Ballot issue: pro and con


Staff Writer

A Notice of Special Municipal Election was placed in the Public Notices section of this week’s SUN by town clerk April Hessman to remind everyone the vote concerning an amendment to the Home Rule Charter dealing with Reservoir Hill development plans will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, in Town Hall.

Many registered voters have already started receiving absentee ballots and campaign pamphlets in the mail. All eligible electors are encouraged to participate, and in an attempt to provide readers with a fair and balanced picture of the issue, The SUN has been running a series of articles allowing advocates from both sides to express their opinions. This week’s debate features the arguments of council members Kathie Lattin and David Schanzenbaker.

1. Why should a person vote either “yes” or “no” on the upcoming ballot issue to change the town’s Home Rule Charter?

Schanzenbaker began: “Prior to the town council vote to approve moving forward with the ‘plan’ as presented last August, the council received about 50 e-mails sharing thoughts on the subject. I’d like to share one that is representative of the content of the others: ‘Dear town council members, I am writing in protest of the Reservoir Hill proposal presented by the TTC (Town Tourism Committee). I would like you to please consider a revised, scaled down version of the plan. I believe the current plan will ruin the natural open space that Reservoir Hill offers. It will create an amusement park in a town that attracts people for its natural beauty. I do not believe that we have to go with an “all or nothing” approach to this project. Why can we not consider the elements that compliment this space with the least amount of impact? This way the hiker, biker, disc player, cross country skier, or outdoor enthusiast can still have an almost unaffected experience while incorporating a hot air balloon ride or zip line that would still keep the overall serenity of the “hill” intact. But a full blown “amusement park” will completely change the jewel we have in the heart of our town. Please consider the long term effects this will have to the brand of Pagosa Springs.’

“This e-mail,” Schanzenbaker continued, “sums up the predominant reaction that we’ve heard about the current plan at the public presentations last winter, at the August council meeting, and in at least three polls in The SUN in the last year. In addition, 212 town voters signed the petition calling for this election. I ran for council last spring to be a public servant, to serve the community and to fulfill the public trust. When I see the level of skepticism for a proposal of this scale ($4.4 million) and impact on the community, I feel it’s the town council’s job to ask the critical questions to make sure we flush out the best ideas for the hill and to fulfill the will of the people. ‘Leave us alone to govern for you’ is not the stance I take as a public trustee and that’s why I’ll be voting ‘yes.’ And remember, council just recommended over 20 amendments to the charter last April, so this process is more common than some would have you believe.”

Lattin explained the other side of the issue: “By voting ‘Yes,’ all you’re doing is saying that in the future there’s going to be another special election. If town council ever wants to explore the possibility of putting additional amenities on Reservoir Hill, a ‘No’ vote just states that you trust your government to keep looking at possibilities. If we deem, for the economic benefit for the town of Pagosa Springs and the residents, that it might be beneficial to start adding some of these amenities up on Reservoir Hill, we can go forward without spending more taxpayer money for another election.

“If they say that we have to have more elections in the future,” Lattin continued, “then as town council do we say, ‘We’re not going to do this and this and this, because it’s going to cost the taxpayers more money,’ or do we go back and say, ‘We want to look at the zip-line,’ so we take it before the voters? And if they say ‘Okay’ to doing a zip-line, and it works out well, then what if the people want to do more up there to increase the town’s sales tax revenues? We would have to have another special election to decide if we want to do something else.

“We’ve got to come up with ideas on how to increase stuff for locals to do here, as well as tourists when they are here.

“Another thing people don’t realize,” Lattin pointed out, “is you can work on something for a year to two years before you know if you can get grants or funding, and now is a time when there are a lot of available grants out there that we need to be looking at. We need to know which amenities we are actually looking at, and we still haven’t even decided that.”

2. If the town’s residents do decide to change the charter, what would be your recommendation to town council on how to proceed with Reservoir Hill?

“I would like to keep going forward with what we’re looking at doing,” Lattin responded, “come up with more ideas and have Friends of Reservoir Hill involved in all of this. What else are we going to do? What other opportunities do we have? Do we do bigger bike trails? These were the ideas the Town Tourism Committee brought to us, and we said, ‘These are good ideas. Let’s just see where it goes. What’s useful? What’s beneficial? What cash-flows? What doesn’t? What can you get grants for? What can’t you?’

“This is not an all or nothing,” Lattin continued. “We’re looking at what ideas might work or might not. We’re still taking public input on it. If the election goes that we take it before another electoral vote, that’s going to demonstrate to us that, if we are just going to be shot down by looking at certain items, is it worth us doing it or not?

