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The Pagosa Springs Visitor Center will be one of the issues up for discussion at today’s town council meeting, despite a decision at the April 1 meeting to table the topic until all of the new players could join the discussion.
The Chamber of Commerce announced last year that it would no longer run the Visitor Center because the Town Tourism Committee cut $10,000 from its annual budget for funding of the operation.
Since then, Bob Kudelski has replaced Bob Hart as the chair of the TTC, Cindi Galabota has replaced Mary Jo Coulehan as the Chamber director, Don Volger has replaced Ross Aragon as mayor, and two new members have been elected to town council.
When the original agenda for today’s meeting was posted last week, it contained an item called “Visitor Center,” but then on Monday the agenda was amended. The Visitor Center item was replaced by the second reading of Ordinance 808, the lease agreement with the Pierce Mangurian Trust to move the Visitor Center to the old downtown City Market complex.
The second reading of this ordinance was originally scheduled to take place at the April 1 meeting, but after hearing from a number of concerned citizens, the council decided to wait and see if the town would have any more luck negotiating with the Chamber after the April 8 election.
“My request tonight,” local business owner Jeff Greer told council on April 1, “despite the advanced stage of negotiations, I would like you to set this decision aside and table it because a new town board will be seated next week, a new mayor, a new TTC chairman is slated to be voted on, and there is new Chamber leadership, so I hope bringing in a new cast of players will reboot negotiations.”
Several other business owners, including Lee Riley and JR Ford, agreed and spoke out in favor of making every effort to keep the Visitor Center at its current location, describing the beauty of the river, the activity along the Riverwalk, and the vibrant image of the town this setting gives to tourists.
Mayor Volger, a council member at the time, also agreed. “Down by the river, as pretty as it is, is much more attractive than a shopping center, and unless there is some really good reason to … pursue this now instead of waiting, I think we can wait for another couple weeks. I would be in favor of tabling this and letting the new council, whoever that may be, see if they can open up negotiations.”
However, in an April 8 interview with SUN staff, town manager David Mitchem admitted he did not wait for the new council to be seated before he attempted further talks with the Chamber.
“I met with Nancy Carpenter, the president of the Chamber,” Mitchem said, “the day after our council meeting, and then we met again — and I believe it was (council member) David Schanzenbaker who sat in on that second meeting — and as they give a little more thought to their desires and we give a little more thought, we will get back together.”
Mitchem conceded that it was still too early to tell how well those talks went. However, he did characterize those two meetings as “positive and cordial conversations.”
On April 15, after the town council agenda was changed, SUN staff sat down with Galabota in her new office at the Visitor Center.
Galabota, who didn’t start working for the Chamber until April 1 and has remained in a state of transition from her former position with Habitat for Humanity of Archuleta County, was unable to attend either of those first two meetings with Mitchem.
However, one of the first things she did as the new Chamber director was to contact Mitchem. “He asked if we could meet as soon as possible, and Monday (April 14) was the first day I was available.”
Mitchem did not explain to Galabota why he was in such a hurry to meet with her, but she explained the meeting was attended by herself, Carpenter, and Chris Smith from the Chamber, and Mitchem, Kathie Lattin and Tracy Bunning from the town. Nobody from the TTC or the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners was present.
“To be honest,” Galabota explained, “the meeting was a good meeting. I went in there asking that we look at this with a clean slate. I didn’t have a lot of the history to it and I wanted to gather information and try to understand a little bit of where we’ve been and how we can make this work. The town is happy to go back into renegotiations, though we don’t really have any wiggle room as far as the pricing on our rent.”
Galabota went on to describe the options discussed at Monday’s meeting.
The first option is to go back to the way things were, with the Visitor Center remaining at its current location and the Chamber continuing to run the operation as it always has.
“That’s not a viable option for the Chamber,” Galabota affirmed. “The Chamber does not want to do that and a lot of that is, according to my understanding, is our Chamber members want us to be a Chamber. They want us to move forward and provide more services for our members.”
She listed events, educational programs and other types of economic development as activities the Chamber would be able to focus on once it gets away from running the Visitor Center.
“Now, I understand we are going to have the tourist-based businesses who are concerned about that,” Galabota conceded, “and so we need to move forward and figure out a way we can convince them that as a Chamber we can still provide services for them. We can provide educational options for them; we can provide economic development to help them grow as a business within our community.”
The second option discussed at Monday’s meeting was to have the town rent out the current Visitor Center building. Galabota went on to outline the terms of the offer the Chamber made to the town.
The lease would have the town pay $1.15 per square foot per month, which would work out to $2,612.80 since the size of the building is 2,272 square feet. However, the Chamber is asking for a triple-net lease, which means the town would also pay the property taxes, insurance and utilities for the building. Based on last year’s totals — $4,319 for property taxes, $3,063 for insurance and $5,964 for utilities — that would add another $1,030.25 per month to the rent.
Galabota explained that, considering the building’s prime location, several businesses have come forward offering to pay $1.25 per square foot for the same triple-net lease. However, because of pressure from several of its members, the Chamber has decided to give the town a discounted price and another chance to lease the property before continuing to negotiate with these other businesses.
The plan is to have the Chamber move out of its offices and rent space at another location, and Galabota explained that the Chamber would be required to enter a triple-net lease at this new place, so it would lose money if it didn’t ask for a triple-net lease from the new renters of the building on Hot Springs Boulevard.
However, there are two complications.
First, when the town created a new zoning map in 2009, the space where the Visitor Center currently sits was designated as open space. In order for the Chamber to rent that building out to any other business, the zoning would need to be changed to mixed-use. Ordinance 810 is a separate item on the agenda for today’s meeting and it would change the zoning for that land. It already passed its first reading, as well.
Second, although the Chamber owns the current Visitor Center building, the town owns the parking spaces. If the Chamber decides to rent the building out to another business, the town would have to agree to allow this new business to use those spaces.
If it was willing to play hardball, the town could use both of these items as leverage to force a more favorable lease agreement out of the Chamber.
After meeting with Galabota, SUN staff stopped by Mitchem’s office to get his take on the situation.
“Since our last (town council) meeting we have had three meetings with the Chamber,” Mitchem explained, “and they’ve clarified their desires, and so we’ve put that in that briefing document.”
The document Mitchem indicated (given to SUN staff by town clerk April Hessman) was added to the council’s packet after the agenda was changed on Monday. It included the above-mentioned terms for leasing the Chamber building, and then compared that price to the terms of the lease for the site in the Old City Market complex.
As explained in an earlier SUN article, the new location is only 1,500 square feet and would only cost $1 per square foot per month, and while estimates indicate the town will need to spend $30,000 for up-front remodel costs, the building owner has agreed to take $300 off of the monthly rent until the town recoups its investment.
In other words, after the initial remodel expense, the new location would only cost $1,200 per month, whereas the old location would cost $3,643.05, and the town doesn’t need the full 2,722 square feet to run a Visitor Center.
Other arguments in favor of the new location include easier access, more parking (especially for tour buses and RVs) and better visibility from the highway.
At today’s meeting, town council will be asked to decide if the traditional location for the Visitor Center is worth the extra cost.
“The cost difference is significant,” Mitchem concluded, “and based on the Chamber’s clarifying their position, we thought it would be good to just take it back to council and see what their pleasure is.”