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Five Points Businesses Charge Flyfisher Group Has Hurt, Not Helped, the Neighborhood

Five Points businesses are sounding off about  an investor in the historic Black neighborhood.
Five Points businesses are sounding off about an investor in the historic Black neighborhood. Evan Semón
Back in 2020, an investment firm that had been buying up property in Five Points went public with its do-good plans for Denver's historic Black neighborhood.

The Flyfisher Group, which is headed by Matthew Burkett, a longtime business partner of Denver native Robert Smith, who happens to be the richest Black man in America, wanted to inject more capital into Five Points. Aside from buying up property, Flyfisher also started its own food and beverage company called Pure Hospitality, which has opened up different businesses in the neighborhood, such as brunch spot Mimosas.

Burkett hired Ryan Cobbins, the owner of Coffee at the Point, as the lead of operations for Pure Hospitality. The arrangement appeared amicable: two Black professionals working together to help preserve the history and dynamism of Five Points.

"The guy was being propped up as the savior of Five Points," Cobbins recalls of Burkett.

Two years later, the partnerships that Burkett had established with Cobbins and other businesses in Five Points have completely deteriorated. And on March 2, Burkett sued Cobbins in Denver District Court, alleging that Cobbins had reneged on a contract.

"What stings is I was part of his organization and one of his biggest advocates," Cobbins says.

Matthew Burkett is the man behind the Flyfisher Group, which has been investing in Five Points.
Cobbins and other business operators who have been on the receiving end of lawsuits and what they categorize as intimidation by Burkett are now speaking out about their negative experiences with FlyFisher.

"For me, I really want my neighborhood back," Cobbins says.

According to Cobbins, Burkett had offered to invest in Coffee at the Point in exchange for a business stake even before the pandemic. In September 2020, they struck a deal. Burkett paid $28,000 to gain a 40 percent stake in Coffee at the Point, Cobbins says, adding that Burkett then hired him at $75,000 a year to run operations for Pure Hospitality. The deal included an opportunity for Cobbins to buy equity in Pure Hospitality, and Burkett also promised up to $200,000 worth of remodeling at Coffee at the Point.

But when the partnership wasn't working out, Cobbins met with Burkett to discuss dissolving it. "Matthew and I had what my attorney would categorize as a bilateral agreement to end our partnership," Cobbins says.
click to enlarge
Ryan Cobbins owns Coffee at the Point.
Coffee at the Point
But then Burkett, through a series of LLCs linked to him, hit Cobbins with the lawsuit, saying that the deal was still in effect and that Cobbins had to follow through with his end of the agreement.

Burkett had made similar overtures to other Five Points businesses, asking for a stake in exchange for money, business owners say. One of them is Agave Shore, a tacos-and-tequila joint that counts Chuck Jones and LeJon Vivens among its co-owners; FlyFisher is the eatery's landlord.

"If you don't do business [Burkett's] way, he finds a way to get rid of you," says Vivens, who adds that Burkett is now suing Agave Shore for "ticky-tacky reasons." The suit was particularly offensive because of the economic difficulties hospitality outlets faced during the pandemic. "What landlord, coming out of what just happened, wouldn't want to work with the tenants?" Vivens asks.

Fathima Dickerson and her family, who ran the renowned Welton Street Cafe, were also FlyFisher tenants. The restaurant shut its doors on March 12 after 36 years in business, 22 of them at 2736 Welton Street; the Dickersons are hoping to move the restaurant up the street.

Dickerson says that the Flyfisher Group kept the restaurant on a month-to-month lease, which left the family in a precarious situation. Even worse, she adds, Flyfisher didn't perform needed HVAC maintenance.

"Welton Street Cafe, they have been the biggest anchor tenant. They are the anchor tenant," says Vivens. "We lost our anchor tenant as a community."

Sarah Woodson was also a tenant of the Flyfisher Group. The founder of the Color of Cannabis, an advocacy organization, Woodson began renting space on Welton Street in late 2019 from Flyfisher that would house both her nonprofit and a for-profit business. Woodson had planned on turning part of the unit into a co-working space, and also running a marijuana delivery business out of the building. But three major hurdles got in the way, she says. First, Flyfisher took away parking spots dedicated to the building. Second, it significantly raised Woodson's rent. And when Flyfisher staffers refused to speak with Woodson, it created a "very hostile situation," she recalls.

"They would not speak to me. They would not speak to me. They wouldn’t explain anything to me. They completely disregarded me, as if I was an amateur and I didn’t understand business," Woodson says, adding that in order to communicate with Flyfisher, she had to hire a lawyer, who then was able to communicate with a lawyer representing the group.

"He is just completely predatory," she says of Burkett. "That’s the only thing I can say. He’s definitely not for community. He’s all for himself." Woodson stopped leasing the space in summer 2021; her organization is now without a permanent home.

Through a subsidiary, the Flyfisher Group also filed a lawsuit against Get Busy Livin Studios and its CEO, Michael Millard, alleging a breach of contract claim that's somewhat similar to what Cobbins is facing.

Jones, one of the Agave Shore co-owners, calls Burkett "devious" and "conniving," and says he cares only about himself. "He wanted to be our partner to receive all the credit but none of the liability," he notes. He doesn't believe Burkett is acting with Smith's blessing, Jones adds: "We don't think that Robert is pushing Matthew's buttons to do this."

Some of those who've been sued, including Cobbins, Jones and Vivens, plan to fight Burkett. Although they want investment in Five Points, they don't believe Burkett is actually supporting the existing Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood. "We got gentrified from within this time," Cobbins says. "I'm hoping that there's an opportunity for Matthew's exit."

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose Denver City Council district includes Five Points, has been monitoring the situation between Burkett and other business owners, and it has reached a "breaking point," she says.

"There is this saying in the community, and it’s 'Not all skin folk are kinfolk.' When I think of Burkett, I think exactly of that, because this is someone who matches our skin but really doesn’t care about Black people, Black community or Brown people, Brown community, our overall interests and economic justice. This a person whose own interest is their own personal bottom line," CdeBaca says. "It’s ironic that the only businesses left that are Black-owned are his."

Westword reached out to both Burkett and his lawyer, Kim Ritter, for comment. Ritter forwarded that email to Burkett, who then forwarded the email to Sarah Cullen, a local public relations professional who is serving as a spokesperson for Burkett, with this question: "Sarah any thoughts on this?"

Cullen's response to Burkett and Flyfisher Group chief of staff Karina Tineo: "Happy to provide the 'we don’t respond to active lawsuits' comment like last time. Or we can let him know you’re traveling and ask for questions to see what he has and is focusing on."

Westword was accidentally included on all of the emails. "First, [the Flyfisher Group] has not filed any lawsuits. Second, I am out of town and third we do not comment on ongoing litigation," Burkett wrote in an email back to Cullen.

Cullen then sent Westword an official response: "The Flyfisher Group does not comment on active litigation. Sorry they’re unable to provide more at this time, but I’ll let you know if anything changes."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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