Familiar Tunes

In the past ten years, the City of Denver has sunk more than $2 million into the old Rossonian Hotel, hoping to lure a jazz supper club into the heart of Five Points.

A few weeks ago the city got its club. Only it didn't open in the Rossonian. It opened across the street.

The developers of the new club, the Casino Cabaret, also took advantage of the city's largesse, getting a $450,000 loan from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development to help fund its renovation. The money comes from a "revolving loan fund" created out of federal community block-grant money and designed to entice businesses into economically deprived areas, says MOED deputy director Bill Lysaught. It's the kind of low-interest loan that city officials have been dangling over the Rossonian for years, hoping someone would bite.

Casino Cabaret's developer, McKinley Harris, has. His new club, once as forlorn and abandoned as its neighbor across the street, is now a striking stucco building with a large marquee and a splashy black-and-white-checkered design over the door. After a March 7 opening, during which jazz bassist Stanley Clarke played to a packed house, Harris is already proclaiming success--and not wondering too much about the Rossonian.

"I'm not involved in the Rossonian," Harris says. "My understanding is they just can't finish it. They just ran out of money."

Many now worry that the former hotel has run out of luck. "What I see happening is outside interests buying up all the property," says Bob Patton, president of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce. "I don't think the Rossonian will be what it was in its heyday. That's not in the plans."

Some residents are skeptical that two jazz clubs can exist in a neighborhood that is still largely impoverished. After all, back in the days when both clubs were thriving, Five Points' population was more than 30,000. Today it is less than 8,000.

Rossonian boosters, though, insist that the new club is the best thing that could have happened to them. "We're ecstatic Mr. Harris proceeded on that project," says Tom Yates, president of AWL Financial Corp., which owns the hotel. "This is very much a shot in the arm for the Rossonian. It's reminiscent of the old days, when there was tremendous synergy between the two. It gives us hope."

So much hope, in fact, that the night of Casino Cabaret's opening, Yates turned on the neon lights of the Rossonian to get in on the excitement. But other than that, the only activity at the Rossonian in recent years has been that of film crews shooting scenes from Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and local artists creating colorful mosaics to adorn the light-rail stop.

The hotel's only tenant is the Denver Housing Authority, which has occupied the hotel's top two floors since 1993. Lysaught says the agency's rent payments are servicing the city's debt on the building. "Currently, 75 percent of the building is occupied," he says. "The goal of getting the building back into use has been achieved."

But the city's goal of restoring the Rossonian's first floor to its much-ballyhooed heyday of swinging jazz has yet to happen.

In 1990 the city loaned $350,000 to Yates to acquire the Rossonian and refashion it as a jazz supper club. Over the years the city loaned Yates-controlled companies more than $1.8 million to do the renovations on the hotel, loans that have not been repaid. Construction work was turned over to politically connected businessman King Harris. And it will still take another $500,000 or so--which the city is prepared to loan--to complete the first-floor renovation and open a club.

Yates's involvement with the project sparked controversy when his company, American Woodmen's Life Insurance Company, went bankrupt in 1993 and a district judge ordered its assets liquidated. He also had trouble paying federal income taxes, and at one point the IRS placed a lien on his house. In addition, Yates was investigated by state officials for using a company bank account to pay off a personal debt to the state Department of Revenue.

Yet Yates still has the city's confidence, and the Rossonian is now in the hands of AWL Financial Corp., a spinoff from the failed insurance company. AWL is the general partner in the Rossonian Limited Partnership, a collaboration between Yates and Bank One Community Development, a corporation that has invested some $280,000 in the project in return for more than $300,000 in tax credits.

Yates says that Five Points' reputation for crime scared off many prospective investors and that his and the city's goal of turning the first floor over to jazz and dining and nothing else discouraged others. Yates says several interested parties are looking at the club now, though he declines to name them. It's not the first time Yates has made that claim.

The difference between his promises then and now, Yates says, is that "I've got one business plan on my desk now. We've had serious conversations in the past, but nobody ever developed a business plan or a plan for financing."

However, the tone around Five Points is more muted when it comes to the Rossonian's fate. "The reason the project isn't happening is, there's nothing in there," says businessman Al Richardson. "Nobody's gonna come in and put in the floors and bathroom. If all they had to do was buy fixtures, it'd be open by now."

Bob Patton adds, "Until Five Points is at the point where the major community will step in there and feel safe, nothing will change."

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T.R. Witcher