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By Ed Fincher and Randi Pierce
When Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon hands over the reins to his successor in April of this year, he will hold the record for being the longest serving town trustee and mayor in the history of Colorado.
To celebrate the occasion, everyone is encouraged to stop by the community center tomorrow night, March 21, from 4 to 8 p.m. to hear, or possibly share, stories about the mayor’s long history of service to this community.
Ironically, the location for the celebration is aptly named the Ross Aragon Community Center, which is located to the south of the downtown area at 451 Hot Springs Blvd., next to Town Hall.
While the Pagosa Springs Community Center has been in operation since August of 2002, it was renamed in 2009 and dedicated to the person who was most responsible for its existence.
“It was my idea,” Aragon confirmed in an interview with SUN staff last December, “but there were a lot of people involved. It all began with the town being in such a remote area and we didn’t have a place to gather.”
The mayor explained that in the mid 1970s, other than getting together at the high school to watch basketball, there really wasn’t a place for the townsfolk to meet, until the Head Start building on South 8th Street was built.
“That’s where everyone had their meetings and gatherings,” Aragon said. “The karate club had its practices there, for example, but it was really small, so I kept watching that and I said to myself, ‘Man, we need someplace to assemble.’”
Through persistence and hard work, the project finally came to pass, but only because it was all about the community, and the mayor’s connection to this community goes back a long way.
Aragon was born and raised on a ranch near Arboles and Allison, part of a family whose roots in Pagosa Country go back five generations. He went on to graduate from Pagosa Springs High School and he has remained in the area all of his life.
Aragon was married to his late wife, Patty, for 37 years and the couple raised six children in Pagosa Springs. They also operated popular restaurants in town, where the green chili was the stuff of legends.
Since the position of mayor has, so far, been a voluntary one, Aragon’s day job since 1975 has been as the manager of the Archuleta Housing Corporation, which provides low-cost housing in the community. Under his guidance, the corporation received low-cost loans and grants to rehabilitate facilities in town and to build a new facility on South 8th Street.
As for Aragon’s political career, he has fulfilled the duties and obligations of that unpaid position in a remarkably productive fashion, having never missed a regularly scheduled board or council meeting.
Thirty-eight years ago, in April of 1976, Aragon defeated Glen Edmonds by a 260-212 margin to win a seat on the town’s board of trustees, which at that time was one of the largest voter turnouts in town history. Two years later, Aragon was elected mayor and he quickly asserted his leadership.
Under the guidance of Aragon, most of the town’s gravel streets were paved, the town grew through a series of annexations, police protection was improved, parks were built and many recreation programs and facilities were developed.
As far as capital projects go, a new park was built on South 8th Street, the Reservoir Hill trail system was developed, the Riverwalk was started, and the new community center was constructed, as was a new town hall.
The town took over the local sanitation district and forged a relationship to provide domestic water with the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District that led to the town’s inclusion in that district.
Inclusion in the Pagosa Fire Protection District brought the residents of town a new level of fire protection.
In 2001, the Pagosa Springs Area Chamber of Commerce named Aragon its Citizen of the Year.
Aragon was also recognized by former SUN editor Karl Isberg in a 2001 editorial titled “A model to follow.”
In that editorial, Isberg wrote,
“Look no farther than Mayor Ross Aragon and the board of trustees of the Town of Pagosa Springs to find local political leaders who, over the past 15 years, successfully negotiated a course from the precarious to the positive.
“Look to the Town of Pagosa Springs to find political leaders who learned from mistakes and matured to understand how local government works best.”
The editorial continued to highlight work over the previous 15 years to revitalize and energize the community, including a new Town Hall and community center on the horizon.
“In league with a local non-profit group and the local banking industry, the town made it possible for ground to be broken in June for a 20,000 square-foot Community Center at the south end of Hot Springs Boulevard — a site accessed by a new bridge over the river at Apache Street. Development along Hot Springs Boulevard seems inevitable,” the editorial continues.
“Next to the community center site a new Town Hall will open mid-June. It is more than an office; it is a symbol.
“A symbol of what Mayor Aragon and a succession of trustees have learned and put into place. Town political leaders know their roles, distinct from the roles of a highly talented staff. That staff — administration, police, street, planning, building and Municipal Court — was hired to conduct day-to-day town business, and to do so with minimal intrusion by elected officials. Competent, experienced staff provides mayor and trustees with information, options and advice when policy decisions must be made. The town board has enacted strong building, zoning and sign codes and allows staff to administer them. The board conducts business in light of conflict of interest and nepotism policies that are public record.
“Granted, the town does not face problems as overwhelming as those confronting several other local governmental entities. Granted, too, the town has ample revenues to bring to bear on its problems.
“But, it is undeniable: the mayor and his trustees know how to govern. Their style can serve as a model for all.”
“It’s been interesting, very interesting,” Aragon said of his time as mayor. “It’s been a lot of changes.”
Many of those changes, Aragon added, came in the form of improvements to the downtown.
“I really didn’t ever feel like it was a job for me, it was just community representation,” Aragon said. “It made me feel good I could make a contribution.”
While Aragon’s run as mayor and town trustee has been historical (Aragon’s time as mayor was beat by a Paoli, Colo. mayor who served for 50 years), he agrees that it’s time to move forward.
“It’s time and it’s healthy for someone else,” Aragon said Wednesday.
Aragon announced publicly at a town council meeting that he did not intend to seek a 10th term as mayor in January.
But, he stated, he won’t be far away.
“I just live about a thousand feet from city hall, so I’m not going anywhere.”
While he’s stepping down, he hasn’t ruled out any future involvement in politics, and Aragon still plans to be involved in the community.
When asked about the turning of the page in the town’s story with the election of a new mayor, Aragon said, “As long as there’s improvements, that’s going to be a good page.”
With that page set to turn on April 8 with the handing over of the mayoral reins, Aragon said he has been humbled by the public response to his decision to not run for re-election.
That response began at the January meeting where Aragon made his decision public.
At that meeting, council member Don Volger, who previously worked with Aragon in his capacity as police chief, stated, “One of the things I learned … is even though I may disagree with the mayor, his heart was always with the best interest of this community, which he loves. He viewed it as his family, and that is going to be missed by all of us.”
“The last two weeks, I have had people come up and … say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ That just really humbled me,” Aragon said Wednesday. “I didn’t know that I had done anything. I just wanted to represent our community.”
That representation, Aragon added, is something he feels everyone should do — that everyone should take a turn representing their community.
“I think that’s healthy,” Aragon said.