On Wednesday, February 23, Sharon Vigil and Scott Flores, the president and chairman of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, respectively, posed in front of the former Denver District Attorney's building at the busy corner of Colfax Avenue and Speer Boulevard. They were announcing that the Hispanic Chamber would be moving into the dilapidated structure and helping to renovate the building that had stood empty for years.
The old DA's building would finally become the cultural center that Denver's Hispanic community had long hoped for, they said. Corporate giants such as Coors, US West and AT&T were making sizable donations to see it happen. The center would be named for longtime Hispanic activist Bernie Valdez, who'd founded the Latin American Education Foundation to give scholarships to Latino students, helped guide the Denver school board through the tumultuous desegregation years of the 1970s, and also spent sixteen years running the Denver Department of Social Services.
But even though the structure is to be rechristened as a "Hispanic heritage center," it may wind up as an office building that has very little to do with Hispanic culture. And it turns out that $300,000 of the money being donated by AT&T was earmarked more than fifteen years ago for an entirely different project -- a Hispanic TV channel -- that now will never happen. That little part of Denver's Hispanic heritage is destined to remain forgotten.
In the late '70s and early '80s, cable television was a relatively new phenomenon, and Denver was an untapped market. Three companies vied to gain the franchise and win the right to install the new technology throughout the city: United Cable; Television and Teleprompter; and Mile Hi Cablevision, formed by late local cable magnate Bill Daniels along with American Television and Communications, a subsidiary of Time Inc. that owned HBO.
The Denver City Council pointed out that the city would "look with favor upon" a proposal that demonstrated "significant bona-fide investment" by local citizens. And so each of the three companies proposed ways to bring that about. Teleprompter offered to donate 20 percent of its earnings to a public trust. United proposed to sell 600,000 shares at $10 a share to 1,800 local people -- a 17 percent stake in the company.
Mile Hi's efforts were more focused: It offered 15 percent of its proposed franchise in the form of stock to a select 22 Denverites. Asking price: $100,000 per person. Mile Hi even offered to loan its prospective stockholders virtually the entire cost of the stock, a practice common in the industry but one that observers derisively dubbed "Rent-A-Citizen."
Another fact wasn't lost on Mile Hi: City officials also wanted to see adequate minority participation in the new franchise, so of the 22 people Mile Hi contacted, six were Latino and seven were black. Many of them were (and are) among Denver's minority elite: Hiawatha Davis, who was soon to begin a long run on the Denver City Council; Rachel Noel, then chair of the University of Colorado Board of Regents; broadcaster Reynelda Muse; lobbyist Maria Garcia (now Garcia Berry); and Ruben Valdez, who at the time was with the Colorado Department of Social Services. In 1980, the company threw a party for minority reporters to score points for its proposal, which weighed a total of forty pounds.
Going the extra mile paid off. On February 22, 1982, the city council voted to award its new cable franchise to Mile Hi. Litigation surrounding the language of the deal tied things up until June 1984, when voters finally approved the franchise deal. As part of the agreement, Mile Hi was to "provide a total of more than one million ($1,000,000.00) in loans, in-kind services and equity investments for developing a Hispanic entrepreneurial channel and a black entrepreneurial channel. The company also will commit five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00) to the formation of a business-development company to assist minority-owned small business."
The money earmarked for the minority-owned small business was later amended out of the franchise agreement, as Mile Hi looked for ways to reduce its financial commitment. But the Hispanic and black entrepreneurial channel requirements remained. Mile Hi was to help create two 24-hour cable channels fully dedicated to minority programming, and it had until June 1999 -- when its franchise deal with the city ran out -- to do so.
One channel would be run by African-American entrepreneurs, the other by Hispanic entrepreneurs. There would be no strings attached to Mile Hi's commitment -- just a half-million in financial support per channel, guaranteed. Mile Hi's money was never meant to be the sole source of income for either channel; it was merely intended to provide a head start for what were referred to as HEC and BEC. Mile Hi officials expected that the entrepreneurs at each channel would locate other investors or sources of funding. But the agreement was vaguely worded, and many people involved in the franchise fight debated whether it was a sincere effort at inclusion or only a sop to blacks and Latinos.
