At midnight last Thursday, I was on the outside looking in, peering through the windows of the Palm, an establishment that now occupies the old home of Hooters just off the 16th Street Mall.
For voyeurs, the scenery tops even that offered by the previous, tight-T-shirt-obsessed tenant: 200 cleaned-up (no bald spots, no double chins) caricatures of the city's celebrities. Looking at this galaxy of supposed stars made me slightly woozy--but it wasn't anything I'd eaten, at least not technically speaking. I was simply having trouble stomaching the people whom the Palm's PR firm had chosen as representative of the best Denver has to offer. This gaggle of lawyers, lobbyists, sports figures and media folks (as well as a host of Hollywood types whose only appearances in this state have been at a theater near you) may have a knack for making headlines, and for making money, but not for making a difference where it really counts. For example, Essie Garrett, the grandmother-turned-long-distance-runner who races cross-country for good causes, apparently couldn't make the cut. Nor could Joyce Meskis, whose Tattered Cover bookstores are arguably this city's most laudable landmarks, and not just because they reflect so well on Denver residents' involvement and interest in the world around them--where else can you still write a check and not show ID? And although the lineup was lousy with developers, there was no room for Karle Seydel, "that guy up in NoDough," as he calls himself, the planner who's devoted years to making sure that adding Coors Field to the neighborhood near North Larimer wouldn't push out one of Denver's oldest and most historically rich communities. Nor was there a spot for Virgil Aguirre and his family, who have taken over where Daddy Bruce left off, feeding the needy on holidays at their restaurant in northwest Denver. Or for the hundreds of others who truly define Denver.
Let them eat steak.
Of course, the Palm is just a restaurant (though you wouldn't know that from the excessive coverage by the Denver dailies--rare praise indeed for a chain steakhouse).
But the Palm is just a restaurant in the same way that just a penny would be assessed on every ten bucks in sales in order to fund Pat Bowlen's new football stadium, if voters approve such a tax in November 1997.
Bowlen, whose financial history--replete with business failings and bankruptcy filings--came in for a beating in both the dailies over the weekend, wants taxpayers to ante up for a stadium worthy of his Broncos. A penny here, a penny there; pretty soon it adds up to $180 million--slightly more than a recent estimate of the team's own worth--before Bowlen himself has to throw in a dime. (If he has one, that is.)
Of course, the Palm has a picture of Bowlen on its wall. He's up there alongside several of his star players--and we're not talking athletes (although John Elway is also front and center). No, these are people with real speed and power, people like Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland partner Steve Farber, people who helped blitz the Colorado legislature and convince lawmakers to create a new Metropolitan Football Stadium District board and a separate site-selection committee that together will select a site for a new football stadium, negotiate a way out of the old, Denver-owned stadium, and then take the financing proposal to voters sixteen months from now.
Bowlen spent $120,000 on lobbyists ($5,000 on Farber alone) who carried the ball for him this season. Sometimes, though, Bowlen himself had to get into the play. It took a scrawled note from the Broncos owner promising to give minorities significant input in the stadium project to get the bill through the Senate. Contractor Linda Alvarado, one of the owners of the Colorado Rockies, did her bit for Bowlen, stressing his commitment to minority contracting before heading to Dowling College to deliver a commencement address urging graduates to "end stereotypes." The emphasis on minority-business involvement helped secure the deciding vote in the House from Denver representative Glenda Swanson Lyle.
Asked this week by a Denver Post reporter how she feels about her vote in light of the revelations about Bowlen's finances, Lyle responded, "It doesn't sound like he's insolvent or going to be broke and run out of town. He sounds like a businessman in America."
Or a businesswoman, for that matter. In 1994 the state had to take Lyle to court--and garnishee her House wages--to collect delinquent unemployment taxes owed by her consulting firm.
Since the legislature passed Bowlen's bill, there's been plenty of business as usual. This week Governor Roy Romer finally got around to filling his two slots on the stadium board--with his son, Chris (the second official appointment for the junior investment banker), and with Grand Junction banker Sam Suplizio, who drew good reviews as co-chair of the Colorado Baseball Commission but lives well outside the six-county metro area that will be voting on the stadium. Wellington Webb, too, came through with his appointment: Norm Early, the man he beat in the 1991 mayor's race, when the then-DA was the favored candidate and heavily backed by the folks at Brownstein, et al.
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Of course, the Palm has pictures of Brownstein and his wife on the wall, too.
Bowlen spokesman Porter Wharton, who led the lobbying charge at the legislature, says Bowlen's financial history isn't "relevant" to the issue of a new stadium, even though he's the one who stands to benefit from the taxpayers' $180 million investment. According to an official statement released by the Broncos, "If he sold the team tomorrow, we would still have to face the new stadium issue."
Why? So we can gather in a shiny new arena and mourn the team's departure?
Up against the wall, Denver.