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COLORADO `COW TOWN' BREEZES OUT OF BARN AS A SLEEK AND SHINING NEW URBAN ANIMAL

After decades of trying to shed its image as Cow Town USA, Denver is building its way into the urban big leagues.

"Denver is on the verge of joining the ranks of a handful of U.S. cities that have retained or rebuilt downtown areas - places like San Antonio, Boston and Seattle," said Phil Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a Denver think tank.A thread of caution runs through the boosterism, for the city's history has been punctuated by booms and busts since gold was discovered in 1859 at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek.

Denver's gold rush was short-lived, but gold and silver were found in the mountains to the west, and the city became a retail and railroad center, its economy tethered to fluctuating precious metal prices, and later, to oil.

The late 1970s oil crisis precipitated an exploration boom; the city sprouted a crop of skyscrapers that emptied when prices bottomed out in the mid-1980s.

"The '80s were a circumstance that you won't see repeated," said Max Wiley of the Mayor's Office of Business Development. "Denver's economy is much more diverse."

Oil no longer is the economy's main engine. In its place, telecommunications has thrived.

Forbes magazine listed Denver fourth on its list of the 100 Best Places for Smart Companies this year.

And the heart of the city, once its warehouse and railroad center, is being reborn as a residential, restaurant and entertainment district.

"The question is, will you be able to move high-end business, professional service firms and more residents into downtown?" Burgess said.

"The more lofts, condos, apartments - the more people we get living in downtown Denver the better off it is for restoring the social fabric of the community."

So far, few middle-class families have left the suburbs for the city; downtown is not family oriented, the cost is high and crime is a concern.

Last year, the murder rate jumped by 13 percent, with police handling 86 homicide investigations.

Denver had 7.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993, compared to New York's 23.2 murders per 100,000, Los Angeles' 21.3 murders per 100,000 and Miami's 18.1 murders per 100,000, the FBI says.

Still, there's a feeling of: If we build it, they will come.

Opening in the last two months alone were the $4.9 billion Denver International Airport; the Colorado Rockies' $215 million ball-park; and the $65 million Denver Public Library.

To help clean up the city's notorious brown cloud of pollution, a $116.5 million light-rail system was started in October.

Other big projects in the works, many near downtown, include an amusement park, an aquarium and a $132 million basketball arena for the Denver Nuggets.

"What is amazing here is the magnitude. It is almost without parallel anywhere in the country for a city of 2 million people to take on this kind of commitment," said John Prosser, an architect.