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Council approves Reservoir Hill plan

The full package of proposed development for Reservoir Hill was approved in a 5-2 vote by the Pagosa Springs Town Council at the Aug. 23 meeting, where the audience of concerned citizens was so large that the meeting had to be moved from the Town Hall council chambers to the Ross Aragon Community Center, and so vocal that at one point Mayor Ross Aragon had to ask Police Chief Bill Rockensock to escort a disruptive audience member from the building.

Council member David Schanzenbaker, who cast one of the two dissenting votes, first made a motion to have town staff prepare the plan so a professional third-party reviewer could analyze its economic feasibility and come up with an alternative plan that would include other options for developing Reservoir Hill.

This last-ditch effort to stall a decision on the full plan was seconded by council member Clint Alley, who was the only other opposition council member. The motion was voted down by the remaining members of the council.

After a long, awkward pause and some encouragement from the mayor, council member Don Volger said, “Well, let’s see what kind of a vote we get on the recommendation as written,” which he proceeded to read.

The recommendation of Town Manager David Mitchem was to approve the full development plan, authorize the town staff to seek funding to execute the plan, dedicate 50 percent of any resulting increase in lodging tax revenue towards completion of the town’s trail system, and to facilitate a dialog with the community regarding the location of an amphitheater.

Council member Tracy Bunning seconded the motion, but before the mayor could call for a vote, Schanzenbaker asked for one last chance to discuss the feasibility of the plan. Council member Kathie Lattin reassured Schanzenbaker that a more accurate estimate of costs and profits would become available during the next step of the process, once the funding packages were created.

The mayor cut short any further debate, saying the motion had been made and seconded, and called for an immediate vote. After the 5-2 vote of approval, there were a few seconds of silence before several members of the audience began yelling “Boo,” and members of the crowd stood up to walk out.

The reaction of the crowd, and the debate leading up to the final vote, seemed to contradict Mitchem’s assertions concerning the amount of community support for the development plan.

Earlier, during the public comment part of the meeting, Rick Bolhouse, while assuring the council that he was not speaking on behalf of his employer, FolkWest, questioned the validity of Mitchem’s claim that 86 percent of petition signers were for the plan, citing instead a SUN survey that showed 71 percent were opposed.

Dave Richardson, representing both the morning and noon Rotary Clubs, refuted the implication that either club endorsed the development plan, saying, “Rotary is constitutionally prohibited from doing anything like that.”

Stacy Kirby, an employee of the Chamber of Commerce who works at the Visitor Center, complained that Director Mary Jo Coulehan was improperly quoted in Mitchem’s presentation, and went on to say, “I get three times as many requests for a good restaurant as I do a zip-line place.”

“It just seems crazy to be all or nothing, up or down,” said Muriel Eason, a board member for the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation. She clarified that the CDC had not given support to the proposed plan, and said, “I don’t think anybody who’s in business would ever approach a plan that way. Eating the elephant one bite at a time might be a better approach.”

“It’s a branding issue here,” said Joanne Irons, who runs the youth center in downtown Pagosa, noting she would only support free amenities, such as the spray park. “If you had an ant or roach problem, would you buy Raid because they’re the number-one ant and roach killer? I would. What if Raid decided to put out pasta? Would you buy Raid pasta? My point is that I really want to know who we are.”

“Outdoor exercise tourism and adventure tourism is our niche in this community,” said Ken Levine, whose family owns land on Reservoir Hill adjacent to the town-owned site. “Leveraging the outdoors, that’s what we should be going for. Amusement parks are just going in the wrong direction.”

Christine Funk, who recently raised $3,400 for building shades at Yamaguchi Park, expressed concern about spending so much money on attracting tourists while neglecting things for locals, such as a public pool. “Reservoir hill is a very peaceful place where people can go and enjoy the quiet. A hundred people every hour seems like a lot of people up on the hill,” she said.

At the end of each speech opposed to the development plan the left side of the room would explode in raucous applause. However, those sitting the on right side of the room also had a couple of occasions to clap.

“I think it takes some courage,” explained Jim Smith, the current president of the local Board of Realtors. Speaking on behalf of that organization, he encouraged the town council to seriously consider going ahead with the development plan. “I think it’s a gamble, but I think there’s enough research here already, and I think that I could have confidence that this will work.”

C. K. Patel, the owner of Quality Resort, explained that how the council voted now would determine whether or not, “we will move forward with a multimillion dollar investment in downtown, and then an over one million dollar renovation and redevelopment of our business. We want very much to invest and succeed in Pagosa, and we see that the proposed Reservoir Hill improvements will have a great, positive impact for the community.”

As a side note, Patel asked for a clarification to the article in last week’s SUN that described his participation in Mitchem’s presentation at the town council retreat. The chairlift in Red River, N.M., where Patel got his start in the lodging business, only operates for three months in the summer, so the numbers he presented need to be adjusted for year-round use to be a fair approximation of what he believes will happen on Reservoir Hill.

Ironically, the one council member who seemed to express the most arguments against developing Reservoir Hill was the one who wound up making the final motion in favor of the plan. While Schanzenbaker and Alley advocated for slowing down and doing more research, council member Don Volger said, “One of the basic questions that I have to ask myself as a town council member is, ‘Am I for or against further development of Pagosa Springs?’ There are many people who want Pagosa Springs to stay exactly the way it is.”

He went on to explain that he is retired, so he doesn’t need a job, and he lives right at the base of Reservoir Hill, so he doesn’t want to see it change. He likes it the way it is. He went even further by saying, “I don’t think I can argue that tourism is what has gotten us through some of the economic downturn.”

However, for each point Volger made he also explained the other side, and in the end he said that he would vote for the plan, even though he didn’t completely agree with everything in it, simply because, “I think it is a good step in the right direction.”

Once all the members of the public had finished with comments, which took well over an hour and would have continued even longer had the mayor not closed public comment (several people asked to speak but they had neglected to put their names on the sign-up sheet before the meeting started, so they were not allowed to express their opinions), Volger asked, “If we reject this current list of amenities, what’s the next step?”

“We would ask council, ‘What’s the next step?’” Mitchem responded. “The Town Tourism Committee and the staff have done what this council had requested. This council requested that we take a look at amenities and develop a viable plan for Reservoir Hill. That was re-enforced last October at a council meeting. If you elect to go a different direction, then we will certainly respond and do our best.”

Council member Darrel Cotton said, “I have for decades told people we are a tourist community. Nobody can prove to me otherwise. We have been running away from that, saying, ‘No. Levi Strauss is coming. Microsoft is coming. That ain’t going to happen. We are a tourist town. I think we embrace that and go with it.”

Cotton also explained that he didn’t see this as an all-or-nothing vote. He believed that during the next step in the process, when town staff starts looking for funding, if certain parts of the plan can’t get the funding, they won’t be included. Cotton indicated everything will work out in the end, but the town needs to get started with something.

“Nobody’s presented another plan,” Cotton complained. “You give me another plan to look at, I’ll look at it.” This remark created quite an uproar amongst the crowd, with several people shouting that that’s exactly what they want to do, but nobody would let them. The mayor had to ask repeatedly for order to be restored.

Cotton expressed his frustration, indicating his opinion that all many people ever do is talk about things, and nothing ever gets done. “Let’s do something. If it falls on its face, I’ll stand right here and you can throw tomatoes at me.”

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