Longform

Aurora's not exactly a tourist trap, but you might just visit it anyway

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.

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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.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar