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Village at Wolf Creek ... ‘a question of when’

Despite local attitudes that are as diverse as they are fractious, Steve Vassallo, executive director of the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation, has been leading the charge in advocating for the proposed Village at Wolf Creek development.

Speaking up at an economic development summit in Durango last month and again last week following a meeting with District 3 U.S. Congressman Scott Tipton, Vassallo stated that the Village at Wolf Creek was a priority for economic development in Archuleta County.

However, those statements have left many residents and local officials shaking their heads and wondering where Vassallo got the authority to speak for the town and the county, especially regarding an issue that has been so contentious for so long.

For his part, Vassallo admits that his recent statements did not reflect any direction given from the county, town or even the CDC board.

“I’m only speaking from my own perspective,” he said, “and from an economic development perspective, I fully support this project, 110 percent.”

On Tuesday, both Vassallo and local businessman Morgan Murri met with developer Billy Jo “Red” McCombs, Village project leader Clint Jones and McCombs’ daughter Marsha Shields (set to take the helm of McCombs’ business empire).

Two weeks ago, Vassallo appointed Murri to chair an ad hoc committee to investigate possible economic impacts of the project on the area.

Vassallo said he was impressed by how well the discussion went and he felt that the project would be a boon to the area.

“The long term benefit is going to be huge,” Vassallo said.

“It’s going to be three to five years before there’s going to be any short-term economic development,” he added, saying that short-term benefits (such as construction jobs) would be outweighed by long-term effects: a significant increase in visitors to the area.

Vassallo said that he believes a Village at Wolf Creek would be a draw for tourists from Texas and New Mexico who would not otherwise have considered coming to Pagosa Springs. As such, Vassallo said the Village would be “an incomparable promotional tool.”

Vassallo’s sanguine view is not shared by everyone, however — something Vassallo concedes puts him at odds with many members of the community.

“I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand Red’s intent,” Vassallo said.

Later, Vassallo added, “Right now, I think the majority of people who are opposing this new plan are from out of the county.”

Vassallo was referring to a revised proposal for the development initiated by McCombs in 2009 — from 2,172 units proposed in the original plan to a more modest proposal of 491 units.

In fact, the Pagosa Springs Town Council voted 4-3 to not send a letter of support for the scaled-back project due to a lack of assurances by the developers regarding economic impacts on local retailers and lodgers. Council also stated concerns that a support letter for the project contained no demands for a completed EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) prior to pursuit of a legislative track for project approval (through the U.S. Congress), assurances for offsetting amenity and infrastructure demands to the area, and assurances that the project’s buildout would be limited to a significantly scaled-back project

Although the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners initially sent a letter of support for the project revision, it also sent a letter in September 2009 to then U.S. Rep. John Salazar, accusing McCombs of attempting to circumvent the public process, as well as criticizing a proposed land exchange between McCombs and the U.S. Forest Service.

Currently, the BoCC has no stated position on the Village at Wolf Creek, nor does the town.

Conceding that his statements of support could possibly be construed as support from the town, the county or the CDC board, Vassallo maintained that he has attempted to make clear that he is speaking for himself, as the man charged with pursuing economic development.

While convinced that the project will provide an economic benefit to the area, Vassallo said, “I will change my opinion if and when Morgan’s subcommittee has new disclosures. It’s not that I have my head in the sand. But it has to be factual, not conjectural.”

For his part, Murri said that his subcommittee is diligently exploring the possible economic impact that a Village at Wolf Creek would have on the area.

“It’s part of the reason why I went down to Texas and met with Red,” said Murri.

However, Murri appeared to have been impressed with McCombs and the plans for the Village at Wolf Creek.

“He’s a very fine man,” Murri said. “Very sincere in his interest in this area and the way that benefits everyone around the project. He really cares about this area and wants to do something special about the mountain.”

Like Vassallo, Murri doesn’t foresee any potential economic impact on the area for some time.

“In the best case scenario,” Murri said, “it will take at least five years before anything gets started ... another three to four years after that for us to begin seeing any long-term economic impact ... and 20 years or more before the project nears completion.”

Also like Vassallo, Murri seems convinced that the project will only benefit the area.

“I think it will be a phenomenally positive impact on the area,” he said.

Vassallo said, at this point, his support for a Village at Wolf Creek development is as inevitable as the project itself.

“It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen,” Vassallo said regarding development for the Village at Wolf Creek. “It’s a question of when.”

jim@pagosasun.com

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