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Council approves Reservoir Hill plan

Amenities and infrastructure figured most heavily in discussions held by the Pagosa Springs Town Council last Thursday during an October mid-month meeting that saw attendees spilling out the door of council chambers.

Seeking approval for a $200,000 grant application from the Colorado State Parks and Wildlife State Trails Program, Town Planner James Dickhoff presented particulars that would complete a portion of the Town-to-Lakes Trail (the nomenclature taken issue with by Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon as, “Not sufficiently descriptive enough”).

According to Dickhoff, that portion of the proposed trail, set between Pinon Causeway and Piedra Road, would be funded with $200,000 in approved county 1A Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails (PROST) funds, $125,000 in county-awarded Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) funds (and a $25,000 county match), a preliminary pledge of $45,000 from the Pagosa Lakes Property Owners Association, as well as in-kind donations promised from the town.

In all, Dickhoff said that the project was estimated to cost $675,000, with $595,000 of that covered if the grant gets approved.

Trustee Shari Pierce asked how many property owners were involved in easement negotiations and if those easements had been secured (usually a precondition for grant applications).

“I don’t have an indication that the property owners aren’t willing to work with us,” Dickhoff responded.

Pierce then asked for an exact amount of how much money would ultimately be needed to secure funds necessary to complete the project.

Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon interrupted, asking Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte for his thoughts.

“The board of county commissioners heard this resolution last Tuesday,” Schulte said, “and it did pass the appropriated money.

“The county is very excited to move forward on this, we’re at the juncture where we can finally get something on the ground.”

“I would feel comfortable if we had a dollar amount,” Pierce continued.

Insistent that the grant deadline was close and needed to be met, Dickhoff said he was confident that his estimate was accurate. Pagosa Springs Manager David Mitchem added that, whatever the final cost, the 2010 budget had a line item to cover the cost of the expense of that portion of the trail.

Entrenched in her discomfort with not having a firm dollar value that the town would be committed for, Pierce was the only council member opposed to approving the grant application.

It was apparent that most of the meeting’s attendees were not there to hear about a trails grant. Following the vote to proceed with the grant application, former trustee Jerry Jackson presided over a PowerPoint presentation that described details of proposed amenities for Reservoir Hill.

For almost a year, the Town Tourism Committee had been directed by council to develop a business plan for Reservoir Hill. That direction followed council’s decision to purchase a decommissioned chair lift from the Cuchara Ski Area for installation on the northwest face of the hill.

However, what Jackson presented was not a business plan, but proposals for various amenities the TTC hoped to see installed on the hill, “The goal,” Jackson said, “is not to attract more tourists but to increase the length of visitation by the tourists we already attract. Create a more stable tourism business.”

In the presentation, Jackson claimed that the area had more than 244,900 room nights available and that around 80,000 of those were booked for occupancy. With the added amenities, Jackson’s presentation estimated that room nights would increase between 40,000 to 60,000 annually with an estimated increase of $196,000 to $294,000 in lodgers tax revenues and between $294,000 and $441,000 in increased sales tax revenues.

Adding that the proposed amenities could, “Provide an economic boost to Pagosa between $14 million and $22 million per year,” Jackson also said that the proposal would lead to the creation of, “15-20 direct jobs and many more indirect jobs in local stores and restaurants.”

Having presented the assumed benefits of the plan, Jackson then discussed which amenities the TTC had considered for Reservoir Hill and in town.

On the hill, the TTC proposed an amphitheater, a chairlift (which would not charge for rides), an alpine coaster, a zip line and a tethered hot-air balloon ride. In town, the TTC proposed a geothermally-heated “Sprayground” for one of the downtown parks (with no admission charge).

Among the advantages Pagosa’s amenities would have over competitors (Durango Mountain Resort, Glenwood Adventure Park and Breckenridge), Jackson said, are location, affordability (no entrance fee, rides priced lower than in competing parks) and easy access.

Jackson presented five options for operating, managing and financing the amenities. The town would own the amenities with a concessionaire responsible for management and operations; town ownership with a management team overseeing multiple concessionaires; the town leasing the land to a third party owning and operating the amenities; a combination of public and private ownership with external funding; and a combination of public and private ownership, but funded locally.

