Blowing Boeing

Just two hours after Wellington Webb faced the cameras and confirmed that yes, Boeing had snubbed Denver in favor of Chicago, fourteenth windiest city in the country, the mayor received his consolation prize: a thirty-pound meatball.

Chicago had landed 500 aerospace executives and major bragging rights to another Fortune 500 headquarters. Denver got Beef Wellington.

Not that the giant meatball was without its charms. The meaty monster came with its own proclamation -- from now on, May 10, 2001, will be known not as the day Denver lost Boeing, but as Maggiano's Millionth Meatball Day -- and a bevy of Broncos cheerleaders, who helped Hizzoner slice and serve the meatball made by Maggiano's executive chef.

Hmmm. And somehow Boeing got the idea that Denver just wasn't sophisticated enough to suit its needs.

"Even though Denver was not selected as Boeing's global headquarters, we were happy to be one of the three cities that Boeing considered," Webb had said earlier that day, dishing out another line. "We have benefited from the tremendous amount of publicity that was associated with Boeing's selection process."

They liked us, they really liked us.

They just didn't like us enough to move to Denver, the Sally Field of cities, so desperate to be liked that it's never acquired a positive review -- Fittest city! Twenty-first best city to do business in! Finalist for Boeing's new headquarters! -- it didn't roll out to the public.

Pass the meatballs.

There are many possible explanations for why Denver lost the Boeing beauty pageant.

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The most plausible is that the contest was lost long before Boeing CEO Phil Condit made the surprise announcement in March that his company was going to abandon its longtime home (leaving Seattle lost in the fog) for a snappy new headquarters in Denver or Dallas. Or Chicago. Setting up the three-way competition was an effective way to wring more concessions from Chicago, city of broad shoulders and deeper pockets.

As any Denverite originally from Chicago -- and that accounts for about half of the metro population, including myself -- can tell you, there's little similarity between the two cities (never mind Dallas). Denver has the elevation, Chicago has the El. Chicago has humidity, Denver has timidity. Chicago boosted tourism by displaying bovine sculptures -- "Cows on Parade" on its downtown streets; Denver refused to get involved in the same project because it didn't want to be seen as a "cowtown." Chicago has great hotdogs, Denver's great hotdogs are all on the slopes. Chicago has a real winter, Denver doesn't -- except on those rare occasions in April and May when a corporate fact-finding team is coming to town and Denver International Airport loses power for the first, and then second, time in its six-year history.

Chicago is a city with a well-greased political machine. In Denver, even the meatballs aren't greasy: Mayor Webb went along with the Maggiano's stunt because it's one of his favorite restaurants, according to spokesman Andrew Hudson.

Even if the chain did originate in Chicago.

Chicago pulled a few stunts of its own to win Boeing. While unbelievable winter weather helped bury Denver's chances, the sun shone on usually gloomy Chicago, illuminating hundreds of red-and-white impatiens fresh from a hothouse and glinting off $60 million-plus in incentives that Illinois offered Boeing to relocate.

But you don't have to look as far as Chicago to see why Boeing didn't move here.

For starters, this is a town that celebrates its millionth meatball.

It also boasts -- on billboards, on TV and in print -- that now that the joint operating agreement is in full swing, the Denver Post has the largest comics section in the country. And the yuks don't end there: Witness a front-page Post story detailing the lengths its reporters had gone to in order to get the story during Boeing's critical May 1 visit: "Reporters, photographers and broadcast crews pursued Boeing's black Ford vans from the Governor's Mansion to the Wells Fargo Center, then sat outside for 40 minutes -- long enough for two photographers to get parking tickets -- only to record another 'no comment' before racing back to their cars."

It was almost as big as Krispy Kreme! That the Boeing coverage in both Dallas and Chicago was just as light and airy was scant consolation.

Unnoticed, for example, were Boeing's less-than-smooth dealings with other local companies. Even as word was leaking out last week that Boeing was about to anoint its choice, Denver-based Titanium Metals Corporation revealed that it had received $82 million in cash from Boeing -- more than Chicago officials were about to hand the aerospace company in its Wrigley Field gift bag -- as part of a deal to settle a lawsuit stemming from a contentious titanium purchase. Besides parting with plenty of cash, according to an SEC filing, Boeing will also buy up to 7.5 million pounds of titanium products each year from Titanium Metals for the next five years.

Homegrown Frontier Airlines, flying through far less turbulent skies than Chicago-based United Airlines, has also given Boeing a run for its money. Last month Frontier CEO Sam Addoms welcomed Airbus Industrie of North America president Henri Courpron to Denver, trading in one of Frontier's Boeing 737s for a new French jet. Over the next few years, Frontier plans not only to replace all 25 of its Boeing 737s with Airbus 319s, but it might even buy another dozen.

Standing on the tarmac of Chicago's Midway Airport on May 10, Boeing's Condit acknowledged that the headquarters move was a "strategic business decision...helping us achieve our goals of growing this company." Boeing's primary competitor? Airbus Industrie.

Sam Addoms wasn't included in the Boeing 100, a group of local movers and shakers recruited to help woo Boeing to Colorado. But John Elway was front and center at the Governor's Mansion, helping to put the arm on the group.

Although Denver has plenty of eager boosters willing to go meatballs to the wall for economic development, it's very short of high-priced hotel rooms -- and it's not easy for high-flying execs to order up caviar and champagne from room service at 4 a.m. The city is more than willing to subsidize another hotel; in fact, it had already approved a handout larger than Boeing's Illinois bonus to help developer Bruce Berger build a convention-center hotel. But then a few cranky citizens passed around a petition that will take the subsidy to a public vote in November, delaying Berger's hotel plans -- but not the destruction of Currigan Hall.

The building is an architectural landmark. But this is Denver, and so it goes.

And so Boeing went...to Chicago.

Denver will survive the loss of Boeing, just as it survived the loss of the United Airlines maintenance facility a half-dozen years ago, and the super-colliding superconductor boondoggle several years before that.

In the meantime, life continues. Even before Boeing started its charade and Denver netted that "tremendous amount of publicity," Colorado had jumped up into the ranks of the country's top three tourist destinations.

Surveyed in March regarding their thoughts on city services, residents listed unfilled potholes, dirty parks and speeding drivers as their biggest worries. No one pouted that the Front Range was home to only four Fortune 500 headquarters. Or that it had just one Krispy Kreme franchise.

"Denver has thousands of reasons to be proud," Boeing pronounced in a full-page ad last Thursday that showed exactly none of those reasons and instead pictured several office buildings that could have been Anywhere, USA. (Unlike the Chicago ad that flipped its street scene, however, Denver's Boeing ad was at least an accurate representation of our downtown.) "Thanks for showing us why."

Stick a fork in us -- we're done.

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