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A new year in an average place

A new year is upon us, and we need to acknowledge that it’s OK to be average. When it comes to improving things, it’s best to know our point of departure.

Pagosa Country has its problems, many of them similar to those in other communities; the most obvious are economic in nature, but there are social and cultural problems to deal with in the year ahead.

Many Pagosans work hard to solve our problems; many self-proclaimed and self-congratulatory “experts” take an easier route, working hard at the business of criticism. Pagosa Country has more than its share of the latter.

What Pagosa Country faces that is somewhat unusual, however, is an obstacle that often holds us back: The pervasive notion that Pagosa is an exceptional place, full of extraordinary people.

One encounters it often — in the form of rabid boosterism, exaggerated claims, undue applause for marginal performances, a skewed perception of place and people.

Before we can ensure the health of this community, we need to realize Pagosa is not unique. The fact we live here does not endow the place with special qualities.

This is a beautiful place, yes, but there are many beautiful places, and some more beautiful than this.

Yes, there are skilled people here, but in no greater proportion to the population than in most other places, with fewer per capita than in many places.

Yes, there are some talented people here, but talent is relative. “Talent” in Pagosa is not talent in New York City.

Yes, many of us are comfortable here, but the residents of Pagosa Country do not live a richer lifestyle than residents elsewhere. A recent report showed per capita income in Archuleta County to be the lowest among five southwestern Colorado counties, at only 74 percent of per capita income for the U.S.

The reality: this is an average place, peopled by relatively average souls. There is nothing wrong with this, except that too many of us don’t recognize it and it clouds opinions and decisions.

This community grew for most of a century in the haphazard manner of many Western towns whose economies were based on agriculture, ranching and non-mining resources. It was average.

The place came to be dominated by an average type of tourism, with a large number of average retired residents. Our school system is average, our kids are average (despite the standing ovation syndrome that plagues their activities), and our future as a community is ambiguous.

The first step in clearing that ambiguity is to take a realistic look at ourselves. We can then discern the extreme visions for this place that are neither likely nor desirable.

One extreme: “Keep Pagosa, Pagosa.” The mantra strikes a hollow note. Which Pagosa is it? Pagosa in 1910, in 1950? Pagosa the way it was when you moved here?

As regards another extreme: There is no value in catering to the lowest common denominator, currying the cheesiest amenities and craven promotions to lure immediate return from low-end tourist trade.

Neither should we attempt to become another Aspen or Telluride — “high end,” unattainable and undesirable alternatives from our average vantage point.

We need to center our efforts on what is most obvious, those things about this place that are not average — the opportunities for outdoor recreation and the possible uses of our geothermal resource — all the while encouraging quality development of amenities and programs by both government and the business community. Development that, little by little, raises the bar. From average, first, to above average. Then, to who knows where … as long as it is realistic.

Karl Isberg

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