Addressing various funding options, Jackson said that the town could pursue grants, suggesting an arts-based grant to fund an amphitheater.

Again, Jackson incorrectly identified funding from the Regional Tourism Act (RTA) program as a “grant” — a misnomer that has been applied to that program several times by town and TTC officials.

In fact, the RTA program awards tax credits to approved projects that would increase out-of-state tourism in municipalities in Colorado. Furthermore, those programs are subject to a competitive process with applications considered only after potential financing for the approved projects has been structured.

Jackson also said that financing could be pursued through various loan programs or through third-party investments.

Jackson finished by saying that, should council approve the conceptual plan, the TTC would, “work with local merchants to determine how (the) initiative benefits their business.”

Following Jackson’s presentation, Mitchem suggested that public input should be solicited regarding the conceptual plan (although he was unclear if that input would be solicited by the town or the TTC).

However, the public attending Thursday’s meeting were more than happy to provide some preliminary input, most of it positive.

Only local resident Biz Greene spoke out against the concept.

Saying that she’s heard numerous praises of the area’s natural beauty, Greene said, “I’m opposed to the commercialization and mechanization of one of our true greatest assets.”

Speaking about formation of the TTC in 2006, Parelli CEO Mark Weiler said, “We’ve lived through the first phase of our evolution ... how do we develop the next phase of our growth?”

Adding on Weiler’s support, Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation Executive Director Rich Lindblad read a statement from the CDC that addressed the need for job creation in town and added, “It’s time for the town council to move ahead with this.”

Local Realtor Lisa Reeve said, “I think this is a huge step forward. The bottom line is jobs ... I saw the opportunity to create 20 jobs but that’s just the beginning. I believe that 20 is just scratching the surface.”

After several more attendees spoke in support of the concept, local business owner Cappy White expressed his support, but tempered his statement with his frustration at not seeing more infrastructure improvements in town.

“I’m always a little perplexed about the prioritization of this town,” White said, adding, “I really don’t want to leave these (infrastructure needs) in the wake of these bigger projects.”

White suggested that a portion of revenues realized from proposed amenities get set aside to make improvements to town infrastructure. However, White added that time was of the essence as Colorado ski resorts had begun petitioning the U.S. Forest Service to expand operations and allow summertime amenities.

With public comments closed, trustee Don Volger spoke to change in Pagosa Springs since he moved to town in 1973. “We had one paved street in town outside of (U.S.) 160 ... no street lights, no stop lights, no downtown restrooms.

“I don’t want us to become an Aspen or a Vail or even a Telluride, a playground for the rich,” Volger continued, adding that, while Reservoir Hill had long been a sanctuary of solitude in town, he didn’t think that the proposed amenities would distract from the hill’s charm.

“We can utilize it better and make this community more economically viable,” Volger said.

“As chair of the TTC, there’s no surprise where I stand on this,” said trustee Bob Hart. “14 to 22 million dollars could mean 100 jobs, even more.”

“I just want it to be clear that we’re approving the conceptual plan,” said Pierce, apparently cautioning the crowd and council not to place the cart before the horse. “Personally, I don’t think this is up to the town to bring in these amenities. I’d like to see some private people do that.”

Pierce reiterated her first point, “This is just the start.”

Prior to the vote, Pierce asked Mitchem, “Are we looking at spending money as we move to the next phase?”

Mitchem replied that there would be minimal expenditures of town money and staff time in pursuit of various financing packages and grant opportunities.

Following a unanimous vote to approve the conceptual plan and proceed with the next phase, Pierce asked for involvement from the town’s Parks and Recreation Committee (PRC).

“I guess I want to know to what extent,” asked Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon.

Pierce replied that she felt PRC members provided a valuable service to the town and that they should not be left out of discussions for the next phase.

Saying that he had attended numerous PRC meetings and felt there was no lack of communication between the TTC and the PRC, Town Parks and Recreation Supervisor Tom Carosello said, “I don’t think anyone on the PRC has felt slighted.”

While the PRC will most likely participate in further discussions regarding the development of amenities on Reservoir Hill, town council heard only a portion of opinions on what to do with the hill.

In the coming weeks and months, there could be many more opinions, both positive and negative, regarding the future of Reservoir Hill and the economic potential it presents.

jim@pagosasun.com

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