Aurora, Colorado, is not a place you'd pick for your weekend getaway. There's nothing breathtaking about the pawn shops, thrift stores and hair salons that line Colfax Avenue, once the Denver suburb's main drag. Aurora isn't an iconic ski destination, either; there are no mountains here, no Heidi Klum or Mariah Carey dressed in stylish snow pants and spandex onesies, mugging for the paparazzi. Nor is the city a tableau of frontier beauty. When the sun sets, it does so largely behind car dealerships, strip malls and neighborhoods of apartments and fenced-in single-family homes.
The folks backing Visit Aurora, the city's year-old tourism organization, know this. But they're hell-bent on selling Aurora anyway. "That's kind of our motto around here: We all sell," says Gary Wheat, the crisply dressed president of the group. A polite guy with an honest face and a Southern accent, he looks a bit like a grown-up Opie Taylor. "Because at the end of the day, we want people staying at our hotels, eating at our restaurants, shopping at our venues and experiencing all that Aurora has to offer."
What is that, exactly? Visit Aurora keeps an inventory that includes a few gems: the historic Aurora Fox theater, the 1,100-acre Plains Conservation Center, the Dry Dock Brewing microbrewery and the beach-like Aurora Reservoir. Its website also lists some duds (an old schoolhouse, three libraries and Buckley Air Force Base, which you can't get onto without a military ID) and some attractions that aren't even in Aurora, such as the Mizel Museum, a tribute to Jewish history located across the border in Denver, and the Wild Animal Sanctuary, home to 25 rescued circus lions 45 minutes away in Keenesburg.
More important to Visit Aurora, however, are the city's 3,800 hotel rooms, its booming medical facilities and its immaculately manicured sports fields. The organization's strategy is to attract visitors from several niche demographics, including small and somewhat obscure conferences, sick people (and their loved ones) who come to be treated at the city's top-notch hospitals, and huge youth sports tournaments.
It's not a thrilling plan, but it is realistic and well thought-out. Plus, Wheat says, it's virtually recession-proof. "People may be cutting out their family vacation," he says, "but they're going to follow their children to watch them play ball."
And when it comes to grabbing a slice of Colorado's billion-dollar tourism industry, playing ball is exactly what Aurora hopes to do.
Since its founding in 1891, Aurora has sat in Denver's shadow. Its second-fiddle status is documented in Aurora: Gateway to the Rockies, published in 1985 and regarded as the most complete written history of the city. The Aurora History Museum sells faded paperback copies for $3, marked down from $10. The foreword to the book was written by then-mayor Dennis Champine, a flawed city cheerleader who is commemorated by a plaque at the museum. It reads: "Rising from humble roots to become a successful businessman in Aurora, his term was marred by a minor criminal record, an investigation into nepotism and inappropriate behavior. In 1979, he punched the City Attorney in the face. Despite his faults, he fought hard for Aurora's identity, wanting to wrestle culture, tourism and influence away from the dominant city to the West."
Aurora's founders were wily businessmen who bought up farm and ranch land east of Denver and advertised its potential as a "satellite city" full of "electric lights," "rapid transit" and "pure water." When none of that turned out to be true, Aurora turned to the "dominant city to the West" for help. In 1897, the town's residents voted to be annexed by Denver. The big city declined the offer but did agree to sell water to the still-tiny suburb, thus controlling Aurora's growth for decades.
Early Aurorans depended on Denver for entertainment and jobs, too. During World War I, it was the Denver Chamber of Commerce that raised the money for what would become the Fitzsimons Army hospital, a huge economic boon to Aurora. Similarly, it was Denver muscle that persuaded the military to build the Lowry and Buckley Air Force bases, which caused the population of Aurora to swell. In 1948, Aurora's mayor proudly told the Denver Post that the fast-growing suburb had become the home of the "working man." But the working man didn't embrace Aurora as much as Aurora embraced him. Most residents claimed to live in Denver, according to Aurora: Gateway to the Rockies, which is full of self-deprecating prose: "Except when pressed to be specific, they did not say they lived in Aurora." The suburb was losing its sense of community, the book notes, fueled partly by the construction of dozens of "shopettes" which replaced the old-timey downtown that had once thrived along Colfax.
