Keeping Score

Kathi Williams and Neil Macey have spent a good part of their lives working in real estate, but their biggest deal, the one they'll always be remembered for, still embarrasses them.

They built Coors Field.
Perhaps more than any other two people, Williams and Macey are responsible for bringing major-league baseball here and ensuring the construction of Denver's field of dreams. The two friends love having a team in Denver, but they can't forget the sequence of events that led to a shutout for taxpayers and a big win for the team's owners. They'll always remember just how easily public money and private profiteering can become entangled in the world of professional sports.

Williams, a former state representative from Westminster, carried the legislation in the Statehouse that allowed metro-Denver voters to approve a 0.1 percent sales tax to fund construction of the ballpark. Macey, a founding member of the Colorado Baseball Commission that lured a major-league team to Denver, worked hand in hand with Williams in writing the legislation, lobbying lawmakers and then promoting the sales tax to voters.

The two spent countless hours talking on radio shows and speaking to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, pointing out the benefits a major-league team would bring to the Mile High City. They promised voters that a new, baseball-only stadium--which National League officials had demanded as a condition of Denver getting an expansion team--would be built with substantial private funding. They assured voters that everything from the sale of naming rights to leases on luxury suites would cover more than $46 million--or 30 percent--of the ballpark's total cost; those who stood to profit from the partially taxpayer-funded stadium would chip in their fair share.

Then the baseball stadium district board and the Colorado Rockies made them liars.

After the election in August 1990, before Denver even had a team, John McHale Jr., the chairman of the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District board, struck a tentative deal with the ownership group of the aspiring franchise. The outline of a lease for the new stadium--which was negotiated in secret--called for the team to collect virtually all of the revenue from the new ballpark, leaving taxpayers to pick up almost the entire $215 million tab for the future Coors Field.

Today, with revenues of $1 million per game, the Rockies could be pulling as much as $30 million a year in profits out of their brick-lined ballpark, estimates Financial World magazine. The Rockies' stunning success at winning one of the most lucrative leases in major-league baseball caught the attention not only of baseball's other owners, but also of the Denver Broncos' Pat Bowlen. Casting a jealous eye toward Coors Field, Bowlen soon started insisting that the Broncos deserved every bit as lucrative a deal as the upstart Rockies.

"Coors Field is a beautiful place to see a game," Bowlen told Westword in 1995. "Football needs those kinds of venues to stay competitive. Five years ago, the fact I didn't get any revenues from concessions was no big deal. Now football needs those kinds of revenues to stay competitive."

Fast-forward to 1998. This November, there will be a measure on the ballot to extend the Coors Field tax--which will end in little more than two years--to pay for a new, $350 million football stadium. (The baseball tax was originally set to run through 2012, but Denver's booming economy brought in far more tax revenue than had been predicted.) Needless to say, that new football stadium would feature lavish luxury boxes for wealthy fans, club seating, restaurants, bars and retail shops. The Broncos hope to generate as much as $30 million per year in additional revenues from the taxpayer-funded stadium.

To get that, they need a lease not unlike the one the Rockies won in 1991.
More than just seven years separates these negotiations from the Coors Field deal, though.

For starters, the 1996 legislation that cleared the way for a ballot measure this fall specifies that voters must see a proposed lease for the new football stadium before the November election, not after.

And so the legislature also authorized a Denver Metropolitan Football Stadium District board, which, like the baseball stadium district board set up nine years ago, is supposed to represent taxpayers in negotiating a lease agreement with the sports team. But this time, there's a third player: the City of Denver. Before the football stadium district and the Broncos can sign off on an interim lease, the city must agree to release the Broncos from their lease at Mile High. Negotiations are now under way, with a goal of having a proposed lease in place by the end of the month.

While the baseball stadium board felt under pressure to help Denver win a team, the Broncos are already here. Although Bowlen has threatened to sell the team if the stadium election fails, the Broncos have a lease at Mile High that runs through 2018, and a new owner would still have to find a way to break that lease if he wanted to move the team out of town. And Denver is insisting that before the team is freed from the lease, the Broncos must agree to pay more than $20 million to cover bond payments the city has been making with seat-tax revenues from Mile High.