Just the 'Fax

Dave Walstrom is Mr. Colfax. Everybody along East Colfax Avenue knows his silver hair and deep, throaty voice. They know him because he comes into their businesses, serves as their advocate with various city agencies, organized last year's Colfax Marathon and turns up at every event on the strip, like a proud papa attending his children's school recitals. But now Mr. Colfax has hit a dead end.

After thirteen years as the executive director of the Colfax Business Improvement District, on January 16 Walstrom was asked to step aside by C-BID's board of directors. "The board took action to put him on administrative leave with pay," says C-BID attorney Valerie Bromley. "His contract was officially extended through the end of February, and his administrative leave will continue through the end of February."

In this part of Denver, that decision was the equivalent of the Broncos' front office suddenly benching Mike Shanahan.

And now everyone in this part of Denver is playing Monday-morning quarterback, trying to figure out who did what to whom, and when. This is a popular game along Colfax, one in which Jim Hannifin, the very vocal and quick-tongued owner of Ready Temporary Services, has long been a key figure ("Big Boss Man," November 4, 1999). A decade ago, when Walstrom and other business owners were working with the city on a proposal to rezone Colfax, Hannifin opposed the plan and sued Margot Hartmann, then owner of the Holiday Chalet bed-and-breakfast (a judge eventually threw out the suit); he also sent his workers to picket in front of the Chalet as well as businesses owned by other proponents. But several years ago, when business owners and residents again came together to create a new zoning classification that would allow all types of enterprises -- from porn shops to teahouses -- to congregate along Colfax as long as they adhered to some basic design principles, that process went much more smoothly ("Main Street, USA," September 8, 2005).

Main Street Zoning is now in place along East Colfax, and recently, Walstrom and Hannifin had been working together to form the West Colfax Business Improvement District (which Hannifin now chairs) and discussing the idea of creating a community development corporation, a complement to C-BID that could raise funds for redevelopment loans for businesses interested in locating along the avenue. The discussions had moved far enough along that a potential director for the new corporation had been approached, but then the project stalled. Early last fall, a very conflicted C-BID board began talking about whether to renew Walstrom's contract when it ended on December 31.

At the same time, Hannifin was requesting that the city reappoint him to the C-BID board; his three-year term would be up December 31, too. A business improvement district is a quasi-governmental agency that the state legislature authorized in 1989 as an economic-development tool; it allows commercial-property owners in a specific geographic area to form a district to tax themselves and then use the money on such services as trash collection, beautification projects and pedestrian street lighting. C-BID was one of the first such organizations formed in Denver; under the law, the mayor appoints seven boardmembers, who then must be approved by the Denver City Council. Although there was a lot of back-door lobbying against Hannifin's reappointment -- a particular point of contention was that when he served in the mid-'90s, he'd resigned after he and Walstrom went head to head over zoning proposals -- Hannifin's renewed board post was approved.

And on January 16, he was elected chair of C-BID, which means he presides over the organization's $300,000 annual budget. That money comes from all of the businesses between 14th and 16th avenues from Grant to Columbine streets; as members of a business improvement district, they can't opt out of paying taxes because they're unhappy with leadership or performance or how their money is being spent. And as unhappy as some of those business owners are about Walstrom's ouster, they're even more concerned with another recent board decision: to cut the street maintenance and beautification budget in half, from approximately $80,000 a year to $40,000. "I am pissed off -- and you can quote me on that," says Marvin Fisher, the owner of the Earl of Sandwich on Ogden Street. "C-BID is not living up to what they're set up for." (Hannifin did not respond to requests for comment.)

For the past seven years, Front Range Services, which has offices right off East Colfax, has had the C-BID maintenance contract. The company swept the sidewalks and curbs from Grant to Josephine, going approximately fifty feet into the side streets so that trash wouldn't blow back to the main strip; it handled trash cans in the district, disposing of the nearly five cubic yards of trash that accumulated daily; maintained the flowerpots in the summer; made sure the pedestrian lights were working; and dealt with smashed benches and light poles. It also worked with Denver Partners Against Graffiti to remove tags from private buildings, usually within 24 hours.

Since the city isn't responsible for providing anything more than street sweeping and snow removal, such services are crucial to a business improvement district's success. "The rules and regulations are that behind the curb and gutter is really an adjacent property owner's responsibility," says Randy Schnicker, an engineer and special-districts expert with the Denver Department of Public Works. "If there's a business improvement district, in many cases it will pick up some or all of those types of responsibilities. In some cases the City, through various funding programs, may have constructed some of those improvements, such as pedestrian-scale lighting, but it is with the understanding that property owners or a district would take on the ongoing maintenance."

In October, the C-BID board decided to send the maintenance contract out for bid to see if it could get a better deal. The new proposal called for significantly less service than had been required previously: sweeping Colfax from Grant to Columbine without doing any portion of the side streets, and without graffiti removal or ongoing maintenance of the flowerpots, trees, lights or benches. Instead, the contractor would simply alert the C-BID board of any problems; from that point on, they were the board's responsibility.

Four providers returned bids; all but one were for $80,000 or more. Front Range came in at $40,000, so the board re-upped with its longstanding maintenance team. But businesses are already complaining that the side streets look much trashier.

That's something Walstrom can no longer control, but he'll still be walking Colfax. After C-BID put him on administrative leave, Colfax on the Hill snatched Walstrom up as its full-time executive director. COTH was the area's original booster group; leaders concerned with shoring up the rapidly deteriorating street founded it in 1983, then set up a business improvement district six years later. For thirteen years, Walstrom did double duty as director of both COTH and C-BID. In the late '90s, Hannifin took the organizations to court, demanding that they be separated from each other; a judge disagreed, determining that the two efforts were complementary and should continue to collaborate on all but finances.

But at the C-BID board's January 16 meeting, Hannifin finally got his way. He kicked COTH out of the C-BID offices at the same time Walstrom was put on administrative leave.

"We see Dave being free as a huge opportunity for our organization," says Andy Baldyga, COTH president. "We hope that will allow us to do more along Colfax, to improve Colfax. We're going to build on the Happy on the Hill happy hours as an opportunity for residents and business owners and city officials to meet in a friendly forum, which we feel will help to create resolution in the future when there are conflicts. More ambitiously, we are going to be reinforcing our relationships with the Downtown Denver Partnership and FAX Partnership to the east, and we've been helping to create the Bluebird District business improvement district. Ideally, we'd love to see how far we can go so that when we say Colfax, people know it's all of Colfax."

And that's just the 'Fax.