Returns show rags-to-riches rise of Denver mayor |

Returns show rags-to-riches rise of Denver mayor

Karen E. Crummy
The Denver Post,

In 1987, a broke and out-of-work geologist named John Hickenlooper earned $15,491 – half of which came from unemployment benefits.

Fifteen years later, the Wynkoop Brewery owner made $1.7. million.

Five years after that, when his restaurant interests had all been sold off, Hickenlooper and his wife, journalist Helen Thorpe, declared joint income of $6.6 million.

Throughout those 23 years, Hickenlooper often gave large percentages of his yearly income to charity – $2.8 million in total. In 1989, for instance, he made only $26,375 but 30 percent went to charitable organizations. In 2004, he donated nearly half of his $1.3 million income.

Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate for governor, provided The Denver Post with all but one of his tax returns from 1985 through 2008 (the 1988 return hasn’t been located and he filed for a 2009 extension). He also disclosed details about his current financial holdings.

The Denver mayor said he was uncomfortable releasing the information, but said it was the “ethical and responsible” thing to do as a candidate trying to earn the public’s trust.

“As long as I’m hiding stuff, it’s hard to get that trust,” he said.

However, Hickenlooper declined to release the names of the charitable organizations he has donated to because he doesn’t want them “politicized,” said spokesman George Merritt. He also declined to release schedules that would have provided additional details about investments and W-2 forms that would have shown the division between his income and his wife’s.

A request for the 2007 financial agreement made when his stake in seven restaurants was sold was rejected, citing privacy concerns for others involved in the deal.

The tax records illustrate Hickenlooper’s well-known career arc.

Armed with a master’s degree in geology, he arrived in Denver in 1981 to work for an oil company. He made a little more than $40,000 by 1985, but was laid off a year later during the energy bust. With a decent severance package, he bought a Chevrolet convertible and drove to California to help his brother fix a roof. While there, he visited a Berkeley pub, which would serve as the inspiration for his next career.

Upon his return to Denver, he and a handful of partners looked at the J.S. Brown Mercantile building, a historic store at 18th and Wynkoop surrounded by empty warehouses. The rent fit into their budget: $1 per square foot.

Over the next year, Hickenlooper – who owned 37 percent of the brewpub – and his partners scraped up money from relatives and friends and he stopped looking for work as a geologist. He didn’t earn any wages in 1987, but did receive $9,464 in stock dividends and $8,520 in unemployment benefits. He gave $2,940 to charity.

On Oct. 18, 1988, the Wyn koop opened. The promise of 25-cent beers attracted a large number of customers to the usually desolate downtown area. By the end of the night,they sold 6,000 10-ounce beers.

“I spent the whole night thinking, ‘Why didn’t I charge 50 cents?’ ” Hickenlooper said.

Even so, the brewpub struggled and almost went out of business the next year. As other restaurants started to open downtown, he and his partners bought the building, adding a pool hall and a condo development to their business plan.

Hickenlooper said they knocked on the doors of every bank in town looking for a loan, until they finally got one from the Small Business Administration and a local bank in 1991.

Over the next few years, Hickenlooper took smaller wages – about $15,000 to $40,000 a year – and reinvested the income he received from the corporation into the business. In 1995, Coors Field opened and business went up 50 percent, Hickenlooper said.

Throughout the 1990s, Hickenlooper and a slew of partners built and sold lofts at the Wynkoop and three other high-profile Lower Downtown buildings. He opened or invested in another 30 restaurants.

Not all were successes. In 1997, for instance, he lost more than $100,000 on the Rocky Mountain Brewing Co. in Wyoming, which went bankrupt.

In 2003, when Hickenlooper was elected mayor, the couple’s income was $675,448. He had financial interests in 26 companies, income generated from a combination of 13 companies, rental property and trusts, and interests in eight properties, ranging from the Wynkoop Brewing Co. to a 50 percent interest in 590 acres in Park County, according to financial disclosures filed with the city of Denver.

Prior to taking office, Hickenlooper put his financial and business interests in a trust to avoid potential conflicts of interest. It was managed by three trustees. The trust included nine restaurants, Paradise Valley Country Club, two buildings at Mercantile Square, the Tremont Center building downtown and a building at 26th and Larimer streets.

In 2007, the trust sold Hickenlooper’s interest in seven remaining restaurants for $5.8 million. The sale of the Wyn koop was particularly difficult, Hickenlooper said.

“I didn’t know (the trust) had cut a deal to sell it,” he said, noting that he didn’t speak to the trustees for weeks afterward. “It was the right decision but it was just very hard.”

Currently, Hickenlooper has financial interests in Appian Ventures I LLP, a venture capitalist firm that focuses on technology; Soy Works Corp, which markets soy-based plastics; and Harrow Sports Inc., which manufactures athletic equipment and clothing.

Merritt, his spokesman, said there are no current plans to divest these interests if Hickenlooper is elected governor.

Hickenlooper’s trust currently contains: an 11 percent interest in the Mercantile Building complex, which includes the Tattered Cover and Dixon’s restaurant, rental property in West Denver and a diverse portfolio of stocks and bonds.

He also owns 264 acres in Park County.

Hickenlooper, whose father died of cancer when he was 7, attributes his financial success to elbow grease, supportive family and friends and a drive to escape the financial worries that his mother was forced to carry throughout her life.

He also gives more than a passing nod to good fortune.

“My father always said you have to work hard all your life, but it’s better to be lucky than good,” he said.

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