The City Park Golf Course has long been a jewel of Denver's parks system. These days it's looking more like a political sand trap.
Most of the attention surrounding the city's beleaguered municipal golf system in recent weeks has focused on the dispute over whether to raise greens fees for seniors. Of more immediate concern at City Park is just who will be in charge of the place once golf season heats up this spring--and whether Denver may be about to open its financial fairways to a pair of exceptionally well-connected duffers: former Denver District Attorney Norm Early and controversial Denver International Airport concessionaire Willie Kellum.
Late last year Early and Kellum submitted a proposal under which they would run the course for the city as private contractors. The bid from their company, Wilnor Golf, came in response to a request for proposals (RFP) issued in November by the city's parks department. Traditionally, Denver has bid out the operation of pro shops, restaurants, driving ranges and cart-rental services while keeping greens fees for itself.
The urgent need for an operator at City Park was sparked by the departure of former concessionaire Sam Taylor, who left last December under a financial cloud. The popular restaurateur drew thousands of barbecue lovers to his nineteenth-hole eatery, but the city now claims he was as adept at cooking the books as he was at saucing ribs. The city treasurer's office is attempting to collect $209,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest from Taylor, who claimed, after city auditors began investigating his accounts, that his cash-register receipts had been stolen in a burglary.
There hasn't exactly been a stampede to take over from Taylor, a self-described victim of political persecution who recently opened a new barbecue restaurant in Glendale. More than seventy people attended a pre-bid conference on the request for proposals, which also asked for bids on running the city's Evergreen and Willis Case courses. But only one group actually responded with a proposal: Wilnor Golf. City golf director Tom Woodard acknowledges that the situation raised eyebrows among other prospective bidders. "Basically, people were wondering, 'What do they know that we don't know?'" he says.
An equally popular question is who Early and Kellum know, and the answers may sound familiar. Early was a rising star in Denver Democratic politics before he lost the 1991 mayoral election to Wellington Webb, while Kellum is a seasoned veteran of Denver's labyrinthine minority-contracting system. The owner of Duncan's Men's Store in Five Points, he made headlines in 1994 when Mayor Webb pressured the city council to approve his involvement in a string of DIA gift shops. Kellum was reportedly $300,000 in debt and delinquent on a city economic-development loan at the time. The city forced out Kellum's partner, Atlanta concessionaire Dan Paradies, after Paradies was convicted of mail fraud. But Kellum, who reportedly put up $38,000 to buy into the $1.3 million deal, was allowed to share a 51 percent cut of the concession.
Woodard says the comments he heard from other prospective City Park bidders about Early and Kellum were more expressions of surprise than allegations of favoritism. In fact, he says even he's somewhat surprised that Early and Kellum submitted a bid. According to Woodard, the city drove such a hard bargain on the RFP--demanding an up-front investment of $500,000 for capital improvements and asking for an increased cut of the gross revenues--that the contract represents a high-risk proposition for concessionaires.
Woodard says he believes that Early and Kellum bid on the project because both are avid golfers who genuinely want to see improvements made to the City Park course. "They really wanted to see the thing brought up by its bootstraps," says Woodard. He adds that Early and Kellum differed from other prospective bidders in that they had other sources of income and didn't intend to rely on the golf course for their livelihood. "If someone had agreed to do Evergreen and Willis Case, we would have accepted those, too, with those numbers," he says.
Ironically, the first bid from Kellum and Early, who left his post as the city's top lawman in 1993 to take a job with Lockheed Information Management Systems, was tossed out on a technicality. The Mayor's Office of Contract Compliance (MOCC) declared Early and Kellum's proposal "non-responsive" after determining that the pair hadn't met the minority-business-enterprise requirements set forth in the RFP and hadn't made "a good faith effort" to do so. Both Early and Kellum are black, but sources say their company, which was formed specifically to bid on the city contract, didn't have a minority-business certificate in place in time to meet city requirements. Early and Kellum did not return phone calls from Westword.
Woodard says Early and Kellum were "really disappointed" when their proposal was rejected but have indicated that they are interested in bidding again. And the city apparently is going to accommodate them. Despite Woodard's publicly stated belief that the city could make more money running the course itself--and over the opposition of at least one city council member--the parks department last Friday reissued the City Park RFP. Proposals from would-be operators are due March 10. Should Early and Kellum choose to submit another proposal--and fill out their paperwork properly--they would presumably be the sole bidders and have a virtual lock on the contract.
Questions are already being raised about the second request for proposals. "I think that's not an appropriate thing to do," says City Councilman Ted Hackworth. "That's really confusing to me."
Hackworth says parks officials appear to feel pressured to wrap up a concession deal at City Park. At a January 22 city council committee meeting, he says, Woodard and parks planning and design boss Rod Lister said they were considering approving Early and Kellum's first bid despite MOCC's objections--and even though the 15 percent of gross revenues Wilnor was proposing to pay the city was half what the city's own golf consultant has said should be available off concession contracts. The reason, Hackworth says, was that the city perceived an urgent need to fill the void left by Taylor. "They said, 'We need to move pretty expediently,'" he adds.
Woodard says that the City Park course is in need of improvements and that the city can't match the $500,000 capital investment that was pledged in Early and Kellum's first bid. But Hackworth is skeptical. Under existing city guidelines, says the councilman, golf concessionaires get to keep any improvements they pay for, including everything from golf carts to restaurant tables and chairs. That would make an investment by Early and Kellum seem a little less altruistic, he notes. Add to that the dependable nature of the clientele at city courses, he says, and running a golf course for Denver doesn't begin to look so risky after all.
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Having just cleaned up the mess left by Taylor, the city auditor's office also has expressed doubts about installing a new concessionaire at City Park. Once outside contractors have signed a deal, says public-relations director Romaine Pacheco, they can always attempt to renegotiate the percentage of revenues shared with the city.
The unusual trajectory of the City Park RFP has already sparked suspicions that Mayor Webb may once again be attempting to influence a city contract on Kellum's behalf. "I wouldn't doubt that at all," says Hackworth. "It would be consistent with what the mayor's done in the past, taking care of his friends." Some observers say Kellum may even have been recruited by administration officials, in part to overcome Early's lack of concessions experience.
Woodard says the city is simply protecting its economic interests at City Park. Denver, he says, can't afford to pay for necessary capital improvements itself and would welcome Early and Kellum's money. He assumes that the new business partners have devised a plan under which they'll turn a profit at the golf course. "They're not successful because they're dumb," Woodard says.
And when it comes to doing business with government agencies, even those who occasionally get a bad lie have a way of ending up on the green. Sam Taylor, whom Denver has accused of deliberate fraud in concealing his income, had a little help in opening up his new restaurant: a $435,000 loan guarantee from the federal Small Business Administration.