“Until we break ground on something,” Lattin finished, “nothing is for sure. I don’t want an amenity up there that isn’t going to make it. If something goes up and then there is a problem, what are we going to do with it? We have to have an ultimate plan. It’s just like the downtown City Market building. I don’t want these big buildings left behind. I want there to be a feasibility study of future development. Can we take it out without leaving a footprint? The alpine coaster can be removed without it leaving a footprint. The zip-line can be taken out without it leaving a footprint. I don’t know if the chairlift could ever be taken out without it leaving a footprint. It could be taken out, but I don’t know what could be done with that portion of it. That’s the stuff we are looking into.”

“The alpine coaster brings in the lion’s share of the revenue to pay for the costs of the overall plan,” Schanzenbaker countered, “about 90 percent. So estimating how many people would actually ride it is extremely important for deciding how risky this plan might be. The plan determines the coaster’s ridership based on 100 rides per hour in July and then stepping each month’s numbers down accordingly, since July is our busiest tourism month. So this 100 rides per hour number is the linchpin to the whole notion of whether the plan is economically feasible. Since council has not authorized a professional economic feasibility analysis, we’re on our own trying to decide how risky the plan might be. The overall plan’s numbers show about a 13 percent profit margin, and while I think the Reservoir Hill Task Force did a good job trying to be conservative with the costs to build out the plan, if the alpine coaster has only 87 rides per hour in July the plan breaks even and any less than that and the plan loses money. When asked how the 100 riders per hour number was derived, council was given no indication that it was based on any analysis, so we’re left with the notion that it’s not a very hard number.

“Let’s assume that 100 rides per hour will actually occur in July on this ride,” Schanzenbaker continued. “Multiply by 10 hours per day and 31 days in the month and the coaster would have 31,000 rides in July. Even granting that everyone would want to ride it twice we’ll see 15,000 people on the hill riding the coaster in July. It’s hard to argue that this is not a high impact feature of the plan. So it’s the combination of a relatively shaky basis for its success coupled with the cost ($1 million to buy and install the coaster plus another $1 million in associated infrastructure, restrooms, parking, ticket office, concessions etc.) and high impact on the hill that makes it an easy part of the plan to eliminate.

“And to speak to the claim that the alpine coaster isn’t a roller coaster,” Schanzenbaker finished, “a quick check of the websites of the three alpine coasters in the west — Park City, Glenwood Springs, and Breckenridge — provides these quotes, ‘Just like your favorite roller coaster,’ ‘Think of everything you love about roller coasters,’ and ‘Attention thrill seekers!’”

3. What would you like to see town council do if the people decide to not change the charter?

Schanzenbaker explained, “Since the chairlift purchased by council at the end of 2010 has about half the towers and half the vertical rise required to reach the festival meadow, and with The SUN recently reporting that council has already discussed whether liquidating the chair would be a good idea (it has been made known to council that we’ve been approached by someone interested in buying the lift in the past), it seems like selling the chairlift would be an easy decision to make regardless of this election outcome.”

Lattin argued, “There still has to be open public meetings. People have to go with ideas and they have to have the ability to look at why we would or wouldn’t do something. We need to listen to our constituents. There is no doubt.

“The people that have been taking the petitions around and having people sign them,” Lattin accused, “have led people to believe untruth. They think that there will be Ferris wheels and clear-cutting. They think that we bought the chairlift for Reservoir Hill development. That is all not true. The zip-lines and stuff like that, I think those are really good. We want Reservoir Hill to remain a functioning, awesome place, but we’ve got to take care of what we have and the misrepresentation and the blowing things out of proportion is what’s hurting.”

4. Ultimately, what do you want to see happen on Reservoir Hill?

“I commend the TTC Task Force,” Schanzenbaker concluded, “for all its work coming up with a comprehensive plan to try to increase tourism and improve everyone’s experience of Reservoir Hill. I just think they weren’t given enough guidance from council based on the community feedback that we’ve received in the past year, so I’d like to see the Task Force be directed to broaden its focus to research and present council with high impact, medium impact, and low impact versions of ways to enhance the hill, and then we as a community can have a discussion about how we’d like to proceed. I’d also love to see the sentiments contained in the e-mail I’ve shared to be taken into account as we move forward.”

“The water spray park in downtown — I love it!” Lattin enthused. “That is not a controversial thing. Same with the observation tower. There are a few items in there that are controversial. We’re trying to find out if we can do everything else with or without these items. We may need those items to help support the development of the others, but we cannot look at grants or bonds or even take it to anybody and present anything until we know our facts.

“The chairlift came with a little towrope,” Lattin continued. “It would tow you up on a little tube and let you slide down the sledding area. There would be nothing in the world wrong with putting that up there. My vision has always been to use that and let local kids have a little tubing hill.

“When the petition people went around getting signatures,” Lattin concluded, “I went back to some of the people and showed them the actual plan of what we were looking at doing, and they said specifically, ‘That’s not what we were told,’ and there wasn’t anything on our list that they didn’t like.”