the lost action hero

Arnold Schwarzenegger smiled for the photographers on a chilly day in March 1995, strolling down Wazee Street with a retinue of overawed city bureaucrats, retail CEOs, neighborhood potentates and bodyguards. The beaming actor told reporters that he thought lower downtown was "fantastic" and that he wanted to do a project in Denver "in a big way."

Schwarzenegger was out to make a splash in Denver, and he succeeded. When he and his entourage took their stroll through the streets around Coors Field, the event combined money, muscle, sex appeal, movie stars, beer and lower downtown--all of Denver's favorite things, neatly tied up in one package. And the PR stunt was received as expected: The next day, a photo of Arnold and his pals appeared on the front page of the Denver Post.

But Schwarzenegger was playing a new role here, one far different from his stints as a ruthless Russian assassin in Red Heat or the muscle-bound cyborg in The Terminator. It was in Denver that he was to make his most audacious bid to become a serious businessman. His role was as a real estate developer who promised to transform an entire block of lower downtown into a dazzling array of chic lofts, movie theaters and hip retail stores, all of it anchored by Planet Hollywood, the popular nightclub chain that Schwarzenegger owns along with Hollywood pals Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.

Schwarzenegger promoted his scheme with all the Hollywood moxie he could muster. He lassoed executives from some of the hottest retailers in the country to board his Gulfstream jet and fly into Denver, landing at Centennial Airport and motoring downtown to chow down with LoDo civic leaders and City Hall insiders at McCormick's Fish House & Bar. They slurped beer at the Wynkoop Brewing Company--Arnold ordered a Railyard Ale--and breezed through the Tattered Cover Book Store.

But Schwarzenegger, who's been lucky in so many things, hit a brick wall in Denver. The multi-millionaire Austrian immigrant soon learned that while it may be easy to wow individual city workers, it's not easy to fight City Hall. He also encountered the surprising street smarts of a rival Los Angeles developer named Bill Denton, who looks like a college professor but has the gutsy bravado of a bare-knuckles brawler--so much so that he once reportedly vowed to "kick Arnold's ass." The result was a high-powered faceoff that's still the talk of Denver's real estate community.

"We had all these characters fighting over our beloved cowtown," recalls Denver planning consultant Brad Segal. "We were the center of attention for movie stars and mega-developers."

In the end, Denton won the battle for the right to build downtown's latest hip strip. The block Schwarzenegger owns on Blake Street, between 18th and 19th streets, still languishes, while Denton's project--known as the Denver Pavilions--is under construction on the 16th Street Mall between Welton Street and Tremont Place, with an opening planned for October 1998. But those working with Schwarzenegger insist that, like his most famous character, he'll be back.

In some ways, real estate is more ruthless than anything in the movies. Developers think nothing of threatening to destroy anyone who gets in their way. The stakes are high, especially in Denver, where memories still linger of the 1980s crash that bankrupted numerous big-shot developers. With millions of dollars at stake, image is everything, and creating an impression of "momentum" is part of the game plan.

Schwarzenegger probably thought he had the image thing down. After all, what kind of retailer would turn down a private invitation from a Hollywood superstar? In Denver, though, the Hollywood magic didn't work. Simply put, Arnold was KO'd.

Bill Denton still hasn't forgotten the bad news he received after returning from a short vacation to Mexico in March 1995.

For months Denton had been talking to retailers about his two-block, 350,000-square-foot Pavilions project at the upper end of the 16th Street Mall. The $101 million project had repeatedly been delayed since first being announced by Denton in 1994, as a succession of banks and real estate investors made tentative commitments to the project and then backed out. Memories of shopping centers that crashed and burned around the country as a result of retail overbuilding in the 1980s were still fresh, and the location on the upper part of the mall was seen as risky. However, Denton had persisted and had managed to get tentative commitments from the AMC theater chain and several prominent retailers. But what he saw come out of his fax machine at his L.A. office was a huge shock.

"When I came back, I got a fax of [the Post article] showing our tenants walking down the street with Arnold," says Denton. "The tables were turned over a five-day period when I was relaxing by a pool in Mexico."