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Council to consider Reservoir Hill Plan

A good journalist strives to be fair and balanced, to report all of the facts without expressing a personal opinion or advocating for one side of an issue or the other, to let the reader make up his or her own mind concerning the nature of the truth. In this spirit and in the interest of honesty and full disclosure, it must be revealed that this reporter was one of the first people to sign a petition against the proposed development of Reservoir Hill.

One morning last winter, John Steinert, a senior snowboarding instructor at Wolf Creek Ski Area, brought the petition to work and asked everyone to sign it. A longtime Pagosa resident, Steinert served on the town board and owned a snowboard rental business in town for years.

When one of the first-year instructors asked what was happening, Steinert explained that the town wanted to build all sorts of amenities on Reservoir Hill, including a chair lift, an alpine coaster, and a terrain park for skiers and snowboarders.

This instructor, new to Pagosa Country and unaware of what Reservoir Hill was, asked, “Well, as a snowboarder, don’t you think that would be a good idea, John? Wouldn’t you like to have something like that in town so you could use it on your days off and not have to drive all the way up here to Wolf Creek?”

“No,” Steinert said. “They are going to take Reservoir Hill away from locals.”

Steinert went on to explain his fear that, in the interest of making a buck off of the tourists, the town council was going to take a recreational feature locals have depended on for years and enjoyed for free, and fence it off so they can charge everyone an expensive admission fee.

“If they build all of these things, they are going to have to fence it off for safety reasons,” he explained. “Even the zip-line thing, which they say isn’t going to have any impact because it will all be up in the treetops. Despite what they claim, they will have to fence that area off because no insurance company is going to cover it if they let people walk underneath while people are riding above them. And what would keep someone from going up there at night when it was closed, climbing a tree and riding the zip-line for free?”

That was one side of the story.

The other side of the story was presented by Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem at a town council retreat held last Friday.

A retreat is different from a meeting in that no decisions are made. It is a less-formal situation, designed to allow for the free discussion of issues, ideas and strategies without the need to reach any definite conclusion or take any official actions, and also without any interference or argument from the public.

Before Mitchem began his presentation on the proposed Reservoir Hill development, he reiterated that this topic would be brought up again at the next town council meeting and would be voted on in front of the public. That meeting takes place today, Thursday, Aug. 23, at noon.

Mitchem began a PowerPoint presentation by showing a quote from an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette that complains about the lack of things to do near the hot springs. Then he turned it over to Jennifer Green, the director of the Town Tourism Committee, to explain the lodgers tax numbers.

While Green was able to tout a 25-percent increase in the amount of lodgers’ tax collected since 2007 when the TTC first began promoting Pagosa as a tourist destination, “As a community, we are still operating at well below a healthy lodgers’ occupancy rate,” she said.

She explained that the industry standard for a healthy occupancy rate is between 55 and 60 percent. In 2011, the state average was 61 percent, and in Durango it was 57.5 percent, but in Pagosa Springs it was only 42.3 percent.

While explaining a chart that showed monthly lodging occupancy rates for 2007 and 2011, Green pointed out that July 2011, as the strongest month of the year for tourism, was only approaching 66 percent, and that November 2011 was an anomaly since Wolf Creek was the only ski area in the state with decent snow levels for the Thanksgiving holiday. She noted there is no guarantee that will happen every year.

Mitchem explained his goals for the growth of tourism, which included creating more family-oriented tourism, increasing the length of visits, creating a more stable job environment, minimizing the off-season valley effect and providing affordable family activities while still preserving the natural beauty of Reservoir Hill.

Mitchem claimed that the purpose of the Reservoir Hill development plan was, “increasing tourism by 50 percent over the next three to five years.” He went on to explain if that goal is met, there will be $15,859,996 in new sales for businesses and $4,315,633 in new room bookings.

This would allow the town to collect $317,200 in additional sales tax and $211,466 in additional lodging tax. Mitchem also projects it will create 396 new jobs. It would be his recommendation that the town and the TTC use this projected additional tax income to finish the Riverwalk and the Town-to-Lakes Trail, which had been the topic of a heated discussion earlier in the retreat.

“One of the things we are trying to accomplish,” Mitchem said, “is to draw from our surrounding communities, from South Fork, Durango and other communities that are bleeding off tourists from us. We’re creating leakage to those communities now. People come and stay, for example, at the Wyndham, and they might spend a day in Pagosa Springs, but they’re spending multiple days in communities to the east and west of us.”

Mitchem claimed that developing a stable tourism base will promote more diversity in the local economy, “and right now, given our occupancy rates, we don’t have either sustainability or stability in our tourism industry.”

Mitchem went on to explain that the Reservoir Hill proposal was an activities-based solution for expanding tourism instead of an events-based one. “For sustainability, for long-term growth in the tourism industry, activities provide a much more secure foundation than events. Don’t misunderstand: we’ve got to do both. We’re not saying we should abandon events in favor of activities. We should do both, but we need to focus our attention on activities.”

Mitchem presented spreadsheets that laid out the costs of the plan and the projected profits. “Those numbers were verified as conservative numbers by Fort Lewis College,” he said. In the spreadsheets, he estimated the cost of installation would be $4.3 million, but that it would generate $1.6 million in profit every year.

At this point, Mitchem began to explain the various amenities that comprise the development plan, beginning with the chairlift. “The chairlift is the pivot point for this package,” he said. “Without the chairlift, you will not see the people stay longer. We will not attain that longer stay we are shooting for.”

