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A leadership vacuum.

If Highlands Ranch is our vision of the future, God help us all.

Never in my 25 years of covering the Denver scene as a journalist have I seen such a vacuum of leadership. Within weeks of each other, many, many of the people who have guided the amazing revitalization of Denver, particularly downtown, have stepped aside or have been put out to pasture, and Denver is the worse for it.

The first shoe to drop was the resignation of John Lay, for several years the president of the Denver Chamber of Commerce. I have never been a big Chamber guy, and I just flat out don't like Lay. But I have to admit that over the past several years - since then-chairwoman Barbara Grogan was instrumental in ousting Dick Fleming and bringing sanity back to Denver leadership - the Denver Chamber has taken the kind of low-key, coalition-building stance that has both allowed progress to go forward and history to be preserved.

Then came the resignation of Bill Mosher, the president of The Denver Partnership since the early 1990s. Mosher was the right man for the job at the right time. When he came here, he replaced leadership that was shoving a pipe-dream vision of big retail down the throats of the downtown business community, and the divisiveness and anger were palpable. Mosher didn't save downtown - Coors Field probably was the catalyst for that - but he saved the downtown business community from itself, and he should have an honored place in Denver history for it.

Not too long ago we lost Susan Powers, the long-time head of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, to private industry. And then the newly reelected Mayor Webb decided to make a change at the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, and he let Max Wiley go. Just a few weeks later, one of Wiley's chief deputies, Bonnie Turner, turned in her resignation.

It was a good time for many of these people to go, at least on the surface, and since things are in such good shape, jumping ship shouldn't be that big of a deal.

But the work really isn't finished, and losing them all at one time really leaves a gap. Denver is up, yes, but so is the country and the world and we still have to address the things that will sustain this community when the economy takes a dip.

What concerns me more than anything is the direction we're headed. And the first signs are not good.

The Denver Chamber announced that Joe Blake will take over the helm as president, and everybody except me is really happy about the choice. I don't know Blake personally, and I'm sure he's a fine man. He's a Denver native, so he's steeped in history and he hangs out with his 99-year-old father at O'Brien's Tonsorial Parlor, which has to be a plus.

But do we really want someone in community and business leadership whose main claim to fame is that he helped create Highlands Ranch? If Highlands Ranch is this man's vision of the future, God help us all.

The most troubling thing about bringing in a real estate developer so deeply involved in suburban sprawl is that he accepts the notion that our biggest challenge is creating more highway and road capacity. He has more sprawl written all over him.

The July 14 New York Times ran an interesting article on the issue. It centered on two communities: Salt Lake City, which is building a 100-mile highway down the Wasatch Range, and Milwaukee, which is using federal highway dollars to remove an interstate. The Utah highway designed to alleviate congestion will assuredly become just as congested as what it replaces. In Milwaukee, the removal of a highway doesn't stop development, but it does revitalize neighborhoods and ease congestion.

It's a tough argument to follow, but the truth is that more highways don't ease congestion, they create more of it, while removing highways does ease congestion. It's not obvious, but leadership should at least be capable of understanding concepts on a higher plane.

I wish Joe Blake luck. But he should talk with the Mayor of Milwaukee before he makes a knee-jerk decision that more highways are the prescription for Denver's future. Sprawl - and Joe Blake is a committed sprawler - will choke us all.
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Title Annotation:dealing with suburban sprawl
Author:Rundles, Jeff
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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