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Denver Buying Spree Triggers an Outcry

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Just five years ago, the Mile High City was very, very low.

“We were really down and out,” beleaguered by the “triple whammy” of collapsing energy prices and setbacks in agriculture and the computer industry, said Dick Fleming, head of the Greater Denver Chamber of Commerce.

Business and home vacancies reached record levels. “Our airport was the butt of jokes,” Fleming recalled. “Western Airlines ran ads saying, ‘Sorry I’m late, I had to come through Denver.’ ”

Fade to 1991. Construction cranes now dot a skyline that has not seen a building boom in nearly a decade. Property values again are on the rise. More than 80 businesses indicate that they are interested in relocating to Denver.

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What happened? “Our community faced up to fundamental issues about what to do about our problems,” Fleming said.

Translation: The city committed billions of taxpayers’ dollars to major projects designed to improve Denver’s image and lure businesses to Colorado.

And while Fleming insists that “people now recognize that these projects are investments in our future,” others strongly disagree.

“Ten years ago, Denver was virtually debt-free. Today, our bonded indebtedness is more than $4.5 billion,” said Dick Young, former head of the state Democratic Party and a longtime critic of the city’s building program.

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“It’s all been sold to the public on the basis of a free lunch, that somehow the taxpayers won’t have to pay for this.

“I think we’ve been horribly misled, with the governor and mayor saying what’s good for a few of us is good for Denver,” he said.

Among the big-tab, taxpayer-funded projects approved by voters and the City Council are the new airport, with a bonded indebtedness of $3.6 billion; a new, $100-million Colorado Convention Center and at least $60 million to subsidize a new department store.

The city also is spending $90 million for a new library and has another $241 million in public improvement bonds. The new $28-million performing arts complex will be the second largest in the nation after Lincoln Center in New York.

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Taxpayers also are now obligated to build a baseball stadium, at a cost of $180 million, for the Colorado Rockies, a National League expansion team. Taxpayers were told when they voted for the project in August that half of the funds would be sought from private sources, but more recently, officials acknowledged that the public will pay most of the freight.

Denver’s buying spree has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated elsewhere. In slumping Massachusetts, the Boston Globe praised Colorado’s ability to pick itself up and get moving under discouraging circumstances. A Washington Post columnist applauded Denver as a model of metro unity.

But that unity has often been tested. Not all of the initiatives have been successful. The city offered $335 million in concessions to attract United Airlines’ $1-billion maintenance facility; United picked Indianapolis.

And the Denver Grand Prix--proposed as a way of bringing national television exposure to the city--was a fiasco.

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Denver repaved roads and provided city crews to help clean up. More than $3 million in city funds went into the project over the last two years. When the Grand Prix went bankrupt, taxpayers had to pay about $2.5 million.

Cathy Donohue, a City Council member for 16 years, disagreed with the inducements for United, the baseball stadium and the Grand Prix. She said the city is trying to buy a new image, an image she doesn’t think needs changing.

“Some people think we’re trying not to be a cow town, but I think we should be a cow town,” she said.


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