The Big Cheese

Last year, Rick Ashton, the director of the Denver Public Library, strongly suggested that all 500 DPL employees read Who Moved My Cheese?, the still-chart-topping, still completely inane business book that describes how two littlepeople, Hem and Haw, follow mice in their hunt for cheese, and in the process learn to live with change. Learn to love change.

"Haw had also used his wonderful brain to do what littlepeople do better than mice," the tale concludes. "He envisioned himself -- in realistic detail -- finding something better -- much better.... He didn't like it at the time, but he knew that the change had turned out to be a blessing in disguise that led him to find better Cheese."

The biggest cheese of all, Mayor Wellington Webb, is nearing the end of his twelve-year run as mayor, which concludes officially in June 2003. But he's already started slicing off giant pieces of his legacy.

This week, a Denver City Council committee will consider changing a law that the council passed just eleven years ago, a law that made it illegal to name a city building after a person who is still holding a local, state or federal office. Back in 1991 -- when a majority of today's members were already on the council -- that law was designed to ensure that Denver International Airport could not be named after then-incumbent mayor Federico Peña. (Peña did get a bleak stretch of road -- albeit one with an unfortunate tendency to ice up in the winter -- as a consolation prize for being the driving force behind the $5 billion new airport.)

But now, with the $130 million Civic Center Office Building set to open this fall, some of those same councilmembers want to change their law so that the structure can be named the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building.

That would be one hefty piece of cheese. But the tastiest morsel is surely the $17 million African-American Research Library, a Denver-financed facility (the money to build it was borrowed against already existing city buildings) that will be the biggest branch in the DPL system, plunked right down at 24th and Welton streets, in the heart of Five Points.

There's no denying that Five Points deserves some sustenance; the area has been coming back slowly, very slowly, but it's far from its '40s heyday. And there's also no denying that the residents of this neighborhood deserve a library with all of the high-tech amenities available at the DPL's newer branches.

But a replica of Mayor Wellington Webb's office? Who moved that cheese?

"We could rename the city," says Councilman Ed Thomas, "but there already is a Wellington, Colorado."

Thomas not only supports the move to name the Civic Center building after Wellington Webb, but back in January floated the concept of naming the African-American library after First Lady Wilma Webb -- until all hell broke loose because he wasn't following "procedure."

Unlike city council, which may simply change procedure.

"We have not agreed politically on a lot of different things in the city," Thomas says, "but there's no denying that Webb and his family have done a lot for the city. I've got no problem with the building."

He does, however, have a problem with putting a replica of the mayor's office in the library that may or may not be named for Webb's wife. "One thing is fine," Thomas says. "Let's not get carried away."

But carried away we are. Plans call for the third floor of the 40,000-square-foot library to be a museum highlighting the contributions of Colorado's African-Americans. One of the most noteworthy, of course, is Wellington E. Webb, Denver's first black mayor, and so while other displays will alternate in this space, the Denver Library Commission has determined that one permanent exhibit should be a replica of Webb's office at City Hall.

It's supposed to be a scaled-down replica -- but at a planned 1,200 square feet, the exhibit could actually be a supersized version of the mayor's current pad, and bigger than many homes in Denver.

So there should be plenty of room for memorabilia from the Webb years, including the tennis shoes that were bronzed after they propelled Webb, the underdog, right past the favored candidate, District Attorney Norm Early, in the 1991 mayor's race. But there are likely to be historic holes in this piece of cheese. For example, don't expect to see the miniature Boeing aircraft that was hanging in the mayor's office last year -- before Boeing decided to put its headquarters in Chicago rather than Denver.

Boeing didn't realize that it was snubbing a "world-class city."

At the groundbreaking this past February, speeches hailed the African-American library's exhibition space, its free parking, its archive that would cover Colorado and the West. (It could have gone even further afield had Webb and Rick Ashton been successful in their attempt to buy the Montgomery, Alabama, bus on which civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat back in 1955. But when that artifact was auctioned off last fall, Denver dropped out of the bidding just short of $500,000.) Still, Webb touted the project as "regional and national in scope."

He forgot to take it global, even though just days before, the city's parking manager had done his best to remind everyone that Denver was now international, with a proposed new 7 a.m.- 11 p.m. parking plan in keeping with the city's "world-class status."

While city departments are in a hiring freeze (and parking manager John Oglesby is still frozen out of every public meeting), one office got a cheese delivery. In March, Denver's Office of Television and Internet Services was able to add a new, eighteen-month "transition position" and hire Dreux DeMack to fill it.

DeMack is now responsible for devising plans for OTIS's coverage of next May's elections -- and for producing a documentary about Denver from the '90s through today, a period that conveniently overlaps Webb's entire mayoral term. Working title: Denver: A World-Class City. Working budget: a rumored $200,000.

OTIS has made a documentary before; the one-hour Imagine a Great City took Denver from its founding in 1859 through the end of the '80s, when Peña ran out of road. For this second documentary, just over a decade will fill an hour. "Nothing has been more exciting than the last ten years," explains executive producer Byron West -- who should know, because she's been with the city for 23 years. The documentary should be completed by March 2003 -- two months before the next city election, which will replace not just Webb, but at least ten councilmembers. And so, it will capture the end of an entire era, West says: "It's not just about the mayor."

University of Colorado at Denver history professor Tom Noel has signed on to help, West adds, as has historian Barbara Gibson. But while Gibson did see an extensive, early outline of what might be included -- "How long is this documentary?" she remembers wondering -- she hasn't heard back from West's office.

Which could be a good thing, because as the new head of the LoDo District, Gibson might have other ideas for how Webb's final years in office should be remembered. With a gold-plated parking meter, for example, since LoDo businesses aren't happy with the plan Webb announced this week. (Over LoDo's protests, the meters went up to $1.50 an hour, but at least the hours of enforcement remained a less global 8 a.m. - 10 p.m.)

Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt has already been interviewed for the documentary. But the interview wasn't taped, which makes her wonder just how inclusive World-Class will be.

"At the end of a twelve-year reign, Wellington Webb has clearly left his footprints all over the city government, all over the city," she says. "It's kind of sad that he doesn't have more confidence in his legacy."

A former Peña staffer, Barnes-Gelt had never heard of Imagine a Great City, much less seen it.

To ensure that the second documentary reaches a wider audience, why not book nonstop showings of Denver: A World-Class City in Webb's mini-me office at the new library?


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