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Group considers downtown improvement, assessment to begin

By Ed Fincher

Staff Writer

Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation board member Udgar Parsons, who recently attended a seminar by Downtown Colorado, Inc., led a meeting Sept. 20 at the Westside Visitor Center to report the results of his trip and to solicit the aid of a diverse group of concerned local citizens in an effort to revitalize the downtown area.

“The CDC joined the DCI,” Parsons explained, “which is a group that specializes in going around and helping communities to analyze their downtown and figure out ways to improve it. I had gone to this meeting … and Shari Pierce called me afterwards and said that she was very keen on moving this initiative forward.

“A lot of us have had the downtown in our minds since 2008, since the recession, when businesses closed and empty store fronts have been really sad for us all. This group is the ideal one to help us catalyze an action to bring back life into our downtown.”

“I just feel like the downtown is the heart of our community,” fomer Town Council member Shari Pierce affirmed, “and people come here because of the beauty of that downtown. If we can get them to come here because of our beauty, of both the scenery and the people, then I think they will stay here and that will trickle down and affect the businesses surrounding it.

“If you have a sick heart, the rest of your body is not too healthy,” Pierce continued. “I want this to be the business people and the people of the community doing it. I don’t want it to be a government effort. I think it needs to be us helping ourselves to get this going.”

“We built our building 20 years ago and we have been open for 19,” explained Cappy White, who owns Handcrafted Interiors with his wife, Monica. “We’ve been frustrated with the lack of investment downtown. Coming in 20 years ago we really saw what we thought was a town that was about ready to take off, and we have been waiting and waiting.

“I have been frustrated by the way the town prioritizes the money they do have,” White continued, “and have been very vocal about that. I continue to try and make changes in the way we prioritize our expenditures in our budget. I am encouraged by this meeting and am happy to be involved, because I think it is going to take a group effort.”

As a member of the Pagosa Springs Planning Commission, White has been an outspoken opponent of the proposed Reservoir Hill development plan, saying at the commission’s last work session that the time and money being spent on the hill would be better used on improving downtown.

“I am not one-hundred percent behind this being just a private effort,” White concluded. “I’ve always argued that the town should take the lead, because we, as business owners, needed that help. I’ve been involved in three or four different efforts to create some kind of downtown business organization, all of which have fallen by the wayside, and I just think it should be a partnership.”

“I just want to clarify,” Pierce replied. “We will definitely have to work in conjunction with the town, and we have had conversations with both Mayor Aragon and Commissioner Lucero, and they have both lent their support to what we are trying to get going here. They are both happy to see us doing this.”

Courtney King, an architect, has lived and worked in downtown Pagosa for the last 10 years and served with a number of committees and groups, including the one responsible for the downtown master plan. “I would just like to offer a constant thread,” she said, “so that those plans that everyone dedicated so much of their time to are incorporated into whatever happens here as well, so we’re not re-inventing the wheel and so there is some continuity.”

“And that was one of the points the DCI people made,” Parsons interjected, “that they want all of the documentation that has already been produced, and they will be studying that when they come to do their assessment.”

Richard Lindblad, the executive director of the CDC, listened to some speakers from DCI at an economic development conference in Denver four months ago. They explained that people have a hard time seeing and taking advantage of the assets in their own community because they are too close to them. “A fresh set of eyes really helps,” he said.

Hayley Goodman, whose family owns Goodman’s Department Store, said, “My family has been here forever, and I have grown up hearing stories and knowing what Pagosa is and what it has been like. Change can be a good thing, but I feel like we could focus it a little bit differently and make a change that does benefit downtown. A lot of the changes are benefitting uptown, but it is taking away from the character of downtown. I am really excited to bring downtown back to what it used to be.”

CDC board member Mark Weiler said, “I believe that the leaders of the town want to do good things for the town. They don’t know what they are and they need a group of people to share with them what those good things are and they will do them. They are good people. They just need a road map to follow.”

J. R. Ford has had property in downtown since the middle ’80s and has thought about doing some renovations to his building, but said, “I’m not willing to make the investment downtown for fear of the status quo staying where it’s at right now.”

Lvonne Wilson, who also owns a store downtown, said, “I don’t think that people will want to stay downtown if it becomes a ghost town. As we see businesses drop like flies, that is where it could be headed. I am very interested in getting rid of the eyesore of the empty City Market and something happening with that building.” On the other hand, she said, “I certainly don’t want to see an ugly sprawl uptown of every chain you can see in every other town.”

