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District to buy land for mega-campus

In the midst of draconian budget cuts for the 2010-2011 school year (nearly 8 percent at $1.35 million) and an estimated additional $1 million expected to be cut for the following school year, the Archuleta School District 50 Joint has signed a $300,000 contract on 53 acres of land adjacent to the Pagosa Springs High School that could provide space for an educational campus in the distant future.

Instituting staffing cuts and freezing pay raises this year to meet budgetary demands, the land purchase does not come out the money pool that funds staff salaries or educational needs (the General Fund). Rather, money for the land purchase is being drawn from the Capital Improvement Fund, monies statutorily committed to various capital improvement needs (i.e. building construction or maintenance, buses, or land purchases).

For all intents and purposes, the district is buying the 53 acres for a song. The parcel, bordering Trujillo Road on the north and west side with the high school campus on the east, had been assessed at $3.4 million in 2007 (when a Planned Unit Development had been proposed for the parcel) before being acquired by Citizens Bank in a foreclosure — over 90 percent less than its original assessed value. Listed at $400,000 by the bank after that acquisition, the district was able to obtain a further 25-percent discount on the property.

The purchase was announced at Tuesday’s December meeting of the school board. According to Superintendent Mark DeVoti, the new property would be the first step in constructing an educational “mega-campus” where all three schools in the district — elementary, middle and high schools — would be located in the same area and away from the center of town.

“What if students did not have to cross the constant traffic of U.S. 160 to get to fields for P.E. classes every day?” DeVoti asked the board. “What if the current middle school campus between Fourth and Fifth streets (actually, Third and Fourth streets) someday became retail space, parking space, an area welcoming passer-by travelers to stop and park to enjoy the benefits of downtown?”

Although the notion of a mega-campus has been around for several years, the current land surrounding the high school does not provide sufficient room for additional buildings without sacrificing athletic fields, DeVoti said. Now, with the imminent purchase of the additional 53 acres, the district has taken the first step in realizing its dream in setting up a comprehensive educational complex.

DeVoti added that the district could recoup its initial $300,000 investment with the potential sale of 35 acres owned by the district on the west side of town.

In fact, that property is adjacent to the proposed location of a Big Box retail outlet, on the northwest corner of Vista Boulevard and U.S. 160. In September, the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, the Town of Pagosa Springs and the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (CDC) announced jointly that a large-format retail (Big Box) developer was exploring the possibility of locating a store in the area. In that joint press release, the corner of Vista and U.S. 160 was cited as the most viable location for a Big Box store by consultants hired by developers.

Should developers determine the viability of a Big Box in Pagosa Springs and proceed with its construction, the parcel of land owned by the school district abutting the proposed Big Box site would most likely see a dramatic increase in property value.

Likewise, should the district find funding for the construction of a new middle school (a distinct possibility given a Colorado Department of Education assessment of the junior high building done over the summer), the sale of the downtown property could provide a tidy sum for the district, given the property’s prime location for retail space.

“That’s wonderful news,” said CDC Executive Director Steve Vassallo regarding the district’s purchase. “The comments that have been made on numerous occasions is that they wish those schools were located somewhere else. These are business people, people knowledgable in economic development.

“It could do a lot for the town in a positive way, depending on what goes in there,” Vassallo added.

Although discussions for purchasing the 53 acres along Trujillo Road have been taking place for several weeks, DeVoti said that, “Up until this point, we needed to keep public discussion at a minimum to avoid creating competition from speculators who, if knowing the district’s desire to expand the campus, may either drive up the purchase price or purchase it before we could tie up the property for the district. We have seen that happen in the past on other sites.”

Several years ago, the district had considered purchasing property adjacent to where the current junior high and intermediate school buildings are located. At that time, public discussions over the purchase alerted speculators who then bought the property before the district could make an offer. That buyer then turned around to offer the same property eyed by the district — with a significant increase in the sale price.

Fortunately, the district was able to pull off a major coup for the purchase of the 53 acres (DeVoti said that the district should close on the property some time before Christmas), taking the first step toward relocating schools away from the downtown core and onto a cohesive and comprehensive campus.

DeVoti said that proceeds from the sales of the downtown properties and the 35 acres west of town could also be used to offset the cost of building new schools. As such, those proceeds, along with any state or federal funds, would negate the need for long-term or onerous bonds dedicated to the construction of those schools — particularly questionable (as far as voter approval) during difficult economic times.

Ultimately, a singular campus for all three schools would make good financial sense for the district. Not only would resources be focused into a single area (as opposed to being spread throughout the town), transportation costs would also be lowered significantly as buses would be taking students to a single location.

With the acquisition of the additional 53 acres, the school district has taken the first step in realizing its dream for an all-encompassing campus for educating area students. If fortune continues to rain on the district (as it did with roping in a sweetheart deal), that dream could become a reality sooner than later.