Either way, the idea was ahead of its time; Univision didn't start broadcasting in Denver until 1989. HEC and BEC were to air whatever programming the minority owners could buy or produce themselves -- but finding minority programmers with sufficient experience and access to revenue-generating advertisers was daunting in early-'80s Denver. Still, after years of false starts and litigation with would-be cable entrepreneurs, the Black Entrepreneurial Channel is scheduled to debut in the next few months (see sidebar).
The Hispanic Entrepreneurial Channel is another story.
Instead of seeking out qualified Hispanic entrepreneurs or companies, within a few months of inking the original cable agreement in 1982, Mile Hi signed an ill-conceived agreement with Altavision, a consortium of Latino investors who proposed to operate the Hispanic cable channel. None of the five men who had formed Altavision had any experience in television production: Al Cantu was an advertiser, Rich Castro was a state representative, John Soto was a mental-health department director, Manuel Maes worked in construction and Tomás Fernandez was an accountant.
"I don't recall any bid process," says one former Mile Hi exec, who requested anonymity. "This bid came together and it went from there. They [Altavision] were the only ones who stepped up."
"I think they [Mile Hi] were just reaching out and hoping they were going to touch gold," says Bill Bradley, who was director of the city's Office of Telecommunications at the time.
What Mile Hi touched ended up turning to dust. Altavision and Mile Hi clashed for almost a decade: Altavision continually claimed it was ready to proceed but that Mile Hi was holding up the money; Mile Hi countered that Altavision never put together a professional business plan detailing exactly how the money would be spent or what programs would go on the channel. According to the former Mile Hi exec, in one business plan submitted by Altavision, Al Cantu budgeted a $100,000 salary for himself as program manager. But the franchise agreement also required Mile Hi to provide more than $50,000 in production equipment to the Hispanic entrepreneurial challenge, and Mile Hi never provided any such equipment.
While Altavision focused on the loan provision in the franchise agreement, expecting cash to get the channel up and running, Mile Hi was more interested in providing in-kind services, such as hiring someone to "coach" the minority entrepreneurs. "The company was not real eager to put out a half-million in cold, hard cash in something that was not a proven entity," says Chris Curtis, who succeeded Bradley as director of the city's Office of Telecommunications. "They felt it would be throwing money away."
In a memo that summarized the history of the HEC deal, Curtis wrote that the contract between Altavision and Mile Hi was "very poorly written" and contained neither requirements for the fulfillment of HEC nor a termination clause in case things didn't work out. "It is very apparent that even Mile Hi lawyers did not see the contract before it was signed. Be that as it may, they had to live with it."
Correspondence between the two sides, Curtis pointed out, indicated that Mile Hi added one set of constraints after another, "requiring business plans over and above what was contained in the agreement." Elsewhere, though, he noted that because Altavision "couldn't get their act together, Mile Hi refused to give [loan] them any money. I wouldn't have, either." Through all of this, the city's hands were tied: It could not force Mile Hi to negotiate with anyone else; Mile Hi's hands were tied as well, since it had no way to get out of its own contract with Altavision.
In 1990, the principals of Altavision split up in an attempt to bring more capable people on board and broaden cultural programming, but the newly constituted group was still unable to come to terms with the cable company. Altavision's attorney, David Goldberg, says an unfavorable business atmosphere in the early '90s didn't help. "I think we were naive when we stepped up to the plate to get it done," he explains. "The reality in the early '90s was not feasible. Programming was expensive and there was not much of it, and to produce our own programming would have been very expensive, too." Besides, advertising revenue was limited due to a small niche audience and those few businesses that could afford to advertise.