One of Aurora's claims to fame was a stay by President Dwight Eisenhower, who had a heart attack in 1955 while vacationing in Denver, where his wife's parents lived. He recuperated at Fitzsimons and, for a moment, Aurora became Washington, D.C.
But it didn't last long. Though Aurora eventually dug its own reservoirs and developed its own infrastructure, it never became exciting.
It came close in 1979, when a Hollywood stuntman named Jerry Schafer showed up with a plan for an amusement park three times the size of Disneyland. Called Science Fiction Land, it was to feature a 38-story Ferris wheel, a holographic zoo, a 1,000-lane bowling alley attended by robots, security guards equipped with jetpacks, and the "Pavilions of Joy," made up of fourteen Las Vegas-style dinner theaters. The park was also to serve as the set for the most expensive movie of all time, a $50 million sci-fi flick called Lord of Light. The script was being written by an unknown named Barry Ira Gellar, whom the Rocky Mountain News deduced had been, until recently, living in a "dilapidated, cockroach-infested basement apartment" in Hollywood.
The whole thing turned out to be a scam. Schafer and Gellar had lied about having a $400 million line of credit to build the park, a fact that local reporters quickly sniffed out. Their principal investor was an immigrant who barely spoke English, and both men were arrested for convincing him to give up his life savings of $50,000. Aurora officials got caught in the scandal, too. Four dignitaries, including former mayor Fred Hood, were indicted for trying to use inside information to buy land adjacent to the proposed park in the hope of making a profit. One accused city councilman resigned in disgrace.
Malls became Aurora's principal diversion. According to another plaque at the Aurora History Museum, the 1990s saw the rise of "large strip shopping centers, containing grocery stores, movie theaters and fast food restaurants," which became "the neighborhood centers at prominent intersections." The exhibits at the museum suggest that Aurorans' cultural entertainment was similarly mundane. The glass case representing the '90s contains a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pez dispenser, an "Earring Magic" Ken doll and a football stamped with replica signatures of the 1996 Denver Broncos.
That's not to say that Aurora wasn't trying. In 1985, then-mayor Champine explored bringing a major-league baseball team to Aurora, and developers and the city have tried repeatedly to build a NASCAR track in the area. In 1995, the city council appointed the first-ever Visitors Promotion Advisory Board, a volunteer group made up of representatives from the city's hotels, downtown businesses and the chamber of commerce tasked with bringing more tourists to the city. The board focused mostly on the construction of the Aurora Sports Park, a sprawling outdoor complex offering 35 well-manicured playing fields that was funded by a bond issue and built in 2002.
"Once we had that, we were able to recruit large softball and soccer tournaments," says Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. "If you're a parent and you've ever traveled with these teams, you realize how much money they spend on gasoline and lodging." After a while, the board developed a strategy: Go after girls' tournaments. "When we would go after boys' tournaments, the parents would sometimes say, 'The coach is a good supervisor. We don't have to attend,'" Hougen explains. "But when young ladies attended, the whole family did."
Soon, the Sports Park was hosting a couple hundred thousand people a year. But Aurora wanted more. The city's businesses, medical and military facilities were growing, bringing more travelers to Aurora. In 2007, the University of Colorado opened a brand-new hospital on the site of the former Fitzsimons Army hospital, now known as the Anschutz Medical Campus. The Children's Hospital opened that same year, and a new Veterans Affairs Medical Center is expected to open in 2015. In addition, the Raytheon Company expanded its campus in Aurora, points out city spokeswoman Kim Stuart, and there has been massive construction at Buckley Air Force Base, which became an "active-duty" base in 2000. "With all that occurring at the same time, the council decided it was time to establish a full-time destination marketing organization," Stuart says.
Visit Aurora was born in 2010 as a nonprofit funded by a percentage of Aurora's 8 percent tax on hotel stays. The lodgers' tax had been adopted way back in 1983 to fund a tourism bureau. But a souring economy forced city officials to divert the money to more pressing needs, such as street maintenance and firefighters, Hougen says. As the economy recovered, the city was able to use a portion of the lodgers' tax to support the Visitors Promotion Advisory Board. Last year, the tax netted $4.4 million, 10 percent of which went to Visit Aurora, which gets some money from other city funds as well.
