Local residents attending last Wednesday’s presentation by the Town Tourism Committee regarding plans for developing Reservoir Hill may have wondered about the value of statistics, especially as they related to public support for the proposed project.
Two days later, those same questions might have been asked again — except whatever answers might have been provided were suddenly and inexplicably removed from the public’s view.
Wednesday night started with a presentation by TTC member Thad McKain, explaining to about 85 attendees what the Pagosa Springs Town Council had approved as far as a conceptual plan for development on Reservoir Hill, as well as the estimated economic benefits from that development.
Last October, council not only unanimously approved that conceptual plan, which included the construction of numerous amenities on Reservoir Hill, but directed the TTC to gather information on the proposal, including investigating possible funding for the project, along with determining the will of town residents for development on Reservoir Hill.
It was the latter direction that became an issue in the meeting.
At the end of Wednesday’s TTC business plan presentation, McKain said, “I would like to point out, just as part of the work that we’ve done, we have been working on getting petitions signed. We have 436 signatures. These are folks that are endorsing the plan.”
When one audience member pointed out that “a poll in the paper” indicated a sizeable opposition to Reservoir Hill development, McKain responded, “I do recall that the paper did run one of their surveys. I don’t honestly remember what their numbers were.”
Actually, results from that informal three-option poll, published in the Nov. 10, 2011 edition of The SUN, indicated that, out of 353 responses to the question, “Should Reservoir Hill be developed for economic use?,” 14 percent chose, “Yes, it has great potential,” 15 percent chose “It’s already an economic asset,” and 71 percent opted for the “No, leave it as a natural resource,” response.
In response to another audience member asking how many of the signatures belonged to tourists versus town residents, McKain said, “I don’t have an exact breakdown but I can tell you, as I’m going through here, I see a great deal of Pagosa Springs listed,” but added, “I do see Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, other parts of Colorado.”
Council member Shari Pierce asked, “Were there two different versions of the petition?”
Indicating that two petitions had indeed been circulated — one version prior to October’s council meeting, one after, both with similar language — McKain read the language on the petition: “Please sign below if you support the development of recreational amenities on Reservoir Hill including a chair lift, alpine coaster, observation tower, treetop zip line tour, amphitheater and an enhanced trail system.”
McKain added, “Petitions we did prior to the conceptual plan for the town for their conceptually unanimous approval,” included language such as, “These amenities will also be used to attract more tourists to the area and encourage longer visitor stays,” as well as, “The goal of the Reservoir Hill project is to protect the resource while enhancing the user experience in downtown Pagosa Springs.”
However, Pierce made it clear that the “two versions” she was referring to had nothing to do with different petitions essentially stating the same thing. “Where are the petitions signed by people who don’t want it?” Pierce asked.
Stating a book had been placed next to a conceptual model of the project (displayed at a few area businesses as well as Town Hall and the Visitor Center) that had solicited comments, McKain said, “I’ve not seen a petition against it.”
When asked why opposing comments were not solicited, McKain responded, “Because we were asking for those that were for it.”
“I want to know who’s not for it,” Pierce said, “so I can make a good decision for town council.”
With questions coming from several audience members at once, regarding Pierce’s comment, McKain said, “The TTC is operating at the request of the town council. We operate with the unanimous conceptual agreement. That’s how we’re moving forward.”
“We asked you to gather information,” Pierce said. “That means both for and against, not just for.”
While McKain acknowledged Pierce’s point, town officials apparently took that issue to heart. By early the next day, an online poll for the Reservoir Hill proposal had been added to the town’s website, offering three options: Do everything proposed, build an amphitheater only, or do nothing.
For a day, it appeared as though the town was interested in gathering information, as Pierce had asked, regarding local opinion for or against the Reservoir Hill project.
That appearance by the town lasted only a day and, by early last Friday, the online survey was no longer on the town’s website.
On Friday morning, SUN staff contacted Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem to ask what had happened to the online poll. Mitchem replied that town staff had not meant to post the poll and that it had been a work in progress — a work in progress that had been live on the town’s website for over 24 hours, nevertheless.
“We were just playing with a tool we thought might help us gather information,” Mitchem said last Friday. “It was up by accident. A staff member that was playing with it didn’t realize that it could be accessed by the public.”
Citing technical issues, Mitchem added, “It was a tool we thought we could use and the machine couldn’t handle it. It doesn’t handle statistics very well and we were getting objections to the way results were reported. It couldn’t handle multiple answers.”
However, there are several problems with Mitchem’s explanation.
First of all, the “tools” Mitchem referred to exist on a server that hosts the town’s website — secure, password-protected and not accessible by anyone but by individuals who know the password. Furthermore, after all the bugs are worked out for a page under development, several steps are required before that page “goes live” on the Internet (i.e. is accessible by the public).
