In the stadium: Rocky roots | AspenTimes.com

In the stadium: Rocky roots

George Merritt
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Thousands of World Series fans will soon be converging on LoDo, a thriving section of Denver’s downtown that is home to the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field. Just 15 years ago, they would have been warned to stay away.

Before the stadium was built in 1995, Lower Downtown was Denver’s “Skid Row,” said Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.

Denver had hit a low point when the bottom fell out of oil and gas prices, crucial to Colorado’s economy, in the 1980s. The recession made shells of downtown office buildings.

What is now affectionately known as LoDo became a forgotten ” if not feared ” area of junked rail yards and abandoned Victorian warehouses. A series of viaducts allowed drivers to avoid the area, bypassing its empty, brick-lined streets.

John Hickenlooper, now Denver’s mayor, was a geologist at the time. Like thousands of others in the energy field, he was laid off when the oil company he worked for was sold.

But Hickenlooper saw potential among LoDo’s gritty pawn shops and bars. And baseball ” a personal passion ” would be key.

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After being rejected by more than 20 financial backers, Hickenlooper and a handful of partners got a loan and, in 1988, opened a brew pub, the Wynkoop Brewing Co., in what had been an 1800s mercantile showroom on 18th Street.

Two years later, Hickenlooper was hosting fundraisers at the pub to raise support for bringing pro baseball to Denver.

Denver and Florida won expansion MLB baseball franchises in 1991. While the Rockies first played at the Denver Broncos’ Mile High Stadium in 1993, work began on Coors Field, just two blocks from the Wynkoop. Built to harken to classic ballparks like Boston’s Fenway Park, with hand-laid brick and an old-style clock tower, Coors opened in 1995 with views of the Rocky Mountains, and a ring of purple seats exactly one mile above sea level.

Hickenlooper didn’t want Coors Field built in LoDo ” atop a former railyard at the corner of 20th and Blake streets ” fearing it would deter people from buying homes in the area. He preferred a site one mile south ” now the Pepsi Center, home to the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, and the site of the Democratic National Convention next year.

Coors Field now anchors one of the city’s busiest bar and restaurant areas along Blake Street.

Hickenlooper pushed successfully for less parking around the 50,000-seat stadium, believing, correctly, that people were more likely to enjoy walking to a venue nestled right in the city ” just like Fenway.

“That was one of the smartest things we ever did,” Hickenlooper said. “All those people walking through the neighborhood, seeing that it was clean, safe and on a human scale, made them want to come back.”

Sales at the Wynkoop increased 50 percent when Coors Field opened in 1995. Neighboring businesses were similarly turbocharged.

“This baby gets placed there and boom, everything takes off,” said Joe Blake, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Today, LoDo is a 25-block collection restaurants, art galleries, trendy night clubs and boutique retail shops in what Hickenlooper called the largest historic district west of the Mississippi River.

“The great thing about LoDo is that many cities in the West are a developer’s vision of what people want,” Clark said. “But Lodo is funky. This place was built as a reflection of the diversity of what we think.” Hickenlooper and his partners built the Wynkoop into a thriving restaurant business. His reputation as a business-savvy pub-owner was a cornerstone of his successful 2003 mayoral campaign. Now in his second term as mayor, he said the Rockies’ underdog run to the World Series is a reflection of LoDo’s success.

“I’ve always said the Rocky Mountain West is a place where anything is possible. It doesn’t matter who your parents are, who your grandparents were,” he said. “Western mythic heritage is that it’s who you are and what your dreams are.

“Well, the Rockies have proved that.”

Over the years, Hickenlooper became an ardent Rockies fan. A season ticket-holder, he exclaimed “TA DA! Yes!” after learning, during an interview, that he had scored World Series tickets.

Hickenlooper also tossed out ceremonial first pitches this season at Coors Field in April and at Fenway in June.

“Is it coincidence?” he said, grinning.

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