By 1993, Mile Hi was working hard to get out of the Altavision agreement. In March of that year, TCI purchased Mile Hi Cablevision and assumed its HEC obligations. (In documents, the cable company was still referred to as Mile Hi.) The following year, Mile Hi and Altavision reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount; one former TCI official says it was in the neighborhood of $250,000. Although it might appear as if the Altavision partners were nicely compensated for doing absolutely nothing, Goldberg says the settlement was fair. "I think these individuals stepped up to the plate and took a lot of risk, invested a lot of time and money. They were trying to create value for the community."
The agreement was interpreted differently by each of the parties, however. "This channel should have been awarded back in '83 or '84," says Albert Gonzales, who joined Altavision to help work out the settlement. "It was settled in the '90s. That's an indication that that door was never going to open. I do not think it was because of inexperience of the principals. The industry was very new at the time -- there was a lot of opportunity and there wasn't a huge amount of experience in the minority community. It was an entrepreneur channel."
Although Mile Hi argued that the settlement fulfilled its HEC obligations as outlined in the original franchise agreement, the Denver City Attorney's Office disagreed. The city concluded that Mile Hi had not met those obligations, and still had to make $500,000 available for a Hispanic channel. That set the stage for the cable company to seek out a new HEC operator by opening a bidding process, but Mile Hi never contacted any other Hispanic entrepreneur or business; nor did one surface independently. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega says Mile Hi was unable to find someone who was "going to step to the table with additional investment to make the channel work."
Instead, during the lengthy impasse, Mile Hi officials began thinking about ways to get out of the minority-programming provisions of the cable franchise once and for all. In September 1995, Mile Hi CEO Fred Dressler wrote a letter discussing possible revisions to the agreement with the city. Dressler argued that his customers shouldn't have to pay for channels like HEC or BEC that couldn't sustain themselves financially. "These items would significantly add to our customers' costs without adding value," he wrote.
In April 1995, Andrew Hudson, then a member of the Denver Cable Board (now Mayor Wellington Webb's spokesman), followed the same line of reasoning in a letter to Councilman Hiawatha Davis. Although the original franchise "seemed visionary" when it was drafted, Hudson wrote, "it has become evident to the Cable Board that after more than twelve years since the franchise was written, the prospects for the minority entrepreneur channels becoming a reality are very unlikely."
Instead, Hudson floated the idea of "a scholarship in lieu of the minority entrepreneur channel franchise requirements." Mile Hi/TCI did provide scholarships for a few years, but its final wiggle out of the franchise agreement -- at least as it involved the Hispanic channel -- didn't come until last year, when AT&T bought TCI. By then, the city's cable contract was in the midst of a three-year renewal process. The city extended the franchise for six months, until the last day of last year.
Councilwoman Ramona Martinez, who along with Ortega helped negotiate the new cable franchise, says it was clear by the early months of 1999 that the Hispanic cable channel was dead. "Mile Hi absolutely told me in no uncertain terms they felt they had no obligation to us at all, that there was never, ever going to be a channel. They made that absolutely clear." What's more, she adds, "I didn't get any positive response from the city attorneys that they were willing to go after Mile Hi."
So Martinez and Ortega started considering other options. "Otherwise, that money was going to remain in the pockets of AT&T and that would be the end of it," says Ortega. Martinez, Ortega and Dean Smits, the city's current telecommunications director, began brainstorming ideas and came up with the idea of a cash donation to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "As we talked about a lot of different ideas, we wanted something that would have a lasting presence," Ortega says. "This seemed to be the most logical idea."
AT&T contacted the Hispanic Chamber about spending the cable money earmarked for HEC on something other than HEC, and by the end of last summer the ideas were hammered into an agreement: AT&T would contribute $300,000 to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Of that, $250,000 would go toward building a Hispanic heritage center. Within a few weeks of signing the deal with AT&T, the Hispanic Chamber decided to move into the old DA's building -- which would become the Heritage Center.
"It made perfect sense," says Scott Flores, the chairman of the Hispanic Chamber. "It was God's will."