The 41-year-old Wheat was Visit Aurora's first employee. He came to Aurora from Longmont, where he'd served as the executive director of the Longmont Area Visitors Association. But before he was ever a tourism guy, he was a sports guy. Wheat started his career at the University of Southern Mississippi and Virginia Tech, doing media and marketing for the schools' sports teams. When his parents fell ill a few years later, he took a sports-tourism job in Tupelo, Mississippi, to be closer to them. "I just fell into it backwards by accident and found out I loved it and enjoyed it," he says.
From Mississippi, Wheat jumped to visitor bureaus in Waterloo, Iowa, and South Bend, Indiana, before migrating west to Colorado to be near his brother, who owns a guest ranch here. He started the Longmont visitors' association from scratch but was only there for two years before accepting the gig in Aurora, which has more than three times as many people. Aurora has a population of 335,105, making it the third-largest Colorado city behind Colorado Springs (416,000) and Denver (600,000).
Wheat opened shop at Visit Aurora in December 2010. One of his first calls was to Dan Gaudreau, a local electrical contractor who owns the Rocky Mountain Lifting Club, a cavernous gym next to a Holiday Inn in central Aurora.
It's chilly inside the Rocky Mountain Lifting Club, but the dozen burly lifters dusted with grip-enhancing chalk still turn red when they attempt to hoist 680 pounds off the floor. In the corner room where the most hard-core weightlifting takes place, a Hank Williams Jr. song twangs loudly from an old-school boombox that sits on a shelf next to bottles of Lander's Baby Powder — "Soft as a Mother's Love" — which the athletes use to coat their thighs to avoid chafing on the deadlift. The room smells like a combination of wintergreen Bengay and burning wires from an overhead light that blew out earlier.
Most of the lifters here tonight are men. The exception is Gaudreau's wife, Jennifer, described lovingly by a male gym member as "one of the strongest chicks in Colorado." Despite the grunting and shouting — "Come on, Tom! Don't lift it with the back! Drive the hips forward! Hips, Tom!" — the gym is not a testosterone-fest. It's more of a family affair. The Gaudreaus' five-year-old son, Logan, whose finger paintings decorate Dan's office, is there most nights, driving his toy cars on the gym equipment while his parents work out. Other members bring their kids, too.
Wheat got in touch with Gaudreau because he'd heard that the strongman had an idea that fit perfectly with his vision for Aurora tourism.
"My philosophy has always been that tourism starts in your own community," Wheat says. "One of the things I like to do is meet with groups, or speak to groups, or network with people and find out about what associations they belong to; what things do they do? A lot of times, it's never even occurred to them to host something in their own city."
But it had occurred to the Gaudreaus. Both are champions in the sport of powerlifting, which consists of three events: the bench press, the squat and the deadlift. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger, only better. Dan Gaudreau can squat 840 pounds and bench 725, which is way more than the Governator ever could. At 320 pounds himself, Gaudreau wears his head bald and his chin scruffy. His body resembles that of a shark walking upright: belly sticking out, shoulders pulled back, feet widely planted.
Jennifer is petite. Short, with curly brown hair and a cheery disposition, it's hard to tell that she can squat 397 pounds until you see her in gym clothes. Her thighs are made of sculpted muscle and her arms have zero fat on them. An Aurora middle-school teacher, she often arrives at the gym still wearing mascara, eyeliner and earrings. Her nails are manicured, but her knees are scarred from sports-related surgery.
"Dan and I had talked about putting on a world championship before, for a couple years," Jennifer says. The two had been hosting national meets for a while, but, as Dan explains, putting on an international meet is different. "It's very important to have a partnership with communities," Dan explains. He'd tried before, inquiring with the Metro Denver Sports Commission about supporting a bid, but he got nowhere.
"To be honest, Denver is looking at bigger fish to fry," Dan says. "Denver's got four major-league sports teams. They look at NBA All-Star games, Major League Baseball — so they're not looking at, we're going to have 200 athletes from around the world come here to compete in powerlifting."
