By Alan Gionet

DENVER (CBS4) – Banners were going up and streets were shutting down. Denver is again playing host to Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. Events start Thursday with the MLB Pitch Hit and Run and MLB Junior Home Run Derby at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The city knows a lot of eyes will be watching and hopes it draws in a lot of new people who hope to return.

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“It’s very important for our image, for our branding, and the expectation that we will have long term to boost our tourism numbers and investments in hospitality going forward,” said mayor Michael Hancock at a Coors Field news conference.

A few blocks away, business owner and host Jon Schlegel looks at it as a turning point, calling the game an “epic opportunity.” Schlegel got hit hard after opening the Attimo Winery on North Larimer Street in January of last year, just before the pandemic hit.

Schlegel had been travelling back and forth to Northern Italy where they were creating their wines. His partners in Italy were already being hit hard in the early days of the pandemic. Italy’s cases swelled.

“And they kept saying Giovanni, Jon, it’s not a matter of if, it’s when. This is coming, be ready,” he said. “We went from a staff of 33 people to four. I asked the four that remained to go to 60% salary because that’s all we could afford,” said Schlegel.

They did as much as they could to weather the cutbacks. A wine club helped. People who drive over to pick up wine.

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“We’d put the wine in the back, and they’d drive off, gloves, mask, the whole shebang,” he remembered. With financial help from the government and perseverance they came through.

Business is picking up, but it’s clear some people are slow to come back out. On Wednesday he talked with customers just out together again for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

When he went to bring staff back, he found many had had enough.

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“Even people that said they wanted to come back, they weren’t ready. They’d been sitting on couches and not working long enough, they’d collect enough unemployment.”

Some he says he does not expect to be seeking unemployment again until September when supplemental payments are due to run out.

“They had been tainted by going all in on this business then the industry yanked everything from them, and so it depleted their own passion for what this was all about.”

Now the big game may mean more people like he had hoped when he first opened.

“I think it’s more than just the All-Star Game. It’s the idea that we can come back to downtown Denver. We can be part of this fabric of humanity again.”

He believes people are thirsting for human interaction. Denver has issues to work on however. Among them, homelessness.

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“Denver’s got a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to the homeless population right now. There’s a lot of mental instability both in post-traumatic unemployment, the drug abuse. The graffiti is as intense as I’ve ever seen it down here. I hope that the city is ready to put the gas on that movement right there. There are too many people on the streets right now and in tents, and it’s not safe for them, and it’s not safe for the pedestrians.”

Common effort for the All-Star Game is a unifying purpose. One he hopes will help Denver emerge from COVID-19.

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“Coors Field is taking care of their business. The police department, the health and the hospitality industries, are doing everything we can because we want that vibrancy. Not for the paycheck but for the feeling of being back again in the world.”

Alan Gionet