bradley and Coors properties, the land on the mesa is divided between several other owners. The state of Colorado owns several hundred acres, which is used for a highway patrol test track. The federal Department of Energy owns 183 acres for its National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is housed at the southern base of the mountain. The only designated park land is 85 acres owned by Jefferson County on the mesa's eastern slope, another 80 acres leased by the county, and 80 acres owned by the City of Denver as part of its mountain parks system.
But it's the Bradleys' and Coorses' property on the west end of the mesa that's been in constant contention for much of the past two decades. Before most people in Jefferson County had even heard of Nike, residents were fighting Bradley over several different proposals to mine gravel on the land.
Stone has been quarried on the mountain before; in fact, earlier in the century, rock taken from South Table was used in building Camp George West and for riprapping the channel of the South Platte River in Denver. But Bradley wanted to develop an enormous quarry that would have taken at least 80 million tons of gravel off South Table, enough to fill Mile High Stadium 25 times.
Bradley and Coors first proposed a quarry on top of South Table in 1975. After 98 public hearings, the Jefferson County commissioners finally turned down Bradley's rezoning request in 1982. Six years later the proposal was revived but was withdrawn following a public outcry. In 1992 Bradley went to the state Mined Land Reclamation Board to request a mining permit for South Table. That body turned down his request in 1994, citing a lack of adequate environmental and engineering studies. (Even if the board had granted Bradley's request, the county commissioners still would have had the final say.)
Bradley jousted with dozens of angry Golden-area residents during the years of hearings before the county commissioners and makes no secret of his disappointment at not being allowed to mine his land. "That's probably one of the bitterest defeats I ever had in my career," says Bradley. "We could have taken 100 million tons of aggregate off that mountain, and nobody would have missed it. It was a zoning case, and in zoning cases there are lots of emotions involved."
The neighbors who fought Bradley were not only horrified at the prospect of a major industrial operation on the top of South Table, but they feared the constant noise and dust from dozens of trucks carting off loads of gravel. So they organized a coalition of fourteen homeowners' groups that represented 5,000 households around the base of South Table Mountain.
"During the 1975-82 period, there was a petition signed by 10,000 people that was given to the county commissioners," says Bob Woodfill, a Golden resident who played a key role in organizing the opposition to the quarry. "That shows the level of opposition to mining on South Table Mountain."
Carl Eiberger handled much of the legal work for the opponents of the quarry. Eiberger, who lives near South Table, estimates he gave $500,000 worth of free legal time over twenty years. "Leo Bradley called me the quarterback of the opposition," he recalls with a laugh. "Leo's quite a fighter. People would say, 'I've come [to the hearing] to watch you and him fight.' I felt like a monkey in a zoo."
Eiberger says the same coalition that battled the quarry will fight any proposal from Nike and adds that he believes Bradley has an obsession with developing South Table Mountain. "It's ego or something," says Eiberger.
And over the decades, Bradley's alter ego has always been Coors. For years Bradley was one of Coors' principal attorneys. He forged a close personal relationship with the brewing family, one that is symbolized by his living in a brick house across the street from the brewery, next door to the former residence of family patriarch Joe Coors.
Even Bradley's 1992 quarry proposal carried a Coors aftertaste. Though the company's land wasn't included in Bradley's original plan, Coors agreed to let him run a conveyor belt for the quarry over its property on the north side of the mesa. The company also made it clear that if Bradley won permission to mine his land, it would likely want to do the same with its property.
Woodfill believes Coors played a bigger role in pushing the quarry proposal than most people realize. "It's always been hand-in-hand between Bradley and Coors," he says. "There was no way Bradley could put a quarry up there without the help of Coors. They gave him access from the top of the mountain, through the brewery and right to the rail line so he could ship the aggregate."
Woodfill thinks Bradley and Coors hope to wear down their opponents over Table Mesa, offering constant development proposals until one finally wins approval. He also believes the Golden City Council lacks the courage to stand up to the Coors Brewing Company.
"There are no moral leaders on the city council," says Woodfill. "When Bradley and Coors say they want to do something, they fall all over them."
