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Change is in store for an urban Indian center

DENVER – The Denver Indian Center has reached the quarter-century mark at its present location, a magnet for Native residents and visitors alike and the site of hundreds of pow wows and scores of programs over the years.

Denver Indian Center has been a “community of culture” of the kind Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, called urban Indian centers during a visit to the city last year. She said centers unite Native people with common values who may not always have access to “communities of place” as exist on their reservations or in Indian communities.

But change may be in the air for DIC as urban redevelopment focuses on the area. Although the street outside the building displays distant mountains in one direction and downtown Denver in the other, the immediate view is mainly of auto repair businesses, boarded up shops, bars and trailer parks.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, asked to comment on DIC’s future, said the city “looks forward to continuing to work closely with the center and the American Indian community” as redevelopment progresses.

Foreclosed businesses adjoin Denver Indian Center, where needed renovation, expansion, or replacement may be postponed because of harsh economic conditions and despite a neighborhood redevelopment plan along a corridor that now is home to auto parts and auto repair stores, bars and trailer parks.

The neighborhood around DIC is described by other city officials as being “in the heart of Denver’s Latino community” and is slated for transformation into a “mercado-like” (market) area where various programs would assist businesses that serve neighborhood needs.

From being home to a cluster of Indian families some years ago, the area has become an urban locale where three-fourths of residents are Hispanic, and the trend is continuing. Last year, the American Indian population declined by nearly 30 percent while the Hispanic population increased by eight percent.

Jay Grimm, Navajo, DIC executive director, is taking a wait-and-see stance about the center’s fate in its present location, noting that a rehabilitated DIC in a scenic plaza – one of the ideas being circulated in city planning – might work well. If nothing proves viable, however, another location may be in the center’s future.

Grimm knows the center may have to move if there isn’t enough room to bring Denver’s Indian service agencies into one location, a concept agency heads have discussed over the years and appear to increasingly favor.

“I see (the city’s redevelopment plan) as the catalyst to either dig in deeper here or allow us to work to get another location with the other (Indian services) agencies, hopefully near light rail – but it takes time.”

DIC’s fate is important to one Denver City Council member, among other people. “As a child, I lived only a couple of blocks away from the Indian center and I could hear the drumbeats,” recalled Paul Lopez, from southwest Denver, where DIC is located.

Lopez stressed kinship when asked to comment on the city’s plan for the area. “I would say that both indigenous Americans and Mexican-Americans have the same needs and similar challenges.” He termed DIC “one of the cultural diamonds” in the area and “the cultural epicenter of our neighborhood.”

He is among the proponents of the multicultural mercado concept for the neighborhood, where there would be food stores and others that serve residents’ needs, downplaying bars, convenience stores, predatory lending establishments and liquor stores.

The center, a former elementary school in need of renovation, sits on a $1 million property, but it is next to a foreclosed laundromat and convenience store, and across from trailer courts and auto repair shops. Currently, DIC does not have the money to buy the foreclosed properties. That clouds DIC’s future despite private donations to a fundraising campaign Grimm has undertaken to restore a stronger financial base.

Derek Woodbury, of the city’s Office of Economic Development, said DIC’s future was discussed with Grimm in a recent meeting, but “at this juncture, there are no specific projects on the drawing board.”

Current resources are limited, Woodbury said, but “when appropriate, economically feasible and as part of a calculated strategic initiative, OED will consider providing resources for a development project(s) in a partnership with the Denver Indian Center and other interested parties.”

Jerrilie Bylsma is executive director of the nonprofit Morrison Road Business Association of Denver. Grimm is a member of the board as a representative of DIC, which he describes as the “largest nonprofit agency” along the target corridor.

The association wants to bring in businesses that serve the area, including a small grocery store, Bylsma said. She would also like to see, for example, a children’s store, a Spanish-language theater and book store, and an open, community-friendly plaza, which would replace two existing trailer courts.

But she points out that although one trailer court owner is willing to sell, a purchaser other than the city could step in with an offer that, assuming it did not violate city code, would probably be accepted – even if the plan was for another trailer court.