Rec center proposal gains momentum

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    Staff Writer

    A public input meeting concerning the feasibility of constructing a new community recreation center in downtown Pagosa Springs was conducted recently by the town’s parks and recreation department, and while turnout wasn’t nearly as large as expected, the feedback was almost universally positive, despite several references to another major town project that was soundly defeated by a recent popular vote — the Reservoir Hill development plan.

    Less than half of the chairs in the room at the Ross Aragon Community Center were occupied when Parks and Recreation Director Tom Carosello began the presentation.

    “A lot of people have called my office and asked, ‘Whose idea was the rec center?’ and I have responded, ‘Well, in a lot of ways, it was your idea.’ We did a survey in 2006. It was recreation oriented and some of you may remember taking it. It was circulated countywide. In that survey the rec center scored very high. It was second only to the acquisition and preservation of open spaces as a priority.”

    Carosello proceeded to explain the history of the Pagosa Springs rec center debate, including the discussion of what features people said they wanted the facility to have and how people felt about an increase in sales tax as a means to pay for it. Carosello described the high number of people who, on a scale of one to five, gave the rec center a three or above on the 2006 survey.

    “We did a series of public meetings to make sure this wasn’t just something that town staff wanted or town council wanted. What we want to know from you guys tonight and as we progress over the next couple of months is, have those numbers changed?”

    The next part of the presentation was given by Ken Berendt, an architect with the Denver firm of Barker, Rinker and Seacat, who showed slides of his drawings and offered a description of the various features of the facility, which included a six-lane lap pool, a leisure pool with waterslides and playground equipment, a daycare room, a classroom/party room, a rock-climbing wall, a fitness studio, a gymnasium, an indoor track and a weight room.

    Mark Weiler then stood up and explained the financial aspect of the project, describing a recent breakfast he had in Denver with the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank. He described the municipal bond market, the historically low interest rate, the possible contributions Wal-Mart and Tractor Supply would make to the town’s future tax base and what it would mean to the average consumer to have a penny on the dollar increase in sales tax.

    “The townspeople, the community, has to vote on this,” Weiler asserted. “This isn’t just somebody’s idea that they fantasized about somewhere. The community must vote, so it will be something like the last vote we had, where the population said, ‘This is what we think. This is what we would like to see in our community.’ Everybody has a chance to have their say. Everybody. There are no closed-door, backroom deals.”

    Weiler also mentioned the intergovernmental agreement that the Pagosa Springs Sanitation and General Improvement District has worked out with the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District to build a pipeline and pumping stations to move the town’s sewage up to the Vista wastewater treatment facility. This agreement will allow the town to rehabilitate the current sewage lagoon site, which is located south of Yamaguchi Park and across the street from the high school’s athletic field — in other words, the perfect site for a rec center.

    Finally, Kathie Lattin, who emphasized her involvement in this project was as a private citizen and not as a member of town council, asked for questions and comments from the audience. “Our point tonight is just to get out to the community all of the information that is relevant and all the numbers that we’re talking about.

    “You need to realize that this was a vision that originally came up in 2005. One of the comments we have heard is that people want to just take care of existing projects. This is one of them. I took it off the shelf and I dusted it off, and I want to ask the community, is this the time for the rec center to go forward?

    “I know you all have a bunch of questions and we are going to do our best to answer each and every question tonight. We want the proper information to go out to the public. We don’t want people guessing. We don’t want people saying, ‘Well, I heard.’”

    Lattin’s main complaint about the campaign leading up to the Reservoir Hill vote was what she characterized as false or misleading information being given to the public. On April 23, the town’s electorate overwhelmingly voted to amend the home rule charter so that no mechanized amusement rides could be built or operated on Reservoir Hill without passing another vote of the people. At that time, Lattin accused the Friends of Reservoir Hill and its supporters of going door-to-door and spreading lies; she claims people were told that town council planned on putting in a Ferris wheel and a Go-Kart track on the hill, among other things.

