Indoor arena controversy continues
Members of the Parks Recreation Open Space and Trails Committee (PROST) grappled Monday with a commissioner decision to allocate $150,000 from the Ballot Issue 1A parks and recreation funding pool to plan and build an equestrian arena and multi-use building on property adjacent to the Archuleta County Fairgrounds.

The commissioner decision to take $150,000 from the 2008 1A parks and recreation pool and another $250,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund for the project, came Dec. 9 during their regular board meeting.

During the meeting, and in her motion, Archuleta County Commissioner Ronnie Zaday called for allocating the $400,000, with Archuleta County Commissioner Bob Moomaw providing a “second.” With Archuleta County Commissioner Robin Schiro absent, the motion passed with both Moomaw and Zaday in favor.

With allocation complete, the commissioners may decide to officially appropriate the $400,000 earmarked for the project during Thursday’s special meeting on the 2009 budget. The public hearing and special meeting are scheduled for 2 p.m. at the commissioner’s meeting room in the Archuleta County Courthouse.

Although Moomaw and Zaday have defended their actions during the Dec. 9 meeting — Zaday describing the project as an “absolute necessity,” and Moomaw promising the building would serve more than just the equestrian community — the item appeared on the commissioner’s agenda under “Old Business” with “Current Status of the Arena project” as a descriptor.

Thus, following a brief presentation from J.R. Ford on the status of using a free building for said purposes, the board then voted to earmark dollars and did so before a virtually empty conference room and with scant public comment.

According to the commissioners, Zaday intended only to earmark $250,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund while Moomaw made the push to include allocation of 1A dollars.

Although voting to allocate or earmark dollars under a loosely worded “Old Business” item isn’t unlawful according to the Colorado Supreme Court (see Colorado Supreme Court — April 14, 2008, No. 07SC01, Town of Marble v. Darien), many in the community have brought up questions of timing, transparency and process.

During the Dec. 9 commissioner’s meeting, Zaday talked of capitalizing on the momentum generated by exploring the prospect of a free building and said, “If we don’t set the money aside and say we’re going to do it, we’re going to let the community down again,” Zaday said. In a Wednesday phone interview, Zaday said, “This is something the commissioners had promised for over 20 years.”

The free building, according to Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte, was offered by Four Corners Materials during the summer of 2008.

According to Schulte, Four Corners Materials purchased a piece of property in Bayfield for gravel mining, although the building was on top of the resource the company sought to extract. Thus, the company offered the building to Archuleta County, and the board of county commissioners tasked J.R. Ford, Michael Whiting, Bill Nobles and Jim Martin to explore it’s feasibility as an addition to the county fairgrounds. Part of their task was to learn if the structure would really come at little or no cost to the county.

In his presentation to the board, Ford said the steel building had issues with certain welds, would require structural augmentation and redesign in order to handle snow load and would probably require cosmetic refurbishing due to damage that would likely be caused during teardown, transport and re-installation on the county’s site. Thus, Ford’s group concluded, it was not economically feasible to move the building from Bayfield to Archuleta County. In short, it would cost just as much to construct a new building as it would to move the old.

According to the agenda description, Ford’s presentation fit the bill, although it was soon thereafter Zaday made her motion to earmark $400,000 — without discussion of a business plan, what user groups (beyond rodeo or other equestrian users) the building might serve, and estimates of design, engineering, construction and long-term operating costs.

Zaday later defended her motion, saying that Conservation Trust Fund dollars and been on the table since the project was first floated and that use of Ballot Issue 1A dollars for said project had been the topic of board agenda review meetings and various work sessions.

“It depends what meetings you’ve been to,” Zaday said. And she added the board had already committed to $60,000 to $70,000 in 1A parks and recreation funds to replace a decrepit and dangerous storage building at the fairgrounds.

When asked why the rush to earmark dollars now, particularly in light of local and national economic factors, Zaday said, “It wasn’t rushed. It was the time constraint of setting up the enterprise fund for the arena-events center in the 2009 budget.”

