The Million Fan March

From wowtown to cowtown.
Just a week ago, Denver was recovering from the largest collective hangover on record. On Super Bowl Sunday, in a wannabe major-league "riot," crazed Broncos fans fueled by Jell-O shots looted an athletic-goods store. (This is Denver, after all.) On Monday, thousands of slightly more sober fans risked their lives waiting for hours in that hideously outdated, going-to-fall-down-any-minute, how-could-this-place-ever-have-produced-world-champions Mile High Stadium, just for a chance to see their heroes. On Tuesday, a crowd of 650,000 gathered to cheer the Broncos' victory parade (and, in the case of one groupie who followed the players' bus, use hand signals to give Number 88 her number--yes, he wrote it down).

The sea of orange and blue so swamped Mayor Wellington Webb that, after presenting John Elway and Terrell Davis with their personal street signs, he handed owner Pat Bowlen the real key to the city--and its treasury: He endorsed the new stadium, surprising even his staff.

Behind Webb, the power brokers were already jockeying for position--literally, when it came to U.S. Representative Diana DeGette, who threw a fit when she discovered that she wasn't given a place on the dais, much less the opportunity to speak. (It was because she was a "woman," DeGette complained.) Finally, the Bronco organization surrendered and found DeGette a chair.

Because that's the way the game is played.
On Wednesday, a pullout poster in the Rocky Mountain News dubbed Denver "Wowtown."

But by the weekend, the smell of the stockyards was once again wafting over downtown. The wowtown had returned to a cowtown. And the cattle were already getting in line.

During the playoffs, two Broncos were chastised for using Vaseline on their jerseys. But the real grease is just beginning to ooze.

This Tuesday, state senator Elsie Lacy, who so enjoyed the Broncos' hospitality during the parade, sent her version of a thank-you note: Senate Bill 171, "which would bring the Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos one step closer to calling a new stadium home."

Surprise! That step calls for holding a May election on the proposal to impose a district sales tax for the construction of a new stadium. In order to do so, the legislature will have to change the bill it passed last year establishing the Metropolitan Football Stadium District--and also dodge Douglas Bruce, whose Tabor Amendment supposedly outlawed such special elections.

But the squeaky wheel is getting the grease. The Broncos' lobbyists are already oiling their way through the Capitol.

A May election offers many benefits for Bowlen and the Broncos. Fewer voters turn out in the spring, which means an election is easier to influence. More important, three months from now, the Broncos won't have had the opportunity to lose a game. The city will still be throwing off a certain orange-and-blue glow.

It just might be strong enough to hide the fact that the voters won't know what they're voting for.

For starters, we don't know how much a new stadium really will cost or what it will look like. We do know, however, where it will be located and who will own the team that plays there, which is a lot more than voters knew eight years ago when they decided to build a baseball stadium.

When they voted to devote a one-tenth-of-one-percent sales tax to an all-baseball stadium, though, residents weren't voting to create a shrine to Jerry McMorris. (Hell, the hypothetical team didn't even have owners in August 1990, when the vote was held.) They weren't voting for that row of purple seats set exactly one mile high, or for the detestable Dinger, or for the fountain that spurts so Clinton-like with every home run. They were voting for the dream of baseball.

And when they vote in May--as they almost surely will, considering the legislative lube job--they won't be voting to give Pat Bowlen back the sky boxes he sold off several years ago, or to give women bathroom parity, or to build a retractable roof that would triple the number of tractor pulls our city could host. They'll be voting for the Broncos. As the bumper stickers say, "If we build it, they will stay."

And we will pay...and pay.
Eight years after we voted for baseball, with Coors Field slated to be paid off a decade earlier than anticipated, most people would say bringing baseball to town was a good deal. It doesn't matter that the voters were lied to repeatedly and that most of the pitches delivered were grease balls.

According to the legislation that set up the Denver Major League Baseball Stadium District, the owners would be making "every reasonable effort to obtain funding for a target amount of at least fifty percent of the total costs." Right before the vote, the dailies were reporting that, at most, the public would pay for $100 million of the $139 million stadium. In an essay published before the election, district chairman John McHale declared: "Our finance plan makes the stadium a true private/public partnership, with $42 million in revenue coming from the private sector and $97 million from sales tax...Taxpayers are protected."

Voters bought it. And how.
A year later, Denver had its team. And then, shortly after negotiating the lease agreement that gave all revenues from Coors Field to the owners--basically giving them a free ballpark-- McHale had a new job: as vice president of the Rockies.

He earned it. Under the lease, the owners "receive all revenue streams generated by baseball and non-baseball events, including but not limited to revenues from the sale of stadium naming rights, event tickets, signage and other advertising, concessions and products, parking, broadcast rights and other novelties." And oh, yes, taxpayers would provide the owners with offices.

The lease deal was the most generous in the major leagues, and it so appalled the authors of the original legislation that they tried to change the terms during the 1992 session. They lost, and the Rockies owners got to keep their cash cow.

In the ensuing years, Denver has grown--but it has not grown up. This is still a cowtown, and it's about to give Bowlen his own cash cow. Since the baseball district felt free to ignore the legislation that created it--not to mention the vote of the people--there's no reason to assume that the football-stadium district (headed by Ray Baker, who replaced McHale at the baseball-stadium district) will play the game by different rules.

If you're a true sports fan, maybe that doesn't matter. As long as we know what we're paying for. And to whom.

Ed Maestas, the owner of Johnnie's Market and the unofficial mayor of Larimer Street for over two decades, passed away Saturday night.

Since he'd purchased Johnnie's, Denver's oldest downtown market, back in the Seventies, Eddie had worked hard to keep it going. He'd worked even harder to save the neighborhood around it. He encouraged his neighbors to keep up the storefronts that date back to Denver's early days, when the streets were lined with Irish pubs and Italian markets and Chinese laundries. And when the neighborhood just outside his front door was tapped as the site for Denver's new baseball stadium, Eddie went to bat to ensure that Larimer did not become a sea of parking lots.

Eddie won.
Eddie's family has asked that people donate to the ballpark neighborhood rather than send flowers. "Even in his passing," says longtime colleague Karle Seydel, "he's supporting the neighborhood." As should we.

There aren't enough people like Ed Maestas in this world--but we also don't do enough to recognize the few that we are blessed with. We need to celebrate what this town has while we still have it.

Eddie did.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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