Computers become child's play at the Curtis Park Community Center's computer lab.
Computers become child's play at the Curtis Park Community Center's computer lab.

Life's Bitter Here

The right click opens up your Windows options, Paul Verizzo tells his computer class. "It opens up your life."

But that window's about to slam shut.

A week from now, Verizzo will be gone from the Curtis Park Community Center, where he's been director of the technology program since last October. And soon the technology program could disappear, too.

Until July, this modest, workmanlike space in the modest, sixty-year-old community center had the grand title of US West Technology Center, in recognition of the phone company's "strong and sustained contribution in bringing computer technology to those who otherwise wouldn't have access." But that ended with the completion of the merger between Qwest Communications and US West. On the first working day after the deal was done, Qwest put a freeze on any contributions coming out of the US West Foundation -- and that freeze has yet to thaw.

"They have been my patron saint," Verizzo says of the foundation. "The takeover was finished Friday afternoon. Over the weekend, I began wondering, 'Gee, there's no more US West.' And by 9:30 Monday morning, the foundation had been told, 'No more donations.'"

After he got the news, Verizzo went into the computer lab -- filled with $50,000 in donated equipment from the company -- and put a big line through the "US West" portion of the sign.

Qwest hasn't hung up on all charitable activities, however. While Verizzo and other nonprofits around the region were getting the bad news from the foundation, Qwest was closing a big deal.

It's now the title sponsor of The International, the elite professional golf tournament that comes to Castle Pines Country Club every August.

"Image is important," Joe Nacchio, head of the combined companies, told Forbes last month, "and by that I mean self-image."

Ride the light.

Of course, Qwest didn't pursue a merger with US West out of the goodness of its heart -- although if the deal does result in improved local phone service, we'll all be grateful. And US West didn't fund its foundation -- with cash collected from customers across fourteen states -- entirely out of charitable motives.

Between its founding in 1989 and the July 2000 funding freeze, the US West Foundation had given $225 million to charities ranging from the Columbine Community Citizens Task Force to the Denver Art Museum to the US West Technology Center at the Curtis Park Community Center. But those donations represented perhaps one-thousandth of the company's gross, and they bought US West goodwill and good press at a time when the phone company was in bad need of both.

This spring, for example, US West announced that it was giving the Denver Indian Center a $150,000 grant earmarked for an on-site technology training center, bringing the total that the phone company had dedicated to closing the "digital divide" to over $6 million in just five years. In exchange for the donation, though, US West not only created a new base of potential customers for its high-speed transmission services, it also netted a large picture of then-CEO Sol Trujillo, draped in a quilt and the warm smile of the president of the United Tribes Technical College. At the time, the merger deal was souring and Trujillo was in the middle of a major spat with Nacchio. Among other things, US West complained that Qwest had an almost all-white, all-male board, so the Indian Center publicity -- as well as Trujillo's very high-profile public appearances as arguably the country's leading Hispanic businessman -- didn't hurt.

Helping mastermind US West's publicity blitz was Phil Burgess, who's been the recipient of the phone company's largesse for years. The president of the Center for the New West -- a nonprofit think tank created by US West back in 1987 and allegedly made independent two years later -- for eleven years, Burgess had been persuaded to return to the corporate fold by Trujillo, one of the center's founding members. Even though he was taking over media relations, though, Burgess got to remain a senior fellow at the center, where his high-minded thinking had included the identification of the "Lone Eagle" -- the business executive who wanted to live in lovely surroundings and telecommute to his workplace, ideally on US West-provided services. For his part, Burgess ran the Center for the New West from Maryland until he answered Trujillo's emergency call this spring.

But no good deed goes unpunished. Although Burgess was handsomely rewarded for his few months' effort here, one of Qwest's first moves last month was to pull the plug on the $250,000 that US West had been giving the Center for the New West each year. Qwest also ended US West's subsidy of the three-month-old Center for Digital Culture, the online think tank that Trujillo had been touting when he visited the Denver Indian Center.

The technology lab at the Curtis Park Community Center had been considered the showpiece of that center. In fact, it was a real US West success story, "the darling of the foundation," Verizzo says, "used as model for the other computer labs." It was a cost-effective way to bridge the technological gap between the haves and the have-nots. And at the same time, it showed that while US West might provide bad service, it could still be a good corporate citizen.

"I consider this my ministry," says Verizzo, gesturing to the dozen people sitting in front of the lab's computers this summer morning -- people ranging from kids in the center's daycare program who come over from a nearby homeless shelter to workers who staff those shelters. "I wish it was here when I didn't have a computer -- and that was just four years ago."

Verizzo, who has a master's degree in theology, has come a long way since then, and so has the computer lab. Last October, Verizzo was a full-time volunteer when the technology center directorship came open, and he got the job. By then, the computer lab was already three years old. US West had been there from the beginning, and during Verizzo's tenure, its commitment to the program increased. Not only did the foundation's $40,000 annual donation cover half of the lab's budget, but US West also gave the program $50,000 worth of equipment. (After the foundation was put in the funding deep-freeze last month, a phone company employee called Verizzo and said that the color laser printer he'd been hoping for was on the dock right at that moment -- and that he'd better get it. "I did wheelies on my way over there," Verizzo says.) And the good works didn't end with money and machinery: US West employees also gave lots of time and energy to the cause. Once, when Verizzo was looking for volunteers, he posted a note on a US West Web site -- and got fifty responses.

But with the phone company's new ownership, that kind of volunteer dedication could be disconnected. US West employees who made the transition to Qwest say that management is discouraging outside volunteer projects that might cut into an employee's dedication to the Qwest cause. (Qwest isn't completely without charitable instincts, however: According to a recent SEC filing, Phil Anschutz, the billionaire who founded the company and is its largest stockholder, will donate $775 million in Qwest stock -- 14 million shares -- over the next five years to the Anschutz Foundation, which has a strong track record for good, if conservative, deeds in the community.) And at the same time former US West workers were learning that under Qwest's dress code, they now must don "foot stockings," Joe Nacchio was wrapping himself in the green jacket of the Qwest-sponsored International golf tournament, chatting up potential customers whose hourly income beats the annual take-home pay of most Curtis Park residents.

For Denver's nonprofit community -- not to mention the 500 low-income, and sometimes no-income, people who use the Curtis Park computer lab each year -- Nacchio's performance was definitely subpar.

At the same time the computer lab's funding could be drying up, the center that houses it, an independent nonprofit affiliated with the American Baptist church, plans to shift its focus. And so Verizzo, who's already making connections with an orphanage in Kenya that can use some donated 486s, is leaving the technology center.

He worries about what he'll leave behind. US West fulfilled its commitment for this year early enough that the program will make it through 2000. "But come January 1," he says, "the lab will not be able to function in any way as it used to."

Which means that the training for staffers from the nearby Samaritan House, the St. Francis shelter, could go away; they'll be unable to provide computer services that are becoming almost as intrinsic to survival as shelter and food. It means that the classes in Windows, in computer rebuilding, in Excel, in resumé-writing, could disappear, and that the people looking for jobs won't have any way to plug into employment opportunities. It means that people in this old, inner-city neighborhood may not be able to drop in to brush up on their new computer skills -- or acquire any in the first place.

It means that those who are not yet online may be left out in the cold. Ride the light...until the screen goes dark.


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