When John Hickenlooper opened a brewpub in Denver's Lower Downtown in 1988, he didn't know anything about running a restaurant, and LoDo was only a bunch of abandoned warehouses. Within a few years, Hickenlooper owned a chain of restaurants and LoDo was a pricey loft and entertainment district. Now, with Hickenlooper ready to be sworn in as Denver's mayor on July 21, residents are hoping he will enjoy similar success at boosting the city's economy as a whole.
With Mayor Wellington E. Webb leaving after 12 years, Denver voters were ready for a change. Hickenlooper's background certainly promises one. He posed naked to promote his first brewpub when it opened and, a decade ago, appeared on the "Donahue" show to broadcast his offer of a $5,000 bounty to anyone who found him a wife.
Even Hickenlooper's friends describe him as quirky, but they insist he doesn't act on whims. "The guy might be unorthodox in some of his approaches," says Eugene Dilbeck, of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, "but he is very systematic in his decision making." When he decided to run for mayor, Hickenlooper visited with senior officials from more than a dozen major cities to try to come up with ideas to address Denver's many problems.
The business community hopes Hickenlooper, 52, will be just the salesman the city needs. Denver seems to be suffering from every economic woe affecting the rest of the country, only more so. Its booming tech industry of the 1990s has dried up and blown away, damaged in particular by the implosion of telecom giant Qwest. Fires and drought have made a dip in tourism substantially worse. Denver International Airport is a major economic driver, but bankrupt United Airlines, the primary carrier at DIA, has cut its local capacity by 17 percent over the past year. In all, Denver has lost 20,000 jobs over the past 18 months, and the city's budget shortfall for the coming year is pegged at $50 million.
Given all the problems, this was an ideal year for an "outsider" mayoral candidate, and despite his business connections and campaign budget of $2 million, Hickenlooper played that role to the hilt. To capitalize on citizen resentment against the high cost of downtown parking meters, he broke meter-shaped pinatas with his head at campaign stops. In one campaign commercial, he tried on a variety of outfits to appear more "mayoral"--a cowboy getup, a soft suit aping the old Miami Vice look--before donning a politician's standard dark suit and riding off on a Vespa motorscooter. "The image he established was geeky and not slick," says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "He was the person who is going to be unconventional and look at new ideas."
Although he was an underdog when he launched his candidacy, Hickenlooper proved to have appeal to virtually every demographic niche in the city. He ran well among Democrats and Republicans; long- term residents and newcomers; blacks and whites. In the June runoff against a Hispanic opponent, city auditor Don Mares, he drew about half the Hispanic vote. Among the electorate as a whole, he defeated Mares with 64 percent.
Even so, he has a large task ahead of him. His popularity may be broad, but it is not especially deep, and he has serious problems with the city's workforce and unions, which he criticized and which supported Mares. The city council is as inexperienced as he is: Because of term limits, all but three of the 13 city council members will be freshmen. To meet the high expectations he has raised at a difficult moment in Denver's life, Hickenlooper is going to need all the skills and friends he amassed as an entrepreneur in LoDo--and quite a bit of luck as well.