The agreement made sure to note that "Mile Hi, which operates locally under the name AT&T, will be given appropriate space at the Hispanic Heritage Center for acknowledgment of the donation, commensurate to donors of similar funds." The Hispanic Chamber was charged with administering the remaining $50,000 in the form of a grant to a Hispanic organization specializing in "cable, video, telecommunications, Internet or other advanced telecommunications products and/or services."
Last December, the city's Office of Telecommunications confirmed that the arrangement satisfied the HEC obligations. Even though fifteen years earlier the Denver City Council and Denver voters had approved a plan that would have funded a Hispanic cable channel, on January 21 of this year AT&T presented a $300,000 check to Sharon Vigil, president of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, that put an end to any thought of HEC.
The city believes that the cable provider made a good-faith effort to secure the HEC, Smits says. AT&T spokesman Matt Fleurry says the company did the right thing by contributing to the Hispanic Chamber. "We worked very hard to assure, not only in the early stages but later toward the end, that we were responding to the spirit of the commitment," says Fleurry. "We asked members of the community and city leaders to help us to assure that we satisfied the letter of the commitment and the spirit of the commitment. We forged this agreement after close and careful consultation with community leaders and regulators at city hall."
"The larger council relied on team negotiation," says Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt. "Everyone was comfortable and nobody squawked."
Nobody may have squawked then, but critics have since complained that the letter of the 1984 agreement was not met. The franchise language says nothing about money going to a local chamber of commerce. "That money from AT&T should have stayed in the public-access realm," says Pierre Jimenez, a longtime Latino-rights activist and current deputy director of the governor's Office of Economic Development.
"I would imagine it doesn't fit the franchise," former telecommunications director Curtis says of the DA building deal.
The old Denver District Attorney's building is three forlorn stories of brown brick. Scaffolding covers half of the structure; most of the big windows are either boarded up or broken. Beer bottles are scattered in the parking lot. The neat lawn on the north side is fenced off and covered with lumber and steel pipes, which will become the rest of the scaffolding. Nonetheless, some regality remains -- the inset blue-green diamonds and squares, the herringbone pattern of brown brick angling across the top, the still-intact city seal -- artful touches that distinguish most early-twentieth-century architecture from today's bland buildings.
Built in 1922, the building also served as Denver's courthouse and jail. It's been unoccupied since 1984, when the DA's office decamped for newer digs closer to the City and County Building.
Latinos who remembered how much of the neighborhood had been bulldozed to make way for the Auraria Campus in the 1970s paid close attention to the status of the now-empty building. Ken Sandoval, the former head of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Coalition, was one of the first to take an active interest in the structure. In the fall of 1991, he suggested it could not only serve as the new home for CHAC, but as a cultural arts center as well. Sandoval says CHAC even negotiated with the family of legendary Chicano activist Corky Gonzales, founder of the Crusade for Justice, to use the building as a repository for Gonzales's papers as well as for artwork that Gonzales had collected over the years.
But Sandoval soon found out that Councilwoman Ramona Martinez had her own ideas for the building. She'd already contacted other groups about becoming tenants in the building, he says. Those groups included the Hispanic League, the American GI Forum, Brothers Redevelopment Inc. and the Genealogical Society of Hispanic America.
Martinez says she got involved with the project after her office began receiving calls from Hispanic nonprofits that were looking for a way to buy property. Inspired by recent Hispanic cultural centers opening up in San Antonio and Albuquerque, she asked the city about the courthouse. "That's where I got the idea for that building," she explains, "as a great place for us to have a home."
"They started promoting it as a cultural center," Sandoval says, "but we said, 'Where's the cultural-heritage part of it?' It's a buzzword that could be interpreted by the community as something they would want to get behind. All it was was a bunch of for-profits and one nonprofit [the Genealogical Society] leasing space in a public building."
