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County land lease delay becomes problematic

A proposed lease of five county-owned acres, located on Hot Springs Boulevard (across from the Town Hall), to the Pavilion at Pagosa Springs (a music-oriented nonprofit) for $1 per year for 10 years, has apparently created problems for the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation, as well as the Pavilion group in so far as obligations were prearranged that specified the county property for an event.

Last week, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners tabled the issue of the lease after the BoCC determined more time was needed for public input. The BoCC has scheduled a discussion on the lease for Feb. 8, at 3 p.m. in the commissioners’ meeting room.

However, that delay in a decision proved problematic to CDC Executive Director Steve Vassallo during Monday’s CDC board meeting, as he expressed that “commitments had been made” in providing a venue for the Nashville Songwriters Symposium scheduled for early July.

During discussions on the Pavilion issue, Vassallo asked Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon (representing the town on the CDC board) and Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem if they felt that town council would endorse the lease prior to the BoCC’s Feb. 8 meeting.

“I don’t wish to preempt the county or any decision they make,” Aragon replied.

Mitchem added that, while a discussion of the Pavilion was placed on council’s agenda for its Feb. 1 meeting, that discussion would most likely be tabled. In fact, that agenda item was listed as ‘postponed’ on Tuesday’s revised agenda.

Also attending the CDC meeting, Archuleta County Commissioner John Ranson (representing the county on the CDC board) and Commissioner Michael Whiting refrained from offering any commitment from the BoCC regarding the lease.

Stating that discussions with members of the Pagosa Springs Merchants Association suggested overwhelming support for the Pavilion, Ranson said, “I think this is about economic development.”

However, neither Ranson nor Whiting were willing to say which way the BoCC would vote next Tuesday.

Hoping to water down the lease proposal, Vassallo asked if the CDC board would draft an endorsement of a one-year lease, “while the county works out the details of a long-term lease.”

The CDC board voted to endorse a one-year lease, with Aragon and Ranson abstaining from the vote.

On Wednesday, Vassallo confirmed that he had made obligations with the Nashville Songwriters group for a venue on the Hot Springs Boulevard property.

“We committed to the venue, we had planned for that (the lease) to occur,” he said. “ We told everybody that was going to occur.”

Obviously, Vassallo nor the Pavilion group had anticipated that the issue of a lease would become the controversy that met the BoCC at its Jan. 25 meeting.

At that meeting, numerous local residents voiced opposition to the idea of the lease, some questioning the wisdom of the county tying up valuable property at such an inexpensive rate, but most feeling as though the proposed deal had been an attempt by the BoCC to circumvent the public process.

In fact, FolkWest Executive Director Crista Munro (who attended the Jan. 25 meeting) expressed those concerns — as well as others.

“I was shocked that I had to find out about this from a colleague in Durango just a few days before the meeting,” Munro said. “Had we been privy to negotiations, this could have gone differently.”

Munro also said she felt that the process not only diminished the importance of FolkWest and the fact that the group produces two of the county’s biggest money-making events, but was also a missed opportunity for local nonprofits to work together rather than working against each other.

Laura Moore, owner of the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, also said she felt that the public process had not been appropriately honored and that the lease agreement essentially subsidizes one business in favor of another. And, like Munro, Moore said she felt that an opportunity to grow the arts community in Archuleta County has been missed — to the detriment of that community.

“It’s not a good economic situation for anyone if we all don’t work together,” Moore said.

And although few people doubt the potential economic benefit of a Nashville Songwriters Symposium, it is apparent that wires have been crossed and toes stepped on in the rush towards economic development. Unfortunately, in this instance, it appears that the cart got well ahead of the horse as good intentions superceded good government.

jim@pagosasun.com