Secondly, generating online surveys is an extremely simple matter and has been a regular feature on blogs, Facebook pages and other websites — for years. In fact, it took SUN staff about five minutes to create a multiple-choice survey, with multiple results — at no charge — which can be viewed at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/DC38658.
Today, The SUN is featuring its own multi-option survey at www.pagosasun.com that will run through the next week.
Considering that the town’s survey had been available to the public for over a day, Mitchem was asked if results had been tabulated. Mitchem responded that there had indeed been numerous responses and that, “The results were 42 percent against and 58 percent for.”
However, local resident Mike Eason says he has a different recollection of the survey and results when he took the poll last Thursday.
“There were three options,” Eason said, “do nothing, do everything or just the pavilion. About three wanted everything, about 23 the pavilion and 27 nothing.”
When asked if survey results from the erstwhile poll could be sent to SUN staff, Mitchem responded, “I’m not going to do that. It was a mistake and we hadn’t meant for the poll to be online. You can do a CORA (Colorado Open Records Act) request if you want to, but I’m not giving you the results.
“It’s not something I think is important,” Mitchem said, regarding the results. “I’m not even sure it’s worth messing with. It’s a tool within the town’s website that wasn’t working they way we wanted it to.”
When asked if, “wasn’t working they way we wanted it to,” meant survey results, Mitchem denied that poll responses influenced the decision to pull the questionnaire.
Needless to say, if a CORA requirement for information gathered from a taxpayer funded website appears as obfuscation on the town’s part, that appearance is not without precedence.
During Wednesday’s presentation by the TTC, several funding options for the proposal were presented, including the potential award of money through the Regional Tourism Act (RTA). As has happened in the past, RTA funding was incorrectly identified as a “grant” — a misnomer applied to that program numerous times by town and TTC officials, despite several articles in The SUN pointing out that inaccuracy.
In fact, the RTA program is Tax Increment Financing (TIF), awarding tax credits to approved projects that ostensibly increase out-of-state tourism in municipalities in Colorado. Those programs are subject to a competitive process with applications considered only after potential financing for the approved projects has been structured.
Once awarded, RTA administrators determine an “enterprize zone” in a development area, calculating what sales taxes are expected within that zone prior to development and then, following development, rebating a percentage of sales tax paid that exceeds those determined in the initial calculation. That TIF also sets a limited amount of time on when those taxes are returned to developers, as well as a cap on how much will be repaid.
Despite numerous conversations during the past year between SUN staff and town staff over the RTA’s actual designation as a TIF (with no up-front money offered by the program), the TTC — an arm of the town — continued to call the program an “RTA grant” as late as last Wednesday.
Petitions, surveys and online polls aside, obfuscation could also seem to have been the foundation of the entire Reservoir Hill development business plan.
That plan arose a few months after council accepted a TTC proposal in late 2010 to purchase a decommissioned chair lift for proposed installation on Reservoir Hill.
At that time, TTC president Bob Hart (not yet appointed to a council seat) told council that the lift would, with minimal re-engineering, convey people up and down the hill for summer festivals and activities, as well as expanded skiing, snowboarding and sledding during the winter. Hart told council that the TTC would need $41,000 to disassemble the lift.
At that time, the TTC estimated that installing and re-engineering the lift would run over $300,000 and that operation costs would exceed $140,000 per year.
Those latter cost estimates were provided by Wolf Creek Ski Area owner Davey Pitcher during the initial December 2010 TTC presentation. Basing his estimate on the comparable Bonanza lift at Wolf Creek, Pitcher said then, “It’s going to take 7,000 people paying $20 a ticket just to pay for maintenance.”
Wednesday’s TTC presentation proposed no cost for lift rides.
“I’m not saying it can’t be done,” Pitcher added at the December meeting, “but I’m kind of dubious if this is the right lift or the right time.”
Several days later, council approved allocating $41,000 to the TTC (in early 2011, the town paid Hart’s company an additional $6,000 to transport the lift) with the condition that the lift be stored and covered at the town’s wastewater treatment lagoons and that the TTC develop a business plan for installing and operating the chair lift.
Over a year later, the chair lift remains uncovered and in pieces at the town’s wastewater treatment facility while the accompanying business plan, stipulated by council, has evolved into a proposal for the construction of numerous amenities meant to attract or retain area tourists.
Seemingly, the business plan developed by the TTC (first presented last October to council) exceeds the original intent of justifying the expense of constructing and operating a chair lift on Reservoir Hill. In fact, in last Wednesday’s presentation, the lift was almost peripheral to overall plans of constructing numerous recreational amenities in the park. What had been the primary driver for the development of a business plan in early 2011 had, during last Wednesday’s presentation, become just another proposed feature in a much expanded plan.
The TTC has planned another public forum for its proposed plan on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 6 p.m. in the South Conference Room at the Ross Aragon Community Center.