CHAC backed off, and in June 1993 the city put the building's redevelopment to bid. Despite all of the interest from the Hispanic community, it looked like a residential plan proposed by Tom and Rike Wootton, a local father-son development team, would win the building. But that fall Martinez persuaded Mayor Wellington Webb to reopen the bid process so that National Image, a nonprofit Hispanic advocacy group, could get a bid in. Founded in 1972 to address the needs of Latino employees of the federal government, National Image had since expanded its efforts to encompass education, job training and civil-rights issues for all Hispanics. The organization was relocating to Denver from Washington, D.C., and looking for a new home. It sounded as if it fell into the mix of organizations Martinez was working with.
Although the city still found the Wootton plan superior, Martinez was able to get the city to extend the finalization of the deal twice more in order to give National Image time to come up with a better proposal.
Martinez denies bullying the process. She thought she had a commitment from city officials to pursue the building as a heritage center, she says, but a leadership change at the city's asset-management department resulted in mixed signals. "When asset-management personnel changed, I was assuming they were still pursuing this whole issue with the community," she says. Then when the Woottons submitted their plan to convert the building into a residential project, "I was surprised. I did not know that was going on. So when it came before council I said, 'Wait a minute.'"
Ultimately, Martinez was able to get the Woottons off the project entirely and National Image on. But since National Image was unwilling to take on debt to buy and renovate the building, it had to rely on donations. "National Image's constituency is national federal employees," says Sandoval, "but it doesn't do a good job promoting itself in the community. They probably find it easier to approach large corporate sponsors. That's probably the right thing for them."
Fundraising was slow. It wasn't until 1998 that Coors donated $410,000 -- the building's purchase price -- to National Image. That gift triggered others. Last March, US West stepped forward with a $500,000 grant. Alvarado Construction became involved and pledged $200,000, and AT&T's franchise-deal contribution brought the funds available for renovation to more than $1 million. Originally, National Image had estimated the project at $2.5 million and anticipated being in the building by August 1998. Now the renovation costs stand at between $3 million and $3.5 million; the Hispanic Chamber has raised only half that amount but believes it can raise the rest before the year is out.
Toby Rodriguez, who worked as an architect on the project, says the building was supposed to be home for "several Hispanic organizations, service organizations, all in one place, so they could pool secretaries and office equipment. The Heritage Center was just one component." According to a business plan drawn up for the center, the building was intended to be used as an "office incubator" that would also house a "collection and display of archival documents and artifacts from the Hispanic community."
"It's our intent to make it a heritage center," says Alberto Rocha, national chairman and CEO for National Image. "I envision a community resource center where people can find out about employment and education. We're going to fulfill our mission with that."
As for tenants, both Rocha and his point man in Denver, William Peno, say they have no one specific in mind. "I really honestly have no idea," says Peno. "Tentatively the only ones I know are the Denver Hispanic Chamber, ourselves -- probably two or three other groups. Outside of that I have no idea who else might be coming in."
Latino arts groups have become increasingly skeptical about the whole project, which they say now sounds more like an office complex than any kind of cultural center. In the mid-'90s, El Centro Su Teatro director Tony Garcia began getting calls from people wanting to talk about El Centro's involvement in the Heritage Center -- "which would have been okay," he says, "only I've never had a conversation with the Hispanic Chamber about anything. Not arts programming, not their relationship to the community.
"Selling it as an arts center does a disservice," he continues. "It's as though we never existed or contributed." Given the Coors donation and the company's reputation, he adds, he wouldn't have brought his theater in, anyway.
"My sense at that time was they were misrepresenting what they were planning there," says Jose Aguayo, director of the Museo de las Américas. "They were using the name of Bernie Valdez and calling it a cultural center, and there was no intention of doing it."
The center's initial business plan noted that the building is within walking distance of the Museo and could help boost Museo visitorship "by making space available for crowd-enticing mini exhibits." Despite the fact that the Museo had already been "announced" as one of the tenants without Aguayo's knowledge, at the Hispanic Chamber's request he penned an endorsement for the proposed Heritage Center. He says he thought it sounded like a good idea, even if he had no intention of bringing his own museum on board. By then, the Museo was in the process of purchasing a building of its own on Santa Fe Drive. "It didn't make any sense for us to lease space from them when we were buying our own," Aguayo explains.
