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Pot stirred at CDC meeting

The 800-pound gorilla in the room — last week’s announcement by Wal-Mart that it would be locating a store in Pagosa Springs — was largely ignored by the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation at Monday’s board meeting, and then was only addressed after SUN staff asked how the group planned to respond to various issues raised by area business owners.

That question, raised just before Monday’s meeting adjourned, was never answered by the board. Furthermore, CDC executive director Rich Lindblad implied that it was the direction of the CDC to court potential new businesses rather than answer anxieties expressed by existing business owners in the area.

Following that brief explanation, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon (and CDC board president) made it clear that the discussion was finished.

In fact, it was a meeting that saw Aragon directing the proceedings with an iron fist, cutting short comments by several audience members, making it clear that he, as board president, had heard enough.

Aragon’s apparent lack of patience with public input reflected a fractious, disorganized board that, despite almost two years of meetings and over $200,000 in public funding, has accomplished almost nothing as far as community or economic development and probably feels a certain degree of frustration.

At the start of the meeting, County Commissioner Clifford Lucero took his seat as BoCC representative on the CDC board, replacing County Commissioner Michael Whiting — a move that was reported in last week’s edition of The SUN.

Last week’s article went on to report that Whiting said the move was no surprise to him because he was pushing the CDC board to be accountable, but that either “people or a person” with the town were pushing Lucero and County Commissioner Steve Wadley to remove him from the CDC board.

Whiting said two particular people on the CDC board didn’t like him questioning the organization’s accountability and that one of those people, “compelled the two most politically vulnerable commissioners” to take him off the board.

On Tuesday, both Lucero and Wadley said that, while they had been approached by “a number of” CDC board members regarding the desire to replace Whiting, they would not specify who made suggestions. Both denied that pressure to replace Whiting had been applied by Aragon.

“It was not one particular person at all,” Lucero said on Tuesday.

“I was talked to by several people on the CDC that a change in county representation was needed,” Wadley also said on Tuesday. “It was not driven by the mayor.”

Wadley added that Whiting had been guilty of a couple of missteps early during his board tenure.

First of all, immediately following the resignation of Mike Alley, Whiting led the CDC board meeting, seemingly disregarding Aragon’s position as board vice-president. Although the board had not yet voted to replace Alley, Wadley said that Whiting, “Was out of line.”

At that meeting, Aragon was visibly annoyed when Whiting assumed leadership in Alley’s absence. Whiting later apologized to the mayor and the board.

Secondly, Wadley pointed to a motion Whiting made that would have allocated $15,000 of CDC money to fund a geothermal resource assessment. It was understood that $15,000 was part of a donation from the town of Pagosa Springs and Whiting’s motion was viewed by the mayor as an attempt to supercede town council’s authority (council was debating the allocation at that time), especially since the BoCC had approved the allocation of its own $15,000 for the assessment.

Whiting withdrew that motion during the same meeting.

However, although both Lucero and Wadley conceded that Whiting’s concern over the CDC’s lack of a 2012 budget, along with the lack of a firm fund-raising plan, was “entirely appropriate,” both commissioners said that problems with Whiting’s seat on the CDC board were articulated by “several board members” and not specific to Aragon.

That was not the story Whiting told on Tuesday, however.

“I ask a few relevant questions about accountability in how we spend tax money,” Whiting said on Tuesday, “and the mayor decided he didn’t like that, or me. He took action behind the scenes, first on the CDC board, and failing that, moved on to have me removed from the CDC by my fellow commissioners. By that point the friction is so intense people are softened up, and since he’s ‘not going anywhere,’ something has to give.

“A little pressure here and there. A couple of hostile meetings, like last night’s (Monday’s CDC meeting). Presto, the person asking the questions is handled as Ross was declaring a month in advance. I’m not the first person, group or business to get handled. But I won’t be handled in the dark, or quietly. The taxpayers and voters who elected me deserve better.”

Whiting added, “I will be heard on the same questions regardless of whether or not I am on one of Ross’s boards. My comments last night about how much tax money will be devoted to Rich trying to offset the impacts to small businesses caused by Wal-Mart is important. Eighty-five percent of the CDC budget (still not approved) is tax dollars. That is far too high a percentage. Devoting three quarters of that to helping small businesses survive Wal-Mart is the first taxpayer subsidy of the big box.

“As of last night: no website, no budget, no fund-raising plan to get the CDC off public assistance, no strategy. None of these things were even on the Mayor’s CDC meeting agenda. Why?”

