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Planning commission: ‘main street’ or Reservoir Hill?

By Ed Fincher

Staff Writer

The specter of development on Reservoir Hill continues to rear its head, most recently at a work session Tuesday night after the regular meeting of the Pagosa Springs Planning Commission, despite attempts by Chairman Kathie Lattin to focus the conversation on other items, such as the need to revise the Land Use and Development Code.

“I think everyone in the town realizes we need improvements to main street,” commissioner Cappy White said. “I saw a quote of David’s (town manager David Mitchem) in the paper saying that Reservoir Hill is all about main street. My first response to that is if it’s really all about main street, why don’t we just take the efforts we’re putting into Reservoir Hill and put them directly into main street and skip Reservoir Hill?”

This issue arose when town planner James Dickhoff provided three lists of capital projects — one for streets, one for sidewalks, and one for parks and recreational amenities — and Lattin asked the commission for feedback on what is already in the works, as well as for suggestions and ideas for projects that should be on the list.

“When I suggested this meeting,” White explained, “my main concern was that maybe we would have a different view of how the town prioritized what it went after when it does go after grants. I think our job is to make recommendations to town council.”

Lattin, Mitchem and Dickhoff had just explained in detail how the town’s capital improvement budget works. The town doesn’t spend the money it has in the capital improvement solely on projects. It uses those funds to leverage a variety of grants, which actually pay for a majority of most projects.

In order for the federal government to award most grants, an applicant must promise to contribute a certain amount of matching funds. So if, for example, a road will cost a total of $400,000 to pave, the town could apply to the Colorado Department of Transportation for a dust mitigation grant and, if successful, CDOT would pay $300,000 while the town  pays $100,000.  The town gets $400,000 worth of pavement for $100,000 and CDOT wins points with the Environmental Protection Agency for reducing dust from another section of dirt road. It is a win/win for all involved.

“If we get consensus that main street is an income-producing area of town, why isn’t it a higher priority,” White asked, “instead of taking an area that so many of the locals are against (Reservoir Hill), and trying to develop it into an income producing property? We already have one area that is. It needs to be enhanced.”

However, the problem with relying on grants to finance improvement projects is that projects only get completed when grants become available, when town staff becomes aware of them, when town staff completes an application for said grant, and then only if the grant is awarded to the town.

It creates a bit of a piecemeal appearance to the progress of town projects, according to Commissioner Ron Maez, with work on a little section of sidewalk here, a couple blocks worth of pavement there, a few benches and picnic tables in some of the parks, or a bit of crushed gravel for little sections of the Riverwalk.

“Town council has authorized us to acquire funding for Reservoir Hill,” Mitchem said as he tried to address White’s concern. “I don’t know of any source of funding — other than depleting our reserves — that we can acquire to infuse money into the businesses right along downtown.

“You have seen the evidence of us working on the sidewalks, working on the lighting and making improvements to main street,” Mitchem told White, “and, frankly, part of that came directly from your appeal to me several years ago to pay attention to this important street that we have, which is the center of commerce for our community. We have tried to be responsive to your call.”

However, Mitchem claimed, “There are rarely grant monies to do that kind of thing so we, in fact, took it out of our reserves this year to improve that sidewalk that desperately needed it. It was in horrible shape.” Mitchem was referring to the sidewalk replacement project on the south side of Pagosa Street that begins at 2nd Street, continues in front of Kip’s Grill, and ends near the bridge over the San Juan River.

On the other hand, Mitchem concluded, “There are resources for Reservoir Hill that are very different than the resources to replace sidewalks and put in new street lights and that kind of thing.”

“I guess I see it a little bit differently than you, Cappy,” commissioner Bobby White chimed in. “You could have the best sidewalks and the best lighting and best look to town, but if there’s nothing for people to do when they’re here, then they’re not going to come here. They don’t come here to eat at Pagosa Bakery. They don’t come here to shop at your store. That’s a bonus of them being here.”

“My argument is these types of improvements to downtown,” White argued, “would do the same thing my new building is doing.” Namely, getting the carloads of people just passing through town on US 160 to stop, get out of their cars and do a little shopping in town. White is the owner of Handcrafted Interiors, a downtown store.

Dickhoff agreed that U.S. 160 is a major artery for travelers passing through the area, and estimates that only about 1 percent of those travelers stop and spend money in town. “The better our community looks, the more people we will be able to pull off the highway. I do understand that.”

White produced a list of improvements to Pagosa Street  he said would do more to draw people off the highway than the Reservoir Hill amenities, and would be cheaper and easier to install: benches, lights, trash cans, better sidewalks, better storm drains and public bathrooms.

When the commission members came to a consensus that these suggestions should be made to the town council during Lattin’s budget report, White said, “The decisions that are made at that level create the personality of the town. Who do you want to be? What are your priorities?”

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on September 13, 2012.