But Aurora was. Wheat and his staff of two jumped at the chance to lure the world's strongest men and women to their city. They began talking to local hotels big enough to house the event and, together with Aurora Channel 8, put together a two-minute video that splices scenic shots of Aurora with footage from Gaudreau's gym. In November, Visit Aurora sent a representative to the Czech Republic with Gaudreau to present a bid to the International Powerlifting Federation. The Gaudreaus were after the 2014 Men's and Women's Open World Championships, the big kahuna of powerlifting tournaments. But at the last minute, they also bid on the 2012 World Masters Bench Press Championships, a competition for athletes over forty years old. Aurora was granted both tournaments.
They were the first big events that Visit Aurora helped land, and they'll be the first world championships of any kind hosted in the city. Having representatives from Aurora in the Czech Republic to support the bid sealed the deal, the Gaudreaus say.
"When the IPF saw the presentation they put on about Aurora...," Dan starts.
"And that Aurora paid to have them to go out there to do it...," Jennifer interjects.
"They were impressed," Dan finishes.
Wheat says it was an easy call. Visit Aurora's budget is about $550,000 a year, most of it revenue from the lodgers' tax. By comparison, the budget for neighboring Visit Denver, which was established in 1909, was $17.5 million last year. Given Visit Aurora's limited resources, Wheat says, "we have to prioritize and get the most bang for our buck." And the cost of a plane ticket to the Czech Republic promised to bring a lot of bang to the city: as many as 2,000 international fans and competitors could attend the 2014 championship, and Wheat estimates they might spend up to $3 million during their short stay. "They come and stay in the hotels and compete," Wheat says, "and they like to eat, because they're big, strong people, so the restaurants like them."
So do the bars. On a chilly Wednesday afternoon, Wheat, Gaudreau and Visit Aurora marketing director Briley Peters meet with John Fenstermacher, manager of the Stampede, an enormous country bar on the edge of town. Sunlight streams through the dance hall's big windows, illuminating the deflated mechanical bull and the circular dance floor. The clinking of beer bottles echoes as bartenders stock up for the night, and the smell of cooking grease hangs in the air. Fenstermacher leads the Visit Aurora contingent to a table on the second floor, which overlooks the dance floor.
"I'm trying to figure out who the weightlifter is here," he says. Fenstermacher, who's hardly a cowboy, points to Gaudreau, who's dressed in work boots, a T-shirt and jeans, a cell phone and tape measure strapped to his belt. "I think I got the one."
"No, I'm a figure skater!" Gaudreau jokes.
Wheat, wearing a tie and cuff links, gently launches into his pitch. The 2012 World Masters Bench Press Championships are scheduled for three days starting April 20 at the Red Lion Hotel, he says, and it's expected to draw 250 powerlifters from thirty countries, plus their families. "What we're looking for is a place for them to unwind," he says. "We wanted to see if you'd be interested in having them roll in."
"We'd love to have them," Fenstermacher says, agreeing to waive the cover charge and hang a banner welcoming the foreigners to Aurora, Colorado.
That's exactly what Gaudreau hoped to hear. "When somebody from Russia thinks of Colorado, this is what they're going to think of," he says. "Their eyes are going to open wide when they see them going around the dance floor."
At the end of twenty minutes, everyone shakes hands. "We're going to throw one hell of a party," Fenstermacher says. For Wheat, however, it's about more than just a single night of fun. The meeting gives him an opportunity to meet Fenstermacher face to face, which his how Wheat likes to do business, and assure him that Visit Aurora has big plans. "We'll be coming back to you with the fruits of our sales," he promises.
In 2011, those fruits equated to 12,055 new "room nights," which is how visitors' bureaus nationwide measure their success. A room night is a one-night stay at a hotel, and it's counted by the year in which the event is booked. For example, Visit Denver's new-room-night total for 2011 was a whopping 640,995, though that includes nights connected with events booked as far in advance as 2031, says spokesman Rich Grant.
Aurora's 12,055 new room nights can be attributed to several new events attracted by the three-person team at Visit Aurora — Wheat, marketing director Peters and sales director Kate Bleakley — mostly through shmoozing meeting planners and event coordinators nationwide. The new events include: the Senior Softball U.S.A. Western National Championships, a tournament for men over 50 and women over 45, which will take place in early August at the Aurora Sports Park; and the USSSA Baseball West Coast Global World Series, a youth baseball tournament slated for late July. (It should be noted that USSSA Baseball's website lists the tournament's location as Denver.)
