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Photo Finish

If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, I should simply have snapped a photo outside of Zengo on Monday night. Inside, the restaurant was turning a record number of tables -- all thanks to Denver Restaurant Week, the promotion that runs through March 3 and is packing the 120 metro restaurants that signed on to offer multi-course meals for the far-from-mile-high fixed price of $52.80 for two. And outside? Urban dwellers were walking their dogs across grassy parks toward the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte River, where gold was found in 1858 and Denver was born; strolling the other direction over the Millennium Bridge to the light-rail stop and Union Station and the clubs and bars of LoDo; or staying put on outdoor patios, sipping lattes and contemplating which million-dollar loft to move into next. All that on land that a half-dozen years ago was just the same dusty railyard it had been for a century, sprouting nothing but a mysterious crop of headless bums.

If I had taken that picture, it would have said this: Here is Denver in 2006.

And I would have sent it straight to the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, which last month issued a "Request for Qualifications" for a national public-relations agency "to help generate articles and electronic media coverage of Denver as a cultural travel destination in major national and international consumer, travel and leisure publications and electronic media. The ideal placements will use Denver's new cultural renaissance as a hook to also discuss other traditional aspects of Denver as a travel destination, including coverage of hotels, restaurants, shopping and other attractions."

Oh, and in addition to showing off Denver to the rest of the world, the RFQ notes that the one-year contract will include a special emphasis on marketing to Albuquerque, Phoenix and Omaha. But just one look at my Platte Valley picture, and residents of those downtown-deprived cities would be loading up the moving vans and slapping on the "I'm not a native, but I moved here as fast as I could" bumperstickers.

Still, I was a day late and $175,000 short. That's the size of the annual contract the visitors bureau will award the winning agency (the three finalists are being notified this week), a contract made possible (if not demanded) by the passage of initiative 1A last November, which boosted the lodging tax collected by the City and County of Denver by 1 percent, with all of that money earmarked for a tourism campaign. The bureau already collects about $9 million of its $12 million budget from the lodging tax, under a contract with the city to act as "the official tourism and convention marketing arm for the City of Denver." The increase approved by voters -- after it was pushed by just about every business under our 300 days of sun -- should bring in another $4 million.

"We haven't seen one penny yet," says Rich Grant, director of communications and a man the RFQ strictly prohibited me from talking to, had I actually been applying for the deal. "At the end of March, we get the tax collection for January." But the bureau couldn't wait to advertise the job, because the national publications that should be beating down Denver's door have a six-month lead time, and they need to be contacted now if they're going to fall all over the opening of the Libeskind addition to the Denver Art Museum this fall.

That is, if those national publications weren't already here to cover another Denver landmark, the "Sex and So Much More Show" that filled the Colorado Convention Center this past weekend, inspiring a cranky protest from Republican lawmakers who considered it a "blatant affront to the people of Colorado" while drawing record numbers of those same Coloradans to see what the bond measure they'd approved back in 1999 had bought in the way of an expanded facility, not to mention a few pot-bellied former porn stars.

Imagine what a picture of Lawrence Argent's big blue bear (technically named "I See What You Mean") peering -- leering -- into the convention center on Saturday would have done for Denver's national image!

"We've always flown under the radar screen, partly because of our isolation," Grant says. "People know what an East Coast city is going to be like, and they know what a Rust Belt city will be like. They don't know what a mountain city will be like. We're at the place where America really does change. We've given up telling people it's 70 degrees today and you can play golf, and it's snowing up in the mountains and you can ski."

He may have given up on that message, but a few blocks away, Colorado lawmakers are giving it another shot. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of legislators -- and someone dressed as Queen Elizabeth I, sweltering in the February sun -- gathered to tout an assortment of economic-development bills that would, among other things, increase the state's tourism funding from $5 million to $20 million, and all with cash already collected from casinos. That funding strategy, coupled with Bill Owens's popular promise in his State of the State address that he'll kill the proposal to replace the wooden "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" signs with bland, business-card-like "Welcome to Colorado" signs if tourism's budget is boosted to just a paltry $10 million -- should guarantee that House Bill 1201 makes it through. Other measures would promote the film industry, wineries, biotech -- all strategic investments designed to continue the economic recovery started by the passage of Referendum C last fall. "The economy is job one," vowed House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. "This year, the big one is not getting away," said Representative Tom Plant, waving a fishing pole at memories of last year's failed tourism bill.

That same dratted sun made it impossible to unveil another prop, scenes from movies made in Colorado, back when movies were made in Colorado. So sadly, Brad Pitt's ass -- as seen in Thelma & Louise -- was a no-show.

The RFQ offers this "Situation Summary" of the city's image problem: "Denver has traditionally been viewed by top national consumer-travel media as a gateway to the Rocky Mountains, rather than a destination in and of itself. As one national travel editor put it, ŒMy readers travel through Denver to get where they are going.'" And never mind that it's been the bureau's job to give those people a reason to stop here since the organization was founded almost a hundred years ago. Maybe it just felt it needed that extra $4 million and a national PR agency -- you know, one from a real city -- to make Denver truly worthy of visitors' attention.

If the bureau wants to save some cash -- and time -- it should feed off the success of its Denver Restaurant Week, promoting similar events that remind residents to get out and love the city where they live. That cultural renaissance is blossoming all over. On First Fridays, where thousands of people get a taste of Denver's incredibly lively arts scenes. At the spoken-word presentations of Cafe Nuba, one of the five arts organizations that Westword honored last week with a $4,000 MasterMind award. At the fashion shows that 2005 MasterMind winner Brandi Shigley puts on -- when she isn't busy helping other designers grow their businesses. Denver is full of aesthetic adventurers worth celebrating. But instead, boosters fret about Denver's lack of People-worthy celebrities (and now Colorado's lost Dennis Weaver, too!) and sit through day-long meetings to discuss new brands and slogans for Denver, even if there's no marketing director to implement them. (Although the mayor's looking...again.)

Denver has always been the Sally Field of cities, unduly panicked at being labeled a cowtown (when, in fact, that Old West label has a real charm for people back East, who certainly aren't coming here for our pastrami sandwiches), or a sports town (when, in fact, that's true), or Omaha with mountains (and a real downtown).

But we don't need Brad Pitt's ass to get people here -- although it wouldn't hurt -- or a fancied-up PR package.

Just a current picture of Denver should do the trick.


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