Downtown Denver's bustling, but not everyone's cashing in

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2008 - 7:00 AM

DENVER -- Raquel Maciel looked at the empty barber's chair in front of her and decided she'd had enough. Thousands of Democratic National Convention visitors were strolling outside the downtown shop where she works -- four times the normal traffic, by some estimates. They were buying political trinkets, pouring into restaurants, taking pictures of protesters blocking intersections.

And, Maciel said, the hubbub was scaring her regular customers away.

Maciel went into the back room of Floyd's Barbershop, ripped a cardboard box and scrawled a protest message of her own. "I'm a not a protester, I'm a barber," she yelled, holding up her sign on the busy 16th Street Mall, the main drag of pedestrian traffic here. "This is affecting our business!"

Maciel's cry expresses the irony for cities hosting a national political convention. Leaders tout the event's huge economic impact -- a projected $160 million in Denver's case -- while they work to minimize traffic and other hassles. But some businesses and naysayers complain that the economic boon doesn't spread far enough and isn't worth the trouble.

The costs and benefits depend on the type of business and where it's located.

"It is, I think, a real challenge to figure out how to turn this into a real good retail opportunity," said Minnesota delegate Tarryl Clark, remembering that she didn't shop in Boston when she went to the convention there in 2004

City leaders here were careful to send a message that downtown Denver would remain open for business, hoping to avoid the too-quiet feeling some parts of Boston had when many avoided downtown there.

Still, in downtown Denver, hair salons and certain types of retailers reported slow sales. A Christopher & Banks clothing store was eerily empty over lunch hour, normally its busiest time. Assistant manager Artie Augusto said it was the opposite of the bustle they expected.

Bomb-sniffing dogs

Talk of all the security may have scared some downtown workers away, several business owners said, noting that offices were at less than capacity. Augusto said when she parked in an underground garage, her car was searched Monday morning by security officers with bomb-sniffing dogs.

But taxis are everywhere and hotels are packed. A mailing and shipping center was hopping with visitors trying to conduct business. A cigar and wine shop, selling what its owner calls "items that people like to party with," reported double-digit increases in business during the day. Some restaurants and venues have cashed in by hosting private parties, while others are doing only average business from passersby.

Hai Sung Chung, owner of Simply Colorado, a large souvenir store on the 16th Street Mall, said traffic was heavier than he's ever seen it, but business wasn't.

"Too many street vendors," he said.

No traffic trouble - yet

Unlike the 2004 conventions in New York and Boston -- cities that had enough center-city hotels to accommodate most visitors -- some of the convention wealth is spread to the suburbs in Denver, as it will be in the Twin Cities.

Still, it's a mixed bag for nearby businesses. Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, in Greenwood Village south of Denver, is losing potential dinner customers who normally stay in town for business at the nearby Denver Tech Center hotels, manager Samantha Davis said.

Many suburban restaurants are out of reach for convention visitors who don't have cars and are relying on shuttle buses and light rail. That has helped make traffic on metro freeways mostly trouble-free through the convention's first two days, commuters said.

Colorado Department of Transportation traffic counts showed an 8 percent average decrease in traffic volume on downtown Denver commuter routes.

"We think that there are employers that have been really flexible this week," spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said. Colleges near the Pepsi Center are also closed this week.

With many streets blocked off around the Pepsi Center, navigating parts of downtown by auto is proving difficult. But finding a parking spot is easy, with open spaces in many lots and garages.

"It's messed up downtown," said taxi driver Mike Miranda. But he's not complaining. He's been busy -- so much that he didn't have time to finish the half-eaten Caesar salad sitting in his passenger seat Tuesday afternoon. He estimated he's earning at least three times his normal income.

The week's biggest traffic and security challenges still lie ahead: On Thursday night, Barack Obama is scheduled to give his acceptance speech at Invesco Field at Mile High, the pro football stadium. That will mean moving media, delegates and volunteers and closing Interstate 25, the busiest stretch of road in Colorado, at 5:30 p.m.

"It's a big closure," Stegman said. "It'll be tremendous."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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