And while they're not yet booking events twenty years out like Visit Denver, Visit Aurora has started on 2013 with the annual convention for the American Cichlid Association. This confab of freshwater-fish-lovers will draw upwards of 500 people — and their cichlids, some shipped in boxes labeled "Live Tropical Fish," others driven (carefully!) in tanks — from around the country. Similar to the genesis of the powerlifting tournaments, the convention's path to Aurora started with a fanatic.
Bob Grauer lives with his wife, their cat and thousands of fish (he doesn't know exactly how many) in a well-appointed house in southeast Denver, three miles from the Aurora border. But don't make the mistake of assuming he lives in the suburb. "This isn't technically Denver," he says when asked about where he lives. "It is Denver."
His testiness is somewhat understandable. Aurora, he says, doesn't have the best reputation, a phenomenon he attributes to "the gangs" and the Denver newspapers, which he says write about Aurora only when someone gets murdered. Though civic boosters are quick to point out that crime doesn't happen as often in Aurora as it does in, ahem, Denver, there's a perception that the city is dangerous; after all, all three of Colorado's death-row inmates committed their crimes in Aurora, and the city is also home to more accused terrorists — Najibullah Zazi, Jamshid Muhtorov — than you'd expect from a ho-hum suburb in a square state in the middle of the country.
"I've been here a lot of years," Grauer says. "When people think of Aurora anymore, they don't think good things."
So when Grauer and a fellow fish enthusiast set about finding a hotel to host the 2013 convention (this year's gathering is in Indianapolis in July), they mostly looked in Denver. It wasn't easy, he says. "Some hotels didn't even bother to get back to us." Then, someone — he can't remember who — recommended he give Visit Aurora a call. Soon, Wheat's staff had generated a list of hotels that fit Grauer's criteria: cheap rooms and enough space to set up hundreds of freshwater fish tanks. "It was almost like they were our eyes," he says of Visit Aurora. "They made our lives easier."
Now Grauer can concentrate on what he does best: breeding cichlids, a family of fish made up of more than 1,300 species, the most famous of which are angelfish. He first got into fish about forty years ago, after admiring a friend's tank. By the time he got divorced from his first wife, he had seven or eight tanks of his own, which he gave away to schools when he was forced to downsize. Grauer rekindled his love for cichlids when he married his current wife, who suggested that "a fish tank would be nice." Soon, Grauer had tanks in every room of the house, a menagerie he eventually moved to the basement. "This is the best hobby I could have," he says. And how does he justify it to his wife? "I say, 'I could gamble. I could drink. I could chase women. But if you wake up in the middle of the night and I'm not there, you know I'm downstairs in my fish room.'"
The air inside that room is hot and thick, and PVC pipes run along the ceiling, pumping oxygen into 85 tanks balanced on shelves made out of cinderblocks and planks of wood. Pink Floyd blasts from an iPod set next to a contraption that's boiling brine shrimp to hatch them so they can be fed to baby fish. Grauer is obviously an expert, especially in regard to breeding. "I can tell when they're ready to have babies, because, as I say, they put on their colors," he says, pointing to a tank. "See that one? He's dressed up for Saturday night." And he takes his hobby seriously: He never names his fish, and if a fish is deformed or sick, he kills it so it doesn't spoil the gene pool.
That's not to say he doesn't love them. Standing in front of a tank full of shiny blue-and-orange fish, he coos, "I could sit in front of this tank and space out all day."
Aside from counting room nights, it can be tough to quantify Visit Aurora's success. One way would be in enthusiasm, which has grown over Visit Aurora's short life span. At first, city officials, businesspeople and even hotel managers admit, they were skeptical.
"We're not known as a tourist destination," says Dick Hinson, the senior vice president of the Aurora Economic Development Council. When the city announced it was launching Visit Aurora, he says, "a lot of people's first reaction was, 'Really?'"
Kevin DeLange, who owns Dry Dock Brewing, thought the same thing. When Wheat asked him, the city's only independent brewer, to sit on Visit Aurora's board, DeLange admits he was hesitant. "I honestly didn't think of Aurora as a destination location," he says. "I figure since we're so far away from the mountains...in the metro area, we're on the far side to the east.... I needed education, I guess. And after sitting in on a couple of board meetings and seeing what the focus was, then it made a lot of sense, and I was surprised that they hadn't had an organization like this longer."