According to Moomaw, current estimates indicate the building could require $100,000 a year for operating costs, and then there is talk of hiring a full-time staffer to run the facility.

According to previous board discussions, all operational costs would have to be covered by user fees. In short, the project must come in as a “break even proposition.”

“If this comes to fruition,” Schulte said, “this would be a self-supporting entity. The general fund can’t afford to subsidize.”

To that end, Schulte said the board directed staff to establish an enterprise fund for the $400,00 and the project. Enterprise funds, by definition, are managed like a business such that they should be profitable, or at least break even, and require no county subsidization.

According to state documents, Conservation Trust Fund dollars can be used for the acquisition, development, and maintenance of new conservation sites or for capital improvements or maintenance for recreational purposes on any public site. Based on the state’s regulations, the board will likely be successful in defending their use of Conservation Trust Fund dollars for the project. However, many citizens question Moomaw and Zaday’s willingness to earmark Ballot Issue 1A parks and recreation dollars, particularly in light of the board’s May 6, 2008 approval of the Regional, Parks Recreation Open Space & Trails Master Plan and the appointment of a task force (PROST) to help them identify projects and prioritize expenditure of 1A funds according to the master plan.

In a SUN online poll asking whether the board should earmark $400,000 for a riding arena/multi-use building at the fairgrounds, 79 percent, or 303 of the 383 respondents said, “No,” there are other parks and recreation projects that are more important. According to poll data gathered Wednesday, 48 respondents or 13 percent of the total said “Yes,” while 32, or 8 percent of respondents said “Maybe,” but more information is needed about the project and who the facility might ultimately serve.

According to the regional parks and trails master plan, trails and better trail connectivity appear front on center on the public’s priority list — particularly a trail linking the Pagosa Lakes area to downtown . In addition, and as far as facilities are concerned, the plan indicates year-round residents support a recreation center with a variety of programs. An equestrian center-multipurpose venue does not appear in the plan.

Zaday said the reason the equestrian arena does not appear in the regional master plan is because the plan was focused on ascertaining what to do with 120 acres of Bureau of Land Management near Cloman Boulevard that was proposed for use as park land. “That’s why it has the strong trails and recreation programs components,” Zaday said. With the town recreation center and the Cloman focus, Zaday questioned whether the plan really “looked at the big picture.”

According to a mail-back survey sent to town and county residents in 2006, 459 respondents indicated they had a strong desire for community trails both in town and out, public access to trails along the river, improvement to the trail system including amenities at Reservoir Hill and adequate recreation facilities and programs for a variety of user groups, particularly children.

During Monday’s PROST meeting, Ford questioned the legitimacy of the regional trails master plan consultants because the equestrian center-multi-use arena did not appear in the plan.

Moomaw, who along with Zaday voted in favor of the master plan May 6, also questioned the regional plan’s validity and told PROST members the plan was probably outdated.

As of press time Wednesday, Moomaw could not be reached for follow-up comment.

Zaday said the building could serve a variety of user groups such as the Archuleta County Fair, the annual home show, Little Britches Rodeo, dances, concerts, car shows, fishing expos or other outdoor expos.

“In times like these when we have a lot of other problems we need to look at what we can do to spur economic development. When you say it an arena, no, it’s a big indoor facility that can be used for a variety of purposes. Don’t we want that as part of our economic development plan?” Zaday said.

According to Schulte, “This facility needs to demonstrate that it can support itself. There is more information that will have to be gathered before this becomes a reality. The new BoCC (board of county commissioners) will approve whether this will go forward or not. The action this BoCC took does not mean that this is a done deal.”

And Schulte reminded those in the audience that it takes just two commissioner votes to conduct business, set policy and appropriate dollars.

Two new commissioners — Clifford Lucero and John Ranson — will take office in January.

james@pagosasun.com