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Town eyes new Visitor Center location

Staff Writer

The Pagosa Springs Visitor Center is well on its way to becoming completely separated from the Chamber of Commerce, with town council voting last week to move forward with procuring a space in the former downtown City Market complex.

The property, which formerly housed the downtown City Market, was sold by the Kroger Company last August to the Pierce Mangurian Trust for $500,000, according to the Archuleta County Clerk and Recorder’s office.

“The Visitor Center task force has been working for some months on identifying a potential location for the Visitor Center,” town manager David Mitchem reported at last week’s town council meeting.

The task force was originally set up last summer and included members of town council, the Town Tourism Committee, the Chamber of Commerce and the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners.

Mitchem informed town council that the task force met on Feb. 26 and was informed by the Chamber of Commerce that it planned to use the current Visitor Center building for a new business venture, and the TTC would need to find another location once it took over the operation.

Near the end of 2012, town council, acting on a recommendation from the TTC, decided to cut $10,000 worth of funding from the budget for the operation of the Visitor Center. This money was instead earmarked for infrastructure improvements. In particular, the TTC recommended the acquisition of new technology, such as kiosks with touchscreen TVs.

At the time, TTC chairman Bob Hart explained a shift in philosophy that would mean spending more money on external marketing and technology, and less on a brick and mortar facility, the reasoning being that more people are using the Internet, smart phones or other electronic devices to gather information, while relying less and less on face-to-face communications.

Chamber director Mary Jo Coulehan, though not a voting member of the TTC, did attend many of its meetings, and spoke out about the value of being able to talk to a real person or grab a hard copy of a map or brochure. Some people feel that a human face is always better than a computer screen.

However, town council sided with the TTC, and when the final version of the 2013 budget was adopted, it contained the recommended cut in funding. In addition, the TTC indicated it would continue to advocate for a reduction in funding for the Visitor Center over the next several years.

As a result, the Chamber of Commerce informed the town it would no longer be able to run the Visitor Center for the town, and in September of last year the town decided to make the TTC responsible for Visitor Center operations, starting in May of 2014.

“The group (the Visitor Center task force) decided to bring a recommendation forward to town council to look at the old downtown City Market location,” Mitchem explained last week. Mitchem went on to explain that the new property owner was willing to rent 1,500 square feet worth of office space to the town for $1 per square foot per month.

However, Mitchem went on to explain the space would require approximately $30,000 worth of renovations, which the TTC could cover from reserves in its budget.

Council member Darrel Cotton clarified that the cost of the remodel would be reimbursed to the TTC by the property owner through a $300 per month reduction on the rent.

“There are a number of locations around town where the Visitor Center might be located,” council member Tracy Bunning added, “some of them at a substantially lower monthly rental figure, but, after giving it a lot of consideration, those of us who met felt that the location immediately east of the old City Market is probably best for a number of reasons, primarily visibility and parking.”

The current Visitor Center location is off of U.S. 160 and is difficult to access for tour buses or RVs.

When Council member Don Volger asked for clarification as to which particular space the TTC was looking at, Bunning explained there are five spaces between where the City Market used to be and the property owned by Citizens Bank. The two closest to the bank are currently occupied by Dorothy’s Restaurant, which leaves three available units in the complex. Bunning recommended the space closest to the former City Market space.

“That’s the most level area of the parking lot for pedestrians to cross from the parking area up to the building,” Bunning pointed out. “The rest of them you either have to walk down the slope or come up the stairs by Dorothy’s.”

During the winter, the building casts a shadow into that area, which means the approach to the building is usually covered with ice and is treacherous for pedestrians.

Council member David Schanzenbaker pointed out that if the town planned on investing $30,000 towards remodeling the proposed new location, it should plan on being there for a while, and he asked for some reassurance that it was indeed the best possible location.

Council member Kathie Lattin reiterated the importance of having a parking area that is easily accessible to larger vehicles, especially tour buses.

Bunning also pointed out the value of keeping the Visitor Center downtown, where it would be easily accessible to pedestrian traffic. In addition, he pointed out that filling in empty buildings downtown would be an improvement for the town’s image.

“This seems to make quite a bit of sense for a number of reasons,” Volger concluded. “When we talked about downtown development, we talked about filling in the gaps in our smile, and that shopping center has been a big gap. If we can fill that in a little bit, and especially with something that will attract those who are passing through, it could help quite a bit.”

Volger then made a motion to direct the town’s staff to move forward with the Visitor Center task force’s recommendation to procure the space in question, and everyone else agreed.

On a related note, the Chamber has asked the town to enter into some type of an agreement concerning the maintenance of the grounds surrounding the current Visitor Center building.

While the Chamber owns the building, the town owns the land it sits on. Up until now, the Chamber has maintained the parking lot and the surrounding grounds, even though it didn’t own them. However, now that the Visitor Center will no longer be located in that building, the Chamber has asked the town to figure out a more reasonable arrangement for taking care of its property.

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on March 13, 2014.