Hinson has come around, too. "These guys know what they're doing," he says.
Most agree that the big difference is the level of professional expertise. If Aurora's goal is to bring in dollars through the city's lodgers' tax, then Wheat and the other staff members are the carnival barkers touting — and shouting — the city's strengths in order to draw tourists and, as city officials sometimes say, "put heads in beds."
"There are literally dozens upon dozens upon dozens of medical conferences every year that go on someplace else. We need to bring them to Aurora," says Mayor Steve Hogan, who served on the city council on and off for thirty years before he was elected mayor last year. "We have an active military base — Buckley Air Force Base — in Aurora. There are Defense-Department-related conferences that occur. They need to be in Aurora.
"You need somebody with expertise and knowledge who can put those things together," Hogan adds, "and those things are now happening."
The hotels have been especially pleased with Visit Aurora's efforts. Sales director Bleakley, who used to work for the Red Lion Hotel, works to get leads on meetings and conferences interested in coming to Aurora and then sends those leads to the hotels, which put together bids for the business. And lodgers'-tax numbers show that business is up. Wheat reports that the city collected 8 percent more money in 2011 than in 2010.
"They've done a wonderful job drumming up business for Aurora, just like Visit Denver does for Denver," says Marcelo Birckenstaedt, general manager at a brand-new Hampton Inn & Suites by the Denver International Airport. The airport sits on a chunk of land east of Denver that was annexed by the city but is actually closer to most of Aurora. Several Aurora hotels, including Birckenstaedt's, cater to fliers.
"When Gary and company came on board, we could feel it immediately," he says. "In the past, it was scattershot. Now we get the phone calls."
Another of Visit Aurora's accomplishments is its website, which took a year to get up and running. Cheery and interactive, its design is better than that of Visit Denver, even if its featured events aren't as world-class. The website lists 560 Aurora restaurants, highlighting those that are independently owned and ethnic — which are a lot, due to Aurora's diversity and sizable refugee community. It's possible to book hotel rooms directly from the site, and Visit Aurora has drawn up ready-made itineraries for sight-seers: Bike to find Aurora's fifty pieces of public art! Ponder the art of construction at DeLaney Farm's Round Barn! Enjoy the daily air show that is Buckley Air Force Base, an activity Wheat has coined "bird watching, Aurora-style."
The website has a special section for so-called health-care visitors, a population on which Visit Aurora is banking. They've contracted with a California-based company called Market Staging Inc. that analyzes data to help hospitals figure out what they're best at — e.g., saving heart-attack victims or replacing hips — and then communicate that to the public. Usually, the idea is to keep people from going to big-name hospitals when their local health-care facility has outcomes that are just as good. But with Visit Aurora, the idea is more like traditional marketing: to attract people from outside the city to the impressive medical facilities built on the site of the former Army hospital, the University of Colorado Hospital and Children's Hospital, as well as the Medical Center of Aurora.
To do that, Market Staging is using the Internet. With data purchased from the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, the tech gurus there can discern where people with certain illnesses live. Then, through the magic of keywords and other search-engine trickery, they can ensure that Aurora hospitals show up high in the results when a person Googles that particular malady. The test case is a lung condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. The University of Colorado Hospital happens to have a specialized COPD center, and its doctors are tops in the nation.
"If you were to Google COPD right now in a particular zip code, what would commonly come up is the Wikipedia definition of COPD," says Jason Botticelli, the vice president of business development at Market Staging. "What we're doing is working with Visit Aurora to increase their visibility by geography. If someone in Pueblo...types COPD into Google, Yahoo or Bing, the first thing that will pop up is Visit Aurora."
When they click, Visit Aurora's website has links to the hospitals themselves, as well as how to contact individual doctors. And since most of the treatment for COPD is outpatient, there's also information about hotels to stay at while in Aurora and options for how to get to the city, from Denver International Airport to Denver's Yellow Cab.
Market Staging developed the model with Visit Aurora for free, with an eye toward selling it to other visitor bureaus. (If they do, Aurora gets a 5 percent cut.) Now that the website is live, Visit Aurora is paying $20,000 a year to Market Staging, which is still tweaking the system to make it work smoothly.