Potential funders feel good about supporting a heritage center, Aguayo adds, but "may not be as open to supporting an office building." And if corporate and arts money starts going to a Hispanic heritage center, that may hinder other Hispanic organizations from receiving donations. "We're all going after the same funding," he says. "If they were to succeed in portraying themselves as a heritage center, certainly the potential funders are going to have make a decision. They're not going to fund everybody."
Without the support of his organization or the Museo, says El Centro's Garcia, the Heritage Center couldn't succeed as a cultural common ground. "An arts center has to produce art, not just present it. The community-based art is part of the Chicano/Latino aesthetic. If it's just presenting things, it's just the Auditorium Arena, or the Pepsi Center."
Those involved in negotiations to put the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in the old DA's building argue that the deal is a fair swap: A Hispanic heritage center instead of a Hispanic cable channel. "I think the Heritage Center means a lot to our community. It's a wonderful opportunity," says the Hispanic Chamber's Sharon Vigil.
Provided, of course, it actually becomes a heritage center. That small matter is by no means settled in Denver's Latino community. Veronica Barela, the head of NEWSED, an economic-development nonprofit for Latino residents on Denver's west side, notes that there now are no arts or cultural groups connected to the proposed project. "It's fine if they want to build a small-business center," says Barela, "but call it what it is. It's become a real embarrassment in the community. It's become a real faux pas."
National Image's Peno may have "no idea" as to the center's possible tenants, but according to the Hispanic Chamber, the Latin American Education Fund has signed on in addition to the Hispanic Chamber and National Image. Flores says he's also received verbal commitments from the Asian Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Native American Chamber of Commerce and the Denver Minority Business Development Center to move into the building that should be completed later this year. "Our Latinos used to be processed there and put in jail," says Flores. "Now we've turned it into a positive. I've spoken with a lot of Latino groups. The vast majority are totally behind the project."
CHAC's Sandoval is optimistic that the building will open eventually. "I believe it probably will, and I hope it becomes some kind of healing mechanism," he says. "I'm pleased Bob and Linda [Alvarado] have stepped forward to act as some kind of catalyst. Until we see some visible evidence that the project is moving along, the community believes it's an open sore."
But the lingering dispute over the old DA's building continues to obscure a largely unknown part of that community's heritage -- the fact that Denver's Hispanics were supposed to have their own cable-TV channel before last year ran out. "Most people don't know that was part of the franchise," says LeRoy Lemos, who also works for NEWSED. "I think if people knew, they'd be angry the information wasn't put out there."
Far from losing out on a cable channel, Vigil counters, in the years since the franchise was written, Spanish-language stations Univision and Telemundo have come into the market and now serve Denver's Latino community. (Black Entertainment Television does the same for African-Americans.) "We have coverage," says Vigil. "I absolutely support those two stations."
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But those stations don't provide the range of local programming that the HEC might have. (Univision does provide local news, but the programs are all Spanish -- which not all Hispanics speak.) And while the Hispanic market was considered a small niche back when HEC was conceived, that's far from the case now. The purchasing power of Colorado Hispanics in 1998 stood at $6.5 billion, says Yrma Rico, the general manager of KCEC Channel 50, the Denver affiliate of Univision. Rico has been in Denver for eleven years and remembers the days when major advertisers inked month-to-month deals. Now most are signing up for at least a year -- a sign that advertisers have seen the growth of the Latino market and realize it can no longer be ignored.
Still, city officials are happy with the deal. The cable provider tried to do a Hispanic channel, they say. It didn't work, and that's life. "There are casualties in business," says Smits. "We viewed it as a business casualty."
An intentional casualty, says Curtis, who's now a television producer in Lakewood. Mile Hi saw the Hispanic channel deal as an "anvil" it was always "trying to get out from under. They could have been far more generous with the minority community."