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Evan Almighty

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The city's new twenty-year growth strategy, the Denver Downtown Area Plan, calls it one of the major "opportunity sites" in the commercial core (see story, page 18).

But taking control of the block wouldn't be easy, even for operations as powerful as Target or Lowe. Block 162 was split among seven different ownership groups.

"To get them all on the same page at the same time was going to be very challenging," says Tracy Huggins, executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, especially because of the nature of these property owners in particular. "You had a number of owners who had very different reasons for how they managed their property."

That's putting it nicely.

The nearly-empty Colonial Hotel on the corner of 15th and California streets was owned by the Dikeous, once one of the most powerful real-estate families in the city.

The family got its start in business in 1905 when George Dikeou opened a meager popcorn stand at a downtown tramway stop. His sons, James and Peter, built that into a popcorn, candy and tobacco distribution center by 1921. Twenty years later, the family began investing in real estate and eventually built a cache of holdings that ranked them as one of the wealthiest families in the country. Their rise had been called a "Greek Horatio Alger tale."

In 1965, a Denver Post magazine article stated, "The name of Dikeou is likely to figure prominently in the inevitable rebuilding of downtown Denver as more and more skyscrapers come looking for a place to sink their foundations."

But most of those skyscrapers never arrived, and many of the Dikeou properties — and the family itself — fell on hard times. In 1977, James Dikeou, then 85, was killed during a robbery attempt in a downtown building he owned. Police said a teenage girl, with whom he reportedly had a relationship, admitted to beating him during the robbery. His son, John, dreamed of owning Denver's first big-league baseball team, but that dream was crushed by financial troubles after the family was levied with nearly two dozen lawsuits claiming they had defaulted on loans totaling more than $40 million. Through it all, the Dikeous held on to their crumbling parking lots and buildings as if they were family heirlooms, waiting for perfect development proposals that never materialized. The family still holds more than 230,000 square feet of surface lots downtown, more than any other owner.

Questions directed to Dikeou family members were referred to John Dikeou, who didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.

While the Colonial Hotel site, which the family purchased in 1978, was one of the few lots with a building on it, the three-story structure was so deteriorated it might as well have been a stretch of asphalt. A fire gutted part of the building in the 1990s, and most of the tenants, save for a bar and a liquor store, fled after its owners put off upkeep.

"Someone will develop the property," John Dikeou told a reporter in 2004. "But it won't be us until the convention center and hotel are done. We want to get as much income as we can, too. When the hotel and convention center come in, the market will finally be prime for development. I think you'll see big deals come out in the next six months."

Those deals never came.

"I don't believe it is a secret that these property owners have different objectives than many people involved in downtown," Huggins says. "The Dikeou family had held [the Colonial Hotel] in waiting for something economic to happen. What it was they were waiting for, especially in light of the convention-center hotel coming in, is a mystery."

And then there was the Fontius building.

Built originally as Steel's department store, the structure was now known for its most recent major tenant, the Fontius Shoe Company, which had moved out in the late '80s. Although its historic designation meant it couldn't be demolished, its position at the corner of the 16th Street Mall and Welton made it key to the block's success.

The Fontius building was owned by the Cooks — a family whose troubles outdid even the Dikeous'. Their empire was launched in 1925 when Dave Cook made an impulse buy of 144,000 fishing flies. His entrepreneurial instincts evolved into Dave Cook Sporting Goods, a string of 21 Colorado stores. But the Cooks had lately become better known for their bruising family clashes over money and real estate. Ousted family member Max Cook, Dave's brother, would go on to open his own sporting-goods store and dabble in real estate, buying the Steel's building in 1961. By the time Dave Cook Sporting Goods was bought out by a competitor, in 1988, all that was left of the Cook empire was a collection of properties and an imbroglio of family squabbles over them.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner