Where to put a Visitor Center?


Staff Writer

The task force responsible for transferring operations of the Pagosa Springs Visitor Center from the Chamber of Commerce to the Town Tourism Committee met last week to discuss the progress that has been made so far and to figure out what needs to happen next.

“My question,” TTC director Jennie Green asked, “is how do we proceed? Do we want to form a group to go and check out all of these individual properties, or do we want to continue to let the list ebb and flow?”

Green handed out a spreadsheet containing a list of potential sites for the visitor center down one side as well as a list of the criteria for evaluating those properties across the top. The factors the group had already decided were important included square footage, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, location, parking, and visibility from U.S. 160.

Town council member Kathie Lattin offered to make contact with the new owner of the downtown City Market complex as well as the owner of the old Southwest Bank building to find out how much it would cost to rent either of those facilities.

Chamber director Mary Jo Coulehan pointed out that two of the properties on the list — one in the River Center and one at the Cool Water building on the top of Put Hill — had been either rented or sold. She went on to point out that a Victorian house next to Riff Raff Brewery on Pagosa Street is too small. She also said she could not emphasize enough the importance of public restroom facilities.

While the group discussed the merits of each property, Green refused to make any recommendations one way or the other, arguing there were pros and cons for each and none was perfect. The old City Market building, for example, would offer plenty of parking, even for RVs and tour buses, and is highly visible to traffic on U.S. 160, but it is a little out of the way for downtown pedestrian traffic, it would require funds for remodeling and there is only the front door for access.

“There are a number of smaller units attached to the City Market building,” Green explained. “It would not be in the former grocery store. It would perhaps be where Dorothy’s was or one of those other locations.”

“You should go closer to the grocery store,” Coulehan pointed out, “and use one of those facilities because you only have one exit or entrance and it needs to be ADA accessible.”

Parelli CEO Mark Weiler suggested the group approach the problem from the other direction. Instead of making a list of what is currently available, then evaluating the pros and cons of each, he suggested defining the perfect location and figuring out how to secure it. He used the Old Sears building on South 6th Street as an example, but Lattin pointed out that building will be demolished when the McCabe Creek Culvert project begins.

Mark Day, who is a member of neither the TTC nor the Chamber but was involved as a concerned citizen, asked if most Visitor Center traffic enters Pagosa Springs from the east or west. The answer, surprisingly, is neither. Most tourists come to town from Texas or New Mexico, therefore the most common approach is from the south along U.S. 84.

Green explained the group had originally considered an uptown location such as Harman Park, which would be more spread out and would offer better parking and bus access, but had determined a downtown location was preferred. She pointed to Durango’s visitor center on the corner of 8th and Main streets in that city as an example of a good location because it attracts a lot of downtown foot traffic.

When Day asked why the Visitor Center had to move from its current location, Lattin explained that it didn’t. Keeping it where it is now and renting the building from the Chamber was still one of the options, but the group was tasked by town council to explore all of the options.

TTC member Larry Fisher asked about the vacant lot on the corner of 1st and Pagosa streets, across from the museum. The merits of this location had been discussed in previous meetings, both because of its proximity to U.S. 84 and because of the idea that many communities locate the visitor center near a museum so when people stop they have easy access to the history of the community.

Green explained that this location is still a viable long-term solution, but since the TTC will be taking over Visitor Center operations from the Chamber in May of 2014, the immediate goal is to find a short-term solution. A similar argument was made for the location in Harman Park.

Green mentioned an idea that had been put forth earlier, to refurbish a trailer house or a similar prefabricated structure, which could be moved onto one of these vacant lots, but everyone agreed that would be a step in the wrong direction. If the Visitor Center is to move from its current location, it should be to a better facility, not a worse one.

When Green pointed out cost is another key component for consideration, Coulehan explained many of the costs currently associated with running the Visitor Center would not apply once the town took over. Removing snow from the parking lot is one example. Currently, the Chamber pays someone to perform that service, but once the TTC takes over, the town’s streets department will do it.

Coulehan went on to explain the advantages of the current building as far as buses being able to park in the Mary Fisher parking lot, and possible arrangements for the Chamber and TTC sharing the building.

Fisher and Weiler each suggested the best idea would be to keep the Visitor Center in its current location while the town pursued a permanent solution — either constructing a new building or buying an existing one. In the end, the group decided to ask town council at its next meeting what the council is willing to do.

While the future location of the Visitor Center dominated the conversation, Green did present two other items. The first was a letter she had drafted to all of the current volunteer diplomats at the Visitor Center, asking for their continued support of the facility once the transfer was made from the Chamber to the TTC.

The second item was a new touch screen computer monitor. The TTC plans to install several such devices, not only in the Visitor Center, but also at several key locations through out the community. While the device was unable to connect to the Wi-Fi signal in the Ross Aragon Community Center, Coulehan promised the signal in the Visitor Center was much better.

Coulehan later asked if this prototype could be set up in the Visitor Center before next Tuesday, when she will conduct a training session for her volunteers. Green promised to get it up and running by then.