    At last week’s meeting, Ron Gustafson was the first audience member to speak up. He asked if this issue would involve a vote by just the town’s residents, or if county residents would also have a say in the matter.

    Weiler responded by describing a conversation he had with Mayor Ross Aragon back when the issue of a rec center first came up. The county was struggling with finances at the time, and the mayor suggested the town buy the county-owned property across Hot Springs Boulevard from Town Hall in order to help the county out. The mayor reportedly told Weiler, “If their end of the boat is sinking, eventually the water will get to our end of the boat.”

    Weiler went on to advocate for creating a recreation district, which would include the entire county.

    Ken Levine, whose family owns land near the proposed rec center site, commented, “You said it is for the local residents, but it’s also for the tourists. I just went to Breckenridge, and I worked out at the gym there, and I had a great time. I think it is going to bring younger, more active people here. This is something we really need, just to keep up with what the other towns in Colorado are doing.”

    Cappy White, owner of a downtown business and a member of the town planning commission, made two suggestions to increase the chance of getting the tax increase past the voters: make sure there was a sunset clause so that, after the rec center is paid off, the sales tax rate goes back down, and make it so a sales tax increase does not apply to the purchase of food.

    “I think it is a beautifully thought-out facility,” White added. “However, I would hate to be the only town in Colorado that had this kind of facility, but didn’t have trash cans on main street. There are no public trash cans on that end of town, and that’s just a small thing, but I’m trying to make a point. I think our beds need to be made before we go ahead with spending seventeen million dollars.”

    “What about bundling some of our other recreational projects with this?” Archuleta County commissioner Michael Whiting asked. “I heard you mention engaging the county as well as the town. It takes a whole community to make stuff like this work. Maybe there’s an opportunity here to bundle other projects, like the Town to Lakes Trail. This rec center will say to people, ‘We are a recreational community,’ but an unfinished bike path between uptown and downtown says, ‘Eh, not so much.’ Let’s at least have a conversation about completing some of these other unfinished recreation project along with this one.”

    Whiting went on to suggest that while Pagosa Country is trying to brand itself as a destination for active, athletic type people, it is also trying to promote itself as an advocate for renewable sources of energy. He asked Berendt if the engineering plans could include the use of geothermal and solar power. Berendt agreed it was a good idea.

    Cindy Gustafson asked if the town’s rec center would be open to everyone and if the entrance fee would be the same for both residents and non-residents of the town. Carosello explained that rec centers in other town such as Durango and Cortez charge the same rates to everyone. When the topic of the Pagosa Lakes Property Owners Association rec center came up, Weiler explained that, according to the PLPOA bylaws, that facility is for association members only; it is not open to the public.

    Several other complaints were aired about the PLPOA rec center, indicating that, even for people who live in PLPOA and have a membership to that facility, it becomes so overcrowded during the summer and holiday peak seasons that it is almost impossible to use. In addition, the claim was made that it is designed for adults and most kids aren’t interested in using it. On a side note, a clear majority of the participants in last Saturday’s PLPOA election voted to approve their rec center expansion project.

    “I think it’s going to be a real uphill fight,” White asserted. “There are going to be a lot of disgruntled citizens in the county who feel like they don’t have a voice on something that affects them. We need to think long and hard about excluding them from the vote, even though Kathie makes a good point about some of them maybe voting against it because they are already paying their dues for the PLPOA rec center. There are probably just as many, or more, who would be enthusiastic about this project and would be willing to pay for it.

    “You asked earlier if we would be willing to pay for it. I am willing to speak …” White began to put his arm around his wife, who was sitting next to him in the audience, but then he made eye contact with her and changed direction in mid-sentence “… for myself,” White paused while the room erupted in laughter, “when I say that I would be willing to pay a penny and a half on the dollar for this. I think it is that important. If I was moving to another town, I would make sure they had a really good, functioning rec center and lots of bike trails.”

    In the end, White also admitted he would be willing to let the town slide on installing a public trash can in front of his store if it meant having a nice rec center for downtown residents to use.

    ed.fincher@pagosasun.com