He then listed the other components: a zip line, an amphitheater, an alpine coaster, an observation tower, a hot air balloon ride and a spray park for kids. “What we are trying to do is create a synergy of activities, a portfolio of activities that people can participate in.”

As an example, Mitchem envisioned taking his one-year-old granddaughter to the spray park while other members of his family rode tubes down the river, and both groups would be able to watch each other, since everything is within close proximity to all the other activities.

The zip line, he noted, might not be appropriate for some members of the family, while other family members would love it. “You need a mix of activities in order to keep families here, and families aren’t going to participate in each one of them; they’ll pick and choose. That mix is critically important.”

Mitchem then explained that the revenue-generating amenities (the zip line, the alpine coaster and to a lesser extent, the hot air balloon rides) would pay for all of the free amenities (the amphitheater, the observation tower, the spray park and the chairlift). “The free chairlift gives a strong economic advantage and it gets a lot of people up on the hill participating in activities. It keeps them there longer. It keeps them in town longer.”

This connection between all of the activities, this synergy as he described it, is why Mitchem claimed the development needs to be all or nothing. Accepting some parts of the plan and denying the others wouldn’t work. Each feature is an integral part of the whole.

Mitchem then broke it down and began to present information on each component of the plan, beginning with the free chairlift.

He emphasized several times that, while the chairlift would operate year-round, it was not intended to serve a downhill ski area. Sledding and some snowboarding would be possible, but the main focus would be on summer activities.

C. K. Patel, the owner of Quality Resort and Suites and a member of the TTC, presented the numbers for Red River, N.M., which has a similar chairlift, but charges an average of $11.50 per rider. That amenity had 25,201 riders in 2011.

Next, Mitchem assured the council the zip line would have almost no impact on the environment of the hill, with all of the platforms and cables attached up in the tree canopy. A professional arborist would be hired to monitor the health of the trees.

“Right now at least one of the zip line operators in Durango is saying they are getting 20 percent of their business from Pagosa Springs, and that particular group wants to come here and start the zip line here,” Mitchem said. He also said that, according to Mary Jo Coulehan, executive director of the Pagosa Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, “One of the major requests at the Visitor Center is, ‘Where can we go to ride the zip line?’”

The alpine coaster would operate year-round, winter and summer, unlike the alpine slide at Durango Mountain Resort, which can only operate in the summer because it sits down on the ground. The coaster proposed for Reservoir Hill, “has no permanent footprint. It sits on metal skids. It does not sit on concrete footers,” Mitchem explained.

He claimed that the coaster would cash-flow well, creating a quick return on the investment, and that it would be completely safe (passengers are strapped in and the carts cannot come off of the tracks, unlike at DMR, where carts are not attached to anything and have been known to fly out of the slide if the speed is not controlled properly by the rider).

One change to the original development plan concerned the amphitheater, and came about because of public reaction and comment.

“There are a lot of positive reasons to move the amphitheater to Town Park,” said Mitchem. He claimed it would have less impact on Reservoir Hill, it would be more accessible, it would be visible from U.S. 160, it would have more of an impact on downtown businesses and it could save $400,000 dollars in infrastructure costs.

“The spray ground is slated for the Mary Fisher Park adjacent to the river, so kids and adults can play in the spray park while others are enjoying the river,” Mitchem said. Also, if it were hooked up to the geothermal features in that area, it would be able to stay open longer.

Mitchem concluded his presentation by saying, “The decision on this development, as far as an economic driver for the community, is more important than the decision the council made on Wal-Mart.”

He backtracked at this point and rephrased, “Or on opening up the town statutes to allow a large format retailer. This will have a larger impact and a sustainable impact.”

At this point, the discussion turned to the reaction of the community to this plan.

“Over the last eighteen months there have been over seventy publicly held meetings on the Reservoir Hill development,” Mitchem claimed as he handed out a stack of papers to each council member.

This packet contained signed petitions and printed comments from a survey on the town’s website. Also in the handouts were several articles by Jim McQuiggin pulled from The SUN website, including readers’ comments and discussion posted after the articles.

“A lot of recommendations have come in and we have changed the plan nine times plus,” Mitchem claimed. “We have refined the plan to make it better in response to comments that were made.”

After a long pause, Mitchem said, “You have before you the petitions that have been signed: the petitions for and against. You have approximately 656 signatures in favor and 104 against.”

He continued, “In addition to that, an inquiry to downtown businesses was made the last couple of weeks, since the project has been sitting just a bit, and we’ve got 49 downtown business that have signed petitions that they want to see this project go forward.” (At a July meeting, several members of the TTC acknowledged negative public sentiment regarding the full build-out of the project and expressed a desire to scale back to less controversial parts of the plan. At that time, Green added that the TTC would eventually present the council with multiple options.)

It was at this point that the discussion over Mitchem’s presentation began, and it continued for more than hour, with about half of the council appearing to support the proposal and the other half posing questions and expressing doubts.

“This is a little overkill, by the way,” council member David Schanzenbaker said as he held up the stack of petitions.

“Well, we were challenged that it wasn’t factual,” Mitchem explained, “so we wanted to get the petitions in front of the council to prove that they were, indeed, factual and you could see the individual signatures of your neighbors that had signed.”

“I didn’t challenge the fact that you had petitions,” Schanzenbaker returned. “I challenged the fact that the sentiment in the community was 86 percent for and 14 percent against.”

How the debate will be resolved awaits council decision at a public meeting. With the Reservoir Hill Plan on the agenda for today’s meeting, a decision could be imminent.

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