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Town council pursues big grant, in a big hurry

Some of a total of $50 million in state grant money could be awarded to Archuleta County and the Town of Pagosa Springs if area officials manage to present a successful application.

The question remains, though, whether that application gets submitted in time to meet a late-June deadline or if local governments can afford the $25,000 filing fee.

Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem explained the grant at the town and county’s joint work session last Thursday, telling those in attendance that the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade was offering the money for the development of infrastructure that would expand out-of-state tourism, as well as increase sales tax revenues from attracting those tourists.

The grant had been initially conceived with the purpose of attracting a NASCAR race to the state.

Although the grant was announced over 10 months ago, the opportunity did not come to the town’s attention until late April.

“There’s a $25,000 check required to apply for the grant,” Mitchem said. “I don’t believe that’s recoverable if we win.”

Conversely, that money would not be recoverable if the grant was not secured.

“It’s a lot of money, but there’s a lot of money on the table,” said county commissioner Steve Wadley. “We do have some shovel-ready projects available.”

In fact, Mitchem has proposed a number of projects, both newly-conceived and long-incomplete, in a patchwork of capital improvements to be included in the grant application.

Local projects that have awaited completion include the downtown Riverwalk (including a second pedestrian bridge) with the extension of that trail to the town’s eastern boundary; completing river features for fishing and whitewater recreation; and the Town-to-Lakes Trail.

Reservoir Hill development is also being proposed: the installation of restrooms; water, sewer and electrical improvements; an up-and-down chair lift, as well as a zip line; an observation tower; an amphitheater and restaurant; mountain bike rentals; an alpine coaster; a hockey-sized ice skating rink; an alpine ski circuit; road improvements and additional parking.

Mitchem’s plan also included completion of the geothermal greenhouse complex in Centennial Park, as well as full implementation of the Wayfinding Signage plan.

Finally, an indoor riding and multi-event facility at the fairgrounds (first proposed in late-2008 by the BoCC then later rejected in early 2009) was also tacked on to the proposal.

Town council member Shari Pierce raised objections at Thursday’s meeting as well as the Town Council meeting Tuesday night.

Citing her belief that Gov. Hickenlooper would extend the deadline for grant applications, Pierce asked if it would not be better to wait and carefully prepare an application rather than hastily attempt to meet the late-June deadline.

“I’m not against looking at this, but can’t we look at this a year down the road?” Pierce asked.

In fact, Pierce’s suspicions regarding an extension were correct: Hickenlooper is scheduled to sign House Bill 1311 into law tomorrow during his visit to Pueblo. HB 1311 not only extends the deadline a year, but increases the number of possible grant recipients from two to six.

Also expressing concerns about the extra amount of staff time needed to put proposals together, extra engineering needed and, given the short amount of time to complete the application, the ability to be competitive, Pierce said she was especially concerned that there was no time for public input.

“I don’t want us to compete with downtown businesses,” Pierce said Tuesday, referring to proposed features on Reservoir Hill such as a restaurant and mountain bike rentals. “I perceive a much different vision of that hill, I see that as an oasis as we grow as a town. People can hike and bike up there during their lunch hour.”

On Thursday, Pierce had also expressed concern that the town’s application would meet the state’s requirement for increasing tourism and that the $25,000 would be well spent.

“I’m not convinced we’re going to attract tourists here because we have a Town-to-Lakes Trail,” Pierce said. “I’d rather spend that $25,000 on research of our geothermal resources.”

However, on Thursday and the following Tuesday, Pierce was in the distinct minority, with the majority of commissioners and council members in favor of attempting to complete the application to meet the late-June deadline.

On Thursday, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon said that not pursuing the grant represented a lack of leadership. “I know we can’t be progressive if we sit and twiddle our thumbs,” Aragon added. “I think there’s nothing good that can come out of this if we just sit on our hands.”

That sentiment was echoed by Mitchem on Tuesday when he said, “Even if it’s not sent off (the grant application), you’ll have a capital improvement plan for tourism.”

“The potential is there to just have a unified plan in place,” added council member Bob Hart.

In fact, most of council expressed that merely trying would not hurt the town and that, if the application was insufficient after several weeks, the town could withhold the application.

Council member Don Volger said, “In two to three weeks we’ll know if we’re even in the running ... I don’t think staff time will be wasted.”

“Have you discussed this with staff and what was their response?” Pierce asked Mitchem.

Mitchem replied, “We have and some were enthused and others were not.”

“I think, I hope, if we’re whoopin’ a dead horse, we bail out,” added council member Darrell Cotton. “I think we go forward and let staff’s good judgement determine if we go forward with this.”

With just Pierce opposing, council voted to direct Mitchem and staff to proceed putting together the application.

“This will be an extraordinary community effort,” Mitchem said, explaining that staff from the county and the Community Development Corporation would assist in putting the application together, as would volunteers such as the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership.

On Thursday, Mitchem appointed Town Tourism Committee coordinator Jennie Green to take the lead organizing those community efforts.

Mitchem added that Davis Engineering would donate additional engineering for some projects and was in touch with other local engineering firms, asking them to also donate time to firm up proposed projects.

“At this time, I don’t see any additional costs,” Mitchem said regarding engineering needed to complete the application.

It should be at least two weeks before it is known whether or not the town will deliver the application to the state. However, the larger question will be, whether the application goes forward or not, if local residents approve of the overall scope of capital improvements in town.

Indeed, many of the proposed additions to the Reservoir Hill site are the result of proposals forwarded by the TTC and its Reservoir Hill task force subcommittee.

The TTC’s Reservoir Hill task force subcommittee meets today at 4 p.m. at the Ross Aragon Community Center. As of press time Wednesday, it was not known if the subcommittee will discuss amenities such as restaurants, observation towers or other features for Reservoir Hill.

What is known is that the lion’s share of proposed projects going into the Regional Tourism Act grant application were conceived and advocated by that subcommittee.

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