Among other things, Whiting was referring to the fact that the CDC’s website is composed entirely of a page carrying the message, “Thank you for your interest in the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation. We are currently updating our site and apologize for the inconvenience.”

That website message (along with the accompanying lack of web pages) has greeted visitors to the CDC website since late summer 2010, when previous pages had been scrapped following a decision by the board that the previously designed site was inappropriate for the newly-reorganized group.

The previous website had been designed and administrated by Bone Marketing, a firm from Mississippi contracted by Steve Vassallo (whose wife was employed by that firm) — the CDC’s first executive director and formerly from Mississippi — and, many felt, betrayed the mission of local economic and community development.

Last year, the CDC board decided to terminate the Bone Marketing contract, awarding site design to Pagosa resident Marcy Mitchell in late August.

When asked on Tuesday why the site remained nonfunctional, Mitchell responded, “They (the CDC) were supposed to provide me with sample pages ... they were supposed to get me content that they wanted.”

Mitchell added that, while she had constructed much of the site’s pages, CDC representatives had not yet reviewed the work she had completed.

“I think they’ve got a lot on their plate,” Mitchell said, regarding Lindblad taking the CDC helm in September.

Nevertheless, Mitchell said she had no idea what the CDC had been doing to make the site live since Lindblad’s executorship starting nearly five months prior.

Despite the fact that the CDC has not provided prospective businesses with an online presence for over a half year, Aragon stated that he felt that the CDC had accomplished enough, but that Whiting stood as an obstacle to further accomplishment, saying, “He gets out in front of something and it fails.”

He furthermore denied that he had anything to do with Whiting being taken off the CDC board. “I think it was more than that,” Aragon said, “I don’t know why he’s pointing his finger at me.

“If it had been up to the CDC board, it would probably have been unanimous,” Aragon said, noting tensions he felt existed between the board and Whiting.

Whiting suggested that friction with the mayor had been an ongoing issue. Last month, Whiting circulated an e-mail among GGP members (see related article) relating a telephone conversation with Aragon in which, Whiting claimed, Aragon had told Whiting, “Your services are no longer required on the GGP board,” adding that he (Aragon) felt that Whiting’s continued participation with the project was “negative.”

Aragon stated that he had indeed told Whiting that his services were no longer needed with the GGP.

“He hasn’t made any progress, as far as I know,” Aragon said Tuesday.

Whatever Aragon’s objections were to Whiting, his county nemesis appeared to carry some weight with his arguments, considering that the first order of business at Monday’s meeting (not included on the posted agenda) was to appoint a subcommittee for the purpose of configuring a 2012 budget — to be presented more than a month after the start of the year.

When Whiting reminded the board that certain items would be line items in a nonexistent budget, Aragon likewise reminded Whiting that he was no longer part of the board, adding, “Your time is up.”

It was a comment that Aragon repeated several times throughout the meeting, applying it to audience members as innocuous as Andrea Lyle (presenting on a “Be the Change” proposal) and as important as Ed Morlan (asking why the CDC would not address nearly $1 million in public money regarding broadband connectivity).

It was what Aragon told SUN staff after the board was asked what had happened to the so-called “Rapid Response Team” (RRT).

Under Vassallo’s leadership, the CDC board had been directed to form an RRT in order to woo a prospective entrepreneur, ostensibly providing information on local properties, tax credits, schools and other reasons to locate here.

Pointing to Marion Francis and Mike Alley (two previous CDC board members attending Monday’s meeting), SUN staff commented on the transitory nature of the board and the apparent ineffectiveness of the RRT.

“You (Alley and Francis) and the mayor remember when you attempted to form the Rapid Response Team,” SUN staff said. “It never went anywhere. Why not retool it to respond to the anxiety I’m hearing from small business owners in town?”

Lindblad responded, “That was formed to answer questions from new business owners, not existing business owners.”

When asked if the RRT could be reformed to respond to the concerns of existing business owners, Aragon said, “When I became a member of the CDC, my vow was to protect the interests of existent business owners in this area. I hold to that vow.”

When asked if a CDC RRT would reach out to those local business owners concerned with the effects of a big box, both Lindblad and Aragon made it clear that there was nothing for local businesses to fear.

“We’ve already talked about that,” Lindblad said, referring to the class he has been teaching the past few years through the Small Business Development Center (at around $500 tuition and with no curriculum dealing with big box survival).

“Those businesses have nothing to fear,” Aragon said, adding, “That’s all I’m saying, Mr. McQuiggin.”

With that, the meeting was over.

jim@pagosasun.com

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