In April 2018, Five Points residents packed into the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library to get a peek at Chauncey Billups.
The former NBA player and current Portland Trail Blazers coach – and a Denver native – announced that he was going to be involved in the remodel of the historic Rossonian hotel.
Four years later, with construction nonexistent, Billups has long since left the project. His manager, Silas White, told BusinessDen that he pulled out in 2019, a year after the fanfare; that has not previously been reported.
“Unfortunately, due to the change of vision and direction, as well as promises made to Mr. Billups and the community, Chauncey is not involved with anything to do with the Rossonian project,” White said.
The Rossonian, at 2650 Welton St., was built in 1912 and once had a prominent jazz club, which hosted musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The structure has been vacant since the late 1990s.
In 2018, Palisade Partners, which purchased the property the year before, unveiled plans to reopen it as a 41-room hotel, with a jazz club and ground-floor restaurant set to be named after Billups.
Palisade’s current partner in the redevelopment effort is Denver-based private equity firm The Flyfisher Group. Flyfisher became an investor in the Rossonian project in 2019, the same year Billups pulled out, according to former FlyFisher employee Haroun Cowans.
The Flyfisher Group is led by CEO Matthew Burkett, and has ties to Denver native billionaire Robert Smith. And the firm is facing a tenant rebellion. Multiple businesses sued by Flyfisher told BusinessDen last month that Burkett is burdening them with bogus charges and attempting to wrest control of their operations. Burkett described the lawsuits as a last resort and standard fare when contract terms are broken.
Billups indicated his short time on the Rossonian project didn’t overlap with Flyfisher.
“I have never been in business with the Flyfisher Group,” Billups said in a statement to BusinessDen. “Also it is very disappointing to hear what is happening in the community that I love so much.”
Palisade President Paul Books confirmed Billups’ withdrawal.
“I admire his wife and him and appreciate them greatly,” Books said in an email.
Redevelopment pursued for more than a decade
Four years after Palisade purchased the Rossonian, renovations have yet to begin.
Palisade Director of Finance Tim Welland told BusinessDen last month that redevelopment efforts were affected by COVID but are still progressing, and that construction could begin next year. Books reiterated that last week.
“We aren’t planning to provide updates, besides the fact we are still pushing to make it a reality … We want to avoid any additional starts and stops and want there to be firm plans that are underway going forward when additional news is shared,” Books said in an email.
Efforts to revive the building pre-date Palisade. Cowans, Flyfisher’s chief real estate officer before leaving in May last year, worked with the various owners of the Rossonian on redevelopment plans since 2009.
Cowans, a Denver native, said he first got involved working as a contractor for Civil Technology, a real estate firm owned by Carl Bourgeois. Bourgeois had purchased the Rossonian for $800,000 in 2006, but told BusinessDen last week that the cost of resurrecting the building was too challenging.
“I worked on the Rossonian for several years, trying to figure out how to finance the reconstruction, but we found out that the infrastructure around Washington and Welton Streets was so out of date that it would take $16 million to fix, and that wasn’t on the budget or in the plan,” Bourgeois said.
Cowans said he worked for Bourgeois until 2012, then left to start his own group to purchase the Rossonian. Cowans said Bourgeois had agreed to sell the property to him, but ultimately went another route.
Bourgeois told BusinessDen that he did not recall Cowans working on the Rossonian project while at Civil Technology, or Cowans trying to buy the building from him. But Cowans showed BusinessDen years-old emails supporting his account.
Instead, Bourgeois decided to bring on other local developers to help complete his vision, including Palisade, whom he worked with on a nearby apartment building called The Lydian.
But Bourgeois said negotiations kept changing, and he decided to just sell the property to Palisade for $6 million in 2017.
“I was worn out, and I wanted to move on,” Bourgeois said. “Even today, I wish them well, and I hope somebody figures out how to complete it. It deserves to be a fantastic project since it’s probably one of the most famous buildings in Colorado. And I had the honor to at one time be part of the ownership there, which is probably all I’m known for.”
When Cowans, who was working as a broker for NAI Shames Makovsky at the time, heard Palisade had bought the property, he reached out to Books to see if he could get involved. In 2018, Cowans said, he signed a memorandum of understanding with Palisade to purchase a third of the Rossonian. Billups, who joined the project a short time later, had the same deal, according to his manager.
Cowans set up the public announcement in April 2018 to surprise the community with Billups’ involvement. A week later, he said, he got an email from Matthew Burkett.
A Rossonian booster ends up on the outside
Cowans knew Burkett because he had an office in the same building as Flyfisher, but had never worked with him previously. The two met at Coffee at the Point, and Burkett offered Cowans a job.
“[Burkett] said, ‘Haroun, I have this platform for you, and now you can finally get deals done,’” Cowans told BusinessDen. “He told me, ‘We don’t need to work against each other in the Five Points community. I think God brought us together, and I want to make sure there are other black millionaires around me.’”
Burkett declined to comment for this story.
Cowans saw it as an opportunity to get a single investment for the Rossonian, rather than recruiting a group of investors. He joined Flyfisher in 2018.
That year, a Flyfisher-related entity paid $3.8 million for the two buildings between the Rossonian and the Hooper, a nine-story apartment building on the same block, records show. The company then presented a larger Rossonian redevelopment project to Palisade.
In 2019, Flyfisher became a significant investor in both the Rossonian and the Hooper, Cowans said. When this happened, Cowans’ and Billups’ deals essentially dissolved, White said.
“I told [Burkett] I wanted to make sure I still had equity in the Rossonian, but that conversation somehow always got delayed,” Cowans said.
Burkett’s plan was to rebuild the property as a 70-room hotel with a ground-floor restaurant and performance space in the basement. Cowans said they had hired a general contractor and were interviewing hotel management companies before he left Flyfisher.
Cowans said he left Flyfisher in May 2021 because of a “misalignment” between Flyfisher’s stated plans for the community and what was actually happening.
Cowans said he also noticed a change in Burkett.
“He wanted to be the face of Five Points. Period,” he said.
Flyfisher tenants that spoke to BusinessDen last month, who also claimed a change in Burkett’s behavior, attributed it to a falling out between Burkett and Smith. A representative of Smith said last month that the billionaire’s dealings with Flyfisher and Burkett “have decreased in recent years.”
Cowans said he was getting tagged in social media posts about the landlord-tenant disputes and local community members were reaching out to him for answers.
“I didn’t want people to think I’m associated with this misalignment,” Cowans said.
A Flyfisher-related entity sued Cowans in November claiming he failed to pay back a promissory note of $31,000, which Cowans described as a retention bonus. Cowans said he was sued after FlyFisher failed to request the payments for two months, and that he has already paid back about $16,500. Burkett also sued Cowan’s assistant at Flyfisher over an alleged breach of an employee confidentiality agreement; that case has since been settled.
Cowans has now started his own company, Goshen Development, and said he wants to “use business as a tool for good.” But after a decade of hoping he’d be part of the Rossonian’s next chapter, he is firmly on the outside looking in.
“I was sad about walking away from a project that I’m so passionate about, but I’m glad to do it because I did it for the people in the community where I live and that I love,” Cowans said. “The project is one thing, but what the Rossonian represents and the people mean more to me. It’s hypocritical to build a shiny new hotel, but presently find ways to overthrow others.”