Mike Pierce, speaking on behalf of the younger generation of Pagosa Springs, expressed a need for vibrancy and energy downtown. He explained that young people fresh out of college come back to Pagosa from places like Fort Collins, Denver or Durango, with certain expectations about what a downtown should be, and that’s not what they find in Pagosa.

“Most of the businesses were closed up and the sidewalks were deserted,” he said. “There just was no vibrancy or energy about it. I think we need to try to get more of that feel to it, that energy, and not have it be utility companies and real estate offices and things that are closed up at five o’clock, and just dark windows.”

Mary Jo Coulehan, director of the Chamber of Commerce, said, “I have had the opportunity to travel a lot throughout the state, and it is sometimes very disconcerting that we don’t take enough pride in our downtown area. So many other communities seem to invest more in even just the appearance of their downtown.”

“I talked to Katherine Correll, who is the executive director of DCI,” Parsons explained, “and one of the first things she said was that this should be a coordinated effort and to involve as many stakeholders and groups as we can, but essentially the CDC has stepped up to initially fund the downtown assessment.”

Typically, DCI will send a technical assistance team of approximately six people to a town for a two-day trip to inspect the downtown area, talk to a variety of groups, review existing documents and plans, and report on their finding.  They charge $6,000 to $10,000 for this first trip. The consensus among everyone present was that this should be done before the holiday season, and it was decided to ask for Nov. 12 and 13.

There are three things the task force must do to prepare for the visit: collect all relevant reference materials for the team to study, identify all community stakeholders with any possible interest in downtown, and arrange the hospitality for the assessment team. Various people volunteered to form three focus groups to take care of each of these tasks.

Shari Pierce had already spoken to Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, who pledged the support of town manager David Mitchem. “All we have to do is provide them with the list and they will provide us any maps, the comprehensive plan for the town, all of those things. I have also talked to Clifford Lucero (chairman of the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners) and they have also agreed to give us maps or anything else we need.”

Included in a document called “Technical Assistance Team Visit Orientation” sent by DCI to Parsons there was a list of suggested documentation to include in a packet that would be helpful to the assessment team.

“Enclose all of the main materials that your town, chamber of commerce, economic development groups, etc. would give to a prospect and/or tourist,” the DCI document suggests, “and then add other materials as you can locate them, such as: Downtown Association members, elected city officials, city department heads with organizational charts, chamber of commerce membership directory, downtown business and property owners, list of major employers in the community with the number of employees, any recent city planning/implementation guidelines relating to the downtown or other revitalization efforts currently underway.”

DCI also asks that their team’s background packet include a variety of maps: the town, the county, primary and secondary trade area, zoning maps, land use plan, base map showing property lines with dimensions and curbs and cuts, base map showing utilities, aerial photographs, and Sanborn Fire Insurance maps.

Other materials requested for the background packet include: master, comprehensive, planning, landscaping, or other plans relating to downtown; tourism or economic development studies; traffic counts on major roads through downtown from the Colorado Department of Transportation and parking survey; vacant property list for downtown, including the owner, rent or lease terms, real estate brokers/contracts holders; city and county sales tax data; existing economic development recruitment package for both downtown and the community; labor and census data survey; average rents in the downtown area for retail, commercial/service, office/professional and residential; and city/county or downtown incentive programs available for economic benefit within the downtown area.

Finally, suggested promotional materials DCI would like to see in the background packet includes: all current annual events and promotional calendars including those planned by the town, chamber, and all other organizations (include a list of sponsoring organizations, fund-raising activities, and event locations); any published materials, such as fact sheets, resumes, annual reports, promotional graphics, stationery and letterhead, low interest loan program brochures, recent news articles and downtown advertisements; walking tours; shopping guides; restaurant/hotel/motel guides; and recreational guides.

Once the assessment team arrives they will want to meet with a variety of stakeholder groups. “Make a list of all organizations and people who have an investment in your community so that you are certain not to overlook anyone. Remember the chamber of commerce, visitor and convention bureau, local businesses, large employers, nonprofits, hospital, school district, real estate offices, banks, fire district, library district, town staff, county staff, all elected officials, arts groups, community colleges, and volunteer associations (e.g., 4-H, Masons, and Lions Club).”

At the end of the two-day visit, tentatively scheduled for the evening of Nov. 13, the assessment team will give a presentation of their findings and recommendation, and that meeting will be open to the general public.

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on September 26, 2012.