"We see this evolving health-care mecca in Aurora as a real opportunity for us to learn more about how destination marketing organizations can leverage that on behalf of their community and build some business," says Market Staging CEO Bob Durham.
It's still too early to tell whether it's luring more COPD patients to Aurora, but both entities are hopeful.
People are forever confusing Aurora, Colorado, with Aurora, Illinois, the Chicago suburb and home town of fictional slackers Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar of Wayne's World.
"We've gone to some national [tourism] shows and then, 'Oh, Aurora, Illinois?'" Wheat says. "One of the challenges is establishing our identity as a destination." In 2012, Visit Aurora hopes to come up with a brand message to do just that. "What are we going to tell the visitor when we're engaging them?" he says. "What do we say about Aurora?"
In the meantime, Visit Aurora is working to build relationships with entities who do know who they are. The organization has collaborated with the Vail Valley Partnership, which promotes the iconic ski destination. Aurora agreed to make Vail the city's "official ski destination," and in return, Vail Valley has promised to direct its out-of-state visitors to stay at Aurora hotels near DIA on their way in and out.
Visit Aurora also has a hand in helping the Aurora Arts District, which has struggled to find its identity and attract visitors. The group plans to make the district's few theaters and art galleries the focus of its next "webisode," a short promo video posted on the website. (The first was about Dry Dock Brewing.) And Visit Aurora supports efforts to bring more attractions to town, such as the Colorado Freedom Memorial, a planned monument to the state's fallen soldiers, and a proposed 1,500-room hotel and conference center that Tennessee-based Gaylord Entertainment wants to build in the city.
Former mayor Ed Tauer, who helmed the city for eight years immediately following his father Paul's sixteen-year term, compared its potential impact to that of Denver establishing the Colorado Rockies baseball team. The Aurora City Council has already granted the Gaylord project $300 million in incentives, but Aurora is still seeking $85 million in state subsidies to make the mega-project feasible. Last year, there was talk that the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, which needs more space, could relocate to Aurora to be next to the hotel. But that option seems off the table for now, with Mayor Hogan insisting that the city isn't trying to steal the Stock Show from Denver.
Stock Show or not, Aurora's clout seems to be growing. The city, which is split between Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, will finally have a single representative in Congress after the most recent redistricting effort. "The City of Aurora...generates a good deal of the metro area's economic development activity," wrote Denver District Judge Robert Hyatt, who oversaw the changes. "It has major regional facilities, including a military base and a medical research facility; it has its own law enforcement and fire departments; it is a leader in bridging metropolitan water solutions. Given that, and because there is no advantage to Aurora to have its Congressional representation divided, it must be made whole."
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While Visit Aurora hopes the attention from the next congressional election will boost the city's profile, those decisions are out of its hands. Wheat and his crew mostly concentrate on the day-to-day, which can involve a lot of grunt work. On a recent sunny Thursday, Wheat and Bleakley packed Wheat's ten-year-old Honda Pilot with boxes full of Aurora's new dining guide, called YUM, which lists over 150 of the city's independently owned and ethnic restaurants, categorized by cuisine. Also in Wheat's trunk was a case of beer. DeLange, of Dry Dock, bottled some of his award-winning hefeweizen for Visit Aurora's one-year anniversary, and Peters designed the label: a photo of fireworks over the city.
Wheat and Bleakley spent the afternoon delivering a box of dining guides and a commemorative beer to a half-dozen hotels, taking the opportunity to shake each manager's hand and chat for a minute in the process. "Hey, boss!" Wheat says when they arrive at the tropical-feeling Hilton Garden Inn. Gian Gandolfo, the hotel's general manager, also happens to be the chairman of Visit Aurora's board of directors. In it since the beginning, Gandolfo says Visit Aurora has put a face on a previously faceless city.
And it's not stopping now, he says. No longer will visitors assume Aurora is in Illinois. No longer will residents tell outsiders that they're from Denver, a fate the authors of Aurora: Gateway to the Rockies predicted in 1985. "More and more people will come to see themselves as living not in Denver," the last sentence of the book says, "but in Aurora, one of the two principal constituents of the Aurora/Denver metropolitan area."
"Everyone is ready," Gandolfo says. "The stars have aligned."