Off Limits

Using a rather paternalistic tone (he's a former high school principal, after all), Aurora mayor Paul Tauer warned the overflow crowd to keep it civil at the Aurora City Council's January 6 meeting. Apparently, the public had gotten a little overheated the last time the eleven-member panel discussed gentrification of the area around Fitzsimons to match the new health and medical sciences center and whether to amortize or condemn current businesses.

The amortization/condemnation decision may sound arcane, but it will determine how much (or how little) the city will compensate owners of businesses now considered undesirable -- including car washes, service stations, mini-storage companies, motels and mobile-home parks -- because they don't meet zoning regulations instituted in 1999. The city favors the amortization method, offering businesses ten years to either recoup their investments and close shop or change to approved uses, such as banks, professional offices, parks, fitness centers, etc. But business owners, who don't believe they can make back their money in ten years, want the city to condemn their properties and pay them the current fair-market value for their improved land.

"I am opposed to amortization," Harlan Ochs, owner of the Conoco station on the south side of Colfax Avenue at Potomac Street, told the council. "The time limit will make it impossible to conduct a viable business. You're trespassing too much on private property rights."

After nearly two hours of similar testimony trashing amortization, one of Tauer's hired guns, attorney Donald Ostrander, of Duncan, Ostrander & Dingess, lashed out. Ostrander was answering councilmembers' questions about what constitutes improvements to property when people in the unanimously pro-condemnation audience started snickering. At that, the pinstripe-clad lawyer whipped around and yelled, "Don't laugh at me! I can prove it," directing his outburst at fellow barrister Malcolm Murray, who specializes in land-use and eminent-domain law. The very pro-amortization mayor then jumped in and reprimanded Murray, threatening to have him removed from the meeting if he disrupted it again with his laugh. "We didn't laugh at you," Tauer said. "Please don't laugh at us!"

Tauer hasn't given residents all that much to laugh at, however, since he insists on calling the neighborhood a "long-blighted area."

The second comming: Maybe if they click their heels together really hard, it'll be 1999 again. Using bold and visionary language not uttered in mixed company since the heady dot-com days, First Tuesday Colorado asked an invitation-only crowd of 500 to "join decision-makers from high-velocity Colorado businesses and the financiers fueling the growth of these companies" at its second-anniversary party this week.

At one time, First Tuesday was one of the New Economy's most revered institutions. Founded in London in 1998, the business-networking company threw swanky soirees that brought the moneyed together with would-be CEOs, both hoping to launch the Next Big Thing. First Tuesday franchises quickly spread to more than 85 cities around the globe, with each group throwing city-centric parties. Amsterdam once offered edible boys and girls to its entrepreneurial class, and New York gatherings seemed like one big Sex and the City episode. First Tuesday was a target-rich environment, and hookups -- of both the financial and sexual kind -- were de rigueur. Invites held cultural currency, and the color-coded name tags made the haves and have-nots easily identifiable: green for investors, purple for entrepreneurs, and blue for service providers.

Today, First Tuesday invites are worth about as much as an Argentine peso. Seed-stage venture-capital firm Yazam bought First Tuesday for $50 million, then went bankrupt and sold the company back to franchisees for $1 million in February 2001, just in time for the dot-com bubble to burst in April. In Silicon Alley and Silicon Valley, the networking events are so passé they could now almost be retro.

But Denver plugs on, one of only 29 chapters left around the world. "We, along with a select few U.S. cities and a lot more European cities, have remained pretty strong, even in light of what has happened in the tech sector," says Tom Filippini, founder of First Tuesday Colorado. "We have not pigeonholed ourselves in the Internet. Consequently, we've had a strong chapter here."

Even though their predominant industry has died, about half of First Tuesday Colorado's 1,000 active members were ready to network again on Tuesday, with the color-coded name tags back and the "exclusive" list in place. (First Tuesday wouldn't even tell invitees the party was set for Sevilla in the Denver Pavilions until the day of the event.)

"The tech community here needs a bit of energy pumped into it," Filippini says. "We need the venture community to stay strong and angel investors to step up and fund. Once the public markets start to respond to tech- and venture-backed companies, I think we'll be well situated to take advantage of it."

But the closest Denverites will get to the First Tuesdays of yore may be the wafting scent of a Dunhill, the taste of a top-shelf cocktail and the feel of business cards being pressed into their palms. "People seem to really like a no-frills networking atmosphere," Filippini says. "We're sticking to our knitting and offering the traditional First Tuesday."

Maybe someone can find a copy of the Industry Standard to tuck under his arm.

Get out the vote: With fewer than five months to go until the May 6 Denver election, the city's already swamped with mayoral candidates. (Officially announcing this week: thirty-year-old Jeremy Stefanek, who recently left the high-tech industry "to help with the family flooring business," and Elizabeth Schlosser, former head of Historic Denver.) And now the captain has abandoned ship, with Robert Mendoza, executive director of the Denver Election Commission, turning in his resignation on December 31 -- after just three months on the job.

"I take full responsibility," says Jan Tyler, the outspoken election commissioner who's uncharacteristically silent on the reasons for Mendoza's departure, since it's a "personnel matter." But she can -- and will -- talk about why he was hired in the first place. When the position came open last year, she was worried that Mayor Wellington Webb would try to put a "crony" in the job. "I think that was a legitimate concern," she says. "I pushed hard to get someone with elections experience." Although young, Mendoza had elections experience in Brownsville, Texas, and was due to be certified by the Houston-based Election Center, a nonprofit that's the only body in the country that certifies election administrators. (Tyler and Colorado Secretary of State Donetta Davidson are among the handful of Colorado election officials who have that certification.) And Mendoza was the only Spanish-speaking candidate -- an important asset, since the Department of Justice designated Denver a "minority language" jurisdiction midway through the hiring process.

So Tyler pushed for Mendoza -- and now he's apparently been pushed out.

While Tyler and fellow commissioners Sherry Jackson and Mark Messenbaugh -- who joined the group last month, after Marcia Johnson resigned to run for Denver City Council -- want to fill the spot as soon as possible, former executive director Lynn Wolfe is back on an interim basis. And not a minute too soon, given a number of sticky issues facing the commission.

The group's still under the eye of the Justice Department, and complying with its bilingual dictates will be expensive. To meet them this past November, the commission spent $30,000, according to Tyler -- for only 141 votes.

Even trickier is the question of provisional balloting, which held up results in the 7th Congressional District until mid-December. As the law is now written (and any changes the Colorado Legislature makes won't take effect until after May), the Denver Election Commission gets to decide whether it wants to allow provisional ballots in the next election. Tyler, for one, says she'd be willing to go for it, but only if the commission could expand judge training and recruitment, beef up election-day operations and shorten the time needed for processing provisional ballots, since votes will have to be counted quickly in order to determine which candidates will meet in a June runoff election.

"As an administrator, I need to ask if we can even physically do this," Tyler says. So she's asking now, and the commissioners should have their answer within the next two weeks.

With so much work to do, Tyler's concentrating on having a "harmonious relationship with my colleagues" -- and has even taken down her "rebellious" Web site that had taken on Webb, et al. "I understand why they're trying to make me look like I'm a contentious person," she concedes. "Because I am a contentious person."

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