Big Boss Lady

Richard "Buzz" Geller was born in a house on the corner of Colfax Avenue and Adams Street in 1945. He remembers East Colfax as a friendly neighborhood retail strip, the kind of place where grandmothers shopped for fresh vegetables and children walked to the pet store to look at goldfish. The current jumble of fast food joints, bars, porn shops and tattoo parlors depresses him.

"It was a wonderful street, but I really don't think I'm going to see it come back in my lifetime," he says. "They say Colfax has got some rehab going, but compared to the rest of the city, what do we have? We have somebody who remodeled the Ramada Inn. What's the big deal?"

That's a surprising statement from a man on the board of Colfax on the Hill, a group that serves as the avenue's chamber of commerce.

As the owner of Paradise Cleaners, Geller has played a prominent role on the avenue for years, and he headed an effort to change its zoning. That plan, which dozens of Colfax property owners worked on for four years, would have prohibited new drive-through liquor stores, tattoo parlors, gun shops and day labor outfits while allowing the existing ones to stay. Many shop owners think those stores scare away potential customers and make it difficult to attract new retailers to the area. The men -- many of them homeless -- who gather at the day labor hiring halls especially bother them, since some of them celebrate the end of the working day by getting drunk and passing out on the street. Colfax on the Hill garnered support for the plan from all of the major neighborhood groups on Capitol Hill, and Geller felt confident that it would win approval from city planning officials and the Denver City Council.

But the owner of Ready Temporary Services, Jim Hannifin, was outraged by the proposal, which he saw as unfairly targeting businesses like his (see "Big Boss Man," in his week's issue.). Hannifin railed against it at public meetings and cobbled together his own coalition to fight the idea. Then he made a bold -- and expensive -- move in his campaign to stop the rezoning.

He hired the lobbying and consulting firm of CRL Associates and its founder, Maria Garcia Berry, to make sure the plan would go nowhere. "If you want the best, it's not cheap," says Hannifin. "It was worth it."

In June, Geller sat stunned at a city council committee meeting as Denver planners announced the department's official opposition to the zoning proposal, which was quickly killed by the committee.

"As a neighborhood association, we don't stand a chance if someone has hired CRL," he says. "The Colfax issue is a prime example. A neighborhood organization doesn't have $25,000 to spend on a lobbyist group. We don't have that kind of money and never will. CRL can pick up the phone and call the mayor anytime. They can have a sit-down meeting with any city council member tonight. You and I can't do that, and that's not fair."

Garcia Berry and her fourteen-member firm have amassed more power at city hall than any other lobbying group in living memory. She has an A-list roster of clients that includes AT&T; the Taubman Company, owner of the Cherry Creek shopping center; the bond house Dain Rauscher; Forest City, the real-estate company that won the coveted right to redevelop Stapleton; construction giant M.A. Mortenson Company, which built the Pepsi Center and Coors Field; Post Properties, which is redeveloping the former St. Luke's hospital site; developer Bruce Berger, who is asking for a multi-million-dollar public subsidy for a huge new Marriott hotel near the convention center; and the metro football stadium district that's building a replacement for Mile High.

CRL has been at the table on almost every big issue in Denver in the past decade: the construction of Denver International Airport, the negotiations that led to creation of the Pepsi Center, the push for a new football stadium and the current campaign to expand the convention center. Garcia Berry's firm is also running the well-funded campaign to renew AT&T's cable franchise in Denver.

This corporate firepower is backed up by extensive campaign contributions to Denver elected officials. CRL and its clients invariably show up on the list of the largest contributors to city council candidates, and every member of the Denver City Council has benefited from such munificence.

The close links between CRL and the city council were highlighted recently when councilmembers Cathy Reynolds, Polly Flobeck and Ted Hackworth agreed to appear in television ads asking voters to approve the AT&T franchise agreement. AT&T even went so far as to use the official city seal on fliers, which brought a rebuke from the city attorney's office. Eyebrows were also raised at city hall this summer when Ken Smith, an aide to councilwoman Joyce Foster, took a leave of absence to go to work for CRL in the AT&T campaign.