So far, none of the city's seven councilmembers has come out against the possible Nike complex. But city councilwoman Carol Johnson denies that she and her colleagues are patsies for Coors, and she notes that she has always endorsed economic development for the city. She says she won't make a decision on the Nike deal until the company submits a formal proposal but adds that she sees the project as potentially positive. "Nike has told us they'd put in soccer fields, baseball fields and open space," she says. "If they brought a lot of those amenities to the city, it could be an exciting opportunity."
If Coors is flexing its muscles on the project, though, it's doing so quietly. The low-profile approach isn't surprising given that CEO Peter Coors has spent the last several years trying to change the company's image. His father, Joe Coors, who headed up the company in the 1970s, angered scores of groups with his right-wing political views. The company was boycotted for years by labor, environmentalists, blacks, Hispanics and gays. The boycott did great damage to Coors, and Peter Coors has successfully reached out to the company's former adversaries, even painting himself as an environmentalist in advertisements.
That rankles the opponents of developing South Table, who say Peter Coors talks one way in public and acts differently in private. "We'll see if his image matches his deeds," says Don Parker. "It would be a good thing if they'd donate some of their land to open space."
Peter Coors wasn't available for an interview, but Coors spokesman Goldman bristles at the criticisms of the company being made by opponents of developing South Table. "Suddenly the community thinks they have a right to tell us what to do with our land," says Goldman. "I don't see these folks offering to have their homes leveled and converted to open space."
Goldman notes that the company's land on South Table is a corporate asset and says "we have an obligation to our shareholders to maximize the benefits of those assets." However, he says Coors recognizes that a geographic landmark its own beer bottles helped establish as a symbol of the West is a different breed of asset than a shipment of aluminum cans or a trainload of hops. The company, he says, will make sure any office buildings put up on top of South Table are designed so that "visual impacts are minimized."
The Safeway store in Golden is an important gathering place for people in this tight-knit town of 15,000. Girl Scouts sell cookies at the front door, neighbors exchange gossip in the aisles, and town politics is a frequent topic of discussion. If you're furious with somebody in town, chances are you'll see them at Safeway.
Which is exactly what happened one day last month.
Two local activists were gathering signatures in the parking lot on a petition opposing the Nike project. Leo Bradley was walking out of the store when one of the petitioners called out to him.
"I said 'Hey, Mr. Bradley, do you want to sign our petition?'" recalls Doug Ohmans of Save the Mesas. "He said, 'Come here, you.'"
Ohmans walked over to meet his group's nemesis. "I held out my hand to shake hands, and he grabbed my hand in an iron grip," he says.
According to Ohmans, Bradley then informed him he'd just told Safeway management that if they didn't boot the petitioners out of the parking lot, he'd call off a deal to sell Safeway land he owns across the street.
Bradley calls the story "trash" and says he doesn't want to comment on it since it "adds nothing to anything."
Regardless of what was said in the parking lot that day, the exchange reflects the level of anger in Golden over the Nike proposal. At a recent city council meeting, where dozens of people, including the members of a local Boy Scout troop, gathered to voice opposition to developing the mountain, residents described the mesa as part of Golden's identity. "The idea that this spectacular symbol of Golden could be spoiled forever is appalling," one woman told the council. "You seem to believe it's possible to compensate with money the permanent desecration of a landmark."
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Opponents of bringing Nike to Golden gave the council a petition signed by 1,000 people--the same petition that led to the parking lot argument between Bradley and Ohmans.
Activists such as Parker believe public officials in Golden are badly out of touch with their constituents. They note that in 1995 Golden voters imposed a 1-percent-per-year limit on growth in housing permits after the city okayed several new subdivisions, and they think the city council has again underestimated the amount of opposition toward turning South Table Mountain into another Denver Tech Center. They say they won't give up until Coors and Bradley agree to sell their land for open space.
"It may be that open space and Leo Bradley and Coors can't come to terms on the worth of the property," says Parker. "If we have to have a stalemate for fifteen or twenty years, so be it.