Welcome to Ver, Colorado.
That's the economical, creative side of the Mile High City. While Den is all about Cherry Creek and fur coats and sleepy thinking and SUVs that never go anywhere near the mountains, Ver is the edgy end of Denver. The place where necessity is the mother of invention, not convention. The other side of the Treks.
Ver is the part of Denver that snickers whenever boosters suggest that this city needs a new nickname, a new slogan, a new brand that can be marketed to the rest of the world (and laughs outright when one of those boosters gets booted in a quasi strip-club scandal, proving that Denver will always be a cowtown). It's the part of Denver that may take advantage of cheap plane tickets but will never, ever use the proper name of the low-fare carrier that United Airlines officially introduced in Denver on Tuesday.
And that carrier, of course, is "Ted."
Ted may be tight with a buck, but he's generous when singing his own praises.
"Ted has a personality all its own," pronounced Sean Donohue, United's "vice president, low-cost operation" in introducing the low-fare fleet. "It's warm, friendly and casual. If this airplane could wink, it would."
But not while flying, please.
Over the past two weeks, references to Ted have popped up on buttons, on billboards, on convenience-store penny caches and in a farmer's field. For the past week, inane blue-and-orange advertisements have littered the dailies. T-E-D spelled out on children's blocks. TED in acrostic puzzles (other telling finds: ORD, DEN, FOG, DIN, SIN, FEE, AXE, DODO, YAWN and NAY). An ad that says simply, "One word: Ted."
Here's another word: Enough!
If Ted is supposed to be such a cost-conscious airline, one that will enable United to soar out of bankruptcy, then why all the ads? Why load down reporters attending Tuesday's press conference with cheap plastic goodie bags? Or show a montage of every famous Ted, from Roosevelt to Kennedy (no doubt representing the "spunky kid brother" that United touts) to Keanu Reeves (as in Excellent Adventure), but stopping short of a couple true Colorado Teds: Bundy (the late serial killer) and Kaczynski (the Unabomber currently incarcerated in Florence)? Yes, marketing costs can be murder, but United execs insist the campaign cost under $100,000. Still, they didn't have to spend a penny to convince us that Ted is a stupid name for an airline.
United wasn't always so cost-conscious. Thirteen years ago, back when Denver was just coming out of its big bust and counting on a new international airport to fuel the next boom, United put out the word that it was going to build a fabulous new maintenance center in the city that offered it the most fabulous deal. And Denver was right in there, fighting with 92 other places for the privilege of bending over big-time for the airline. But a few cranky lawmakers stood in the way, fighting the proposed handout with low-budget, spunky "Fuck U" buttons (a rare souvenir reproduced here on Kaczynski's mug shot). And ultimately, the Colorado Legislature refused to match the $320 million deal that Indianapolis offered to win the maintenance facility -- a facility that United walked away from earlier this year. According to a story in the New York Times last week, United invested only $229 million of the $500 million it had promised Indiana. Meanwhile, the city and state are paying $34 million a year to retire the bonds that financed the maintenance center's construction.
Denver gave United a consolation prize, however: the automated baggage system that the airline wanted at the new Denver airport. The automated baggage claim that never worked and was finally abandoned, just like the maintenance facility.
Welcome to Den.
Jason Salzman lives in Ver, although he doesn't know that. But he knows that he hates Ted, which "sounds like something Angela Baier came up with to promote Hickenlooper's son, Teddy," he says of Denver's new (and first) marketing director -- "and United took the bait."
A Denver native who celebrated his fortieth birthday this past year -- "in a graveyard," he says -- Salzman has watched this city's boom-and-busters come and go. For much of that time, he's had an unusual vantage point: His parents were urban pioneers who turned a LoDo warehouse into a home back in the '70s, back in the days before the term "loft" was applied to everything from new construction in the Platte Valley to a Park Meadows townhouse. Back in the days before there was a Park Meadows, for that matter, before lower downtown even had a nickname. That's so very, very Ver.
So is Salzman's aversion to the city's latest hunt for a brand. "I love Denver," he says. "I'm skeptical of this sloganeering, having grown up here. There's better ways to boost the economy than have people come here."
Business incubators, for example, and business-improvement districts. Ways to help the small businesses that are already here -- businesses unlike Salzman's own Cause Communications, not coincidentally, which is pushing its own "anti-Denver marketing campaign to counter the pro-Denver campaign that's just been launched." Among his suggestions:
"The Mile Dry City."
"Denver: As Sophisticated as Coors Light."
"Denver: The Only Cow Town Without Cows."
"Denver: 342 Days of Skin Cancer."
"Denver: Join Us in Waiting for the Return of Elway."
"Denver: Your Traffic Jam in the Rockies."
"Denver: Four Seasons, One Brown Cloud."
"Denver: Where Parking Meters Decide Elections."
And, for a promotional Web site, "The Sprawl With It All: Denver!"
On his own Web site (www.causecommunications), Salzman posts other slogan submissions (one recent arrival: "Denver, where calling the cops can cost you your life") with the promise to send them on to Baier. "Once you market it as a hip city," Salzman sighs, "it's no longer hip."
It's just Denver, Ted's home town.
Like a great white shark, the Denver Department of Public Works van cruised along West 11th Avenue Tuesday morning, hungry for a victim. It was before 8 a.m., the hour when parking regulations take effect on that street and most other Denver thoroughfares, but it was not too early for the parking division to put the bite -- and the boot -- on some unsuspecting motorist. And so the van was out to make a kill, trolling for a license plate that connected to a juicy collection of tickets.
The sight was enough to send my car into the nearest off-street lot and my wallet on its semi-annual trip to the parking referee.
This time, though, there was no need to spew one of those obligatory, dog-ate-my-car-key stories that the referee listens to so patiently before she knocks off the standard, department-approved percentage of the total amount owed (usually the equivalent of the fines accumulated after those $20 tickets get more than twenty days old). Because under Mayor John Hickenlooper's Late-Fee Amnesty Program that kicked off on November 12, all penalties are automatically deducted if you pay your tickets by December 31. No excuses needed -- or wanted, really.
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But then, the parking division was in a pretty inexcusable mess last year, after soon-to-be-ousted chief John Oglesby implemented his "world-class" parking plan. To help calm the protests, then-mayor Wellington Webb considered implementing an amnesty program, inspired by the more than $8 million that Chicago had netted with a similar scheme. But it took Hickenlooper to make such forgiveness official, as part of the parking changes he announced two weeks ago -- and had promised in his upstart mayoral campaign this past spring. "Parking meters were not designed to be a revenue generator," he said.
Despite the hundred bucks I just gave at his office, the amnesty program hasn't generated that much traffic. Not yet. "It's been slow," conceded a city clerk collecting the cash. But she's expecting a nice holiday rush toward the end of the amnesty period, right after Christmas. By then, a slew of new tickets issued to parkers confused by the rule changes will have accumulated fines, fines just waiting to be forgiven. So far, only the amnesty portion of the program has been introduced. The reduction in downtown meter rates, as well as the reintroduction of free parking on Sundays, won't start until the Friday after Thanksgiving. And in the meantime, the tickets pile up.
According to mayoral spokeswoman Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, between November 12 and November 17, the city received $291,552 in ticket payments -- $104,164 for parking tickets old enough to have their fines waived. None of that was from her, incidentally: Before she started at the mayor's office, Eichenbaum Lent's husband went online and paid all of her outstanding tickets. But she did pick up one more two weeks ago -- during Hickenlooper's parking-change announcement.
To err is human. To forgive? Divine.