EDITORIAL: The Heart & Soul of the Future, Part Three

Read Part One

If all goes well, a news article will appear this Thursday in the weekly Pagosa Springs SUN newspaper, announcing a new Pagosa Springs non-profit group, with a very appropriate name:

Friends of Reservoir Hill.

The group’s stated mission is to develop an alternative plan — and funding options — for the future development of Reservoir Hill.  The group calls their plan, “Plan B”.

A group of friends were already picking and grinning on Thursday afternoon at the 2007 Four Corners Folk Festival.  FolkWest is already planning for next year's 18th Annual FCFF, August 30-September 1, 2013.  Tickets go on sale in December.

A group of friends were already picking and grinning on Thursday afternoon at the 2007 Four Corners Folk Festival.  FolkWest is already planning for next year’s 18th Annual FCFF, August 30-September 1, 2013.  Tickets go on sale in December.

On August 23, the honorable members of the Pagosa Springs Town Council voted to approve “Plan A” — authorizing Town manager David Mitchem to seek ways to put the town voters maybe $5 million in debt, to fund a small amusement park atop Reservoir Hill.  The 15-page “business plan” approved by the Council was researched and written by a thirty-something marketing person, Jennie Green — a person with absolutely no experience building or operating amusement parks — with the able assistance of three Town Tourism Committee volunteers: Bob Hart, owner of a local construction company; Larry Fisher, owner of a ski rental shop; and Thad McKain, a volunteer fireman.

The plan was vetted by Town manager David Mitchem before he presented it to the Town Council, although at the August 23 meeting, Mr. Mitchem didn’t seem completely familiar with the proposal.

Neither Mr. Mitchem nor anyone serving on the Town Council has any experience building or operating amusement parks. But how hard can it be?  Certainly, the Town knows how to borrow money; that part shouldn’t be a problem.  Mr. Mitchem had never headed up the government of a small town prior to being hired in 2008; if he can run a struggling mountain resort town without any experience, then directing a $5 million amusement park on top of it should be a piece of cake.

The main problem might be that nearly 90 percent of the respondents to a recent SUN poll voted against the proposed amusement park concept.  Theoretically, the Town government could install an amusement park on Reservoir Hill.  But could they do it… politically?

And why did the Council, on August 23, show not the slightest interest in having a Plan B?

Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County have had a long history — 130 years give or take — of economic struggle.  The first few decades, leading up to 1917 when the Pagosa Lumber Company shut down its operations, were probably a high point of economic ecstasy, judging from the history books. From an essay on the Pagosa Lumber Company, written by Durango historian Jennifer Leithauser:

“Officers Alleged to Have Fraudulently Secured Claims on Timber Land Worth Nearly $100,000” read the headline of the Durango Democrat on May 10, 1907. The charge was just one of many brought against two giants of the local lumber industry.

Edgar M. Biggs, with his New Mexico Lumber Co., and Alexander T. Sullenberger of the Pagosa Lumber Co., were two of the most influential and controversial figures in the lumber business. For years these men twisted the political situation to suit their own needs, sidestepping federal regulations to profit from the lush forests around them. At the same time, though, they also ultimately transformed the economy of Archuleta County, incorporating new towns, employing hundreds of workers, and providing lumber for building and expansion.

After 1917, the economy of Pagosa Springs settled into an unexciting and unremarkable pattern of quiet rural life.  A few lumber mills continued to operate; a number of area ranches raised sheep or cattle; hunters and fishermen arrived from Texas at the appropriate times of year.  Archuleta County held its annual County Fair; Pagosa Springs held its annual Fourth of July Parade.  The downtown population remained about 1,400 people for 70 years or so.  Petty corruption and ethical decision-making took their turns in the County Courthouse, and in the Town Hall.

According to the oldest property maps and records at the County Courthouse — dating from the late 1800s — the pine-covered hill just east of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs has been platted as a “Park” ever since Pagosa’s founding.  Those same early maps show a “reservoir” atop the hill.  Today, we know the hill as Reservoir Hill Park, and the water storage takes place in a large steel storage tank — but back in first half of the 20th century, the reservoir was an small, man-made lake that occupied much of what we today call “the Folk Festival Meadow.”

We got used to having an undeveloped park in our back yard.

About 17 years ago, a small group of Pagosans decided to try holding a bluegrass festival on the Hill, and allow people to camp there for the weekend.  This wasn’t a completely novel idea; back in the early 1990s, another group used to hold an annual “Mountain Man Rendezvous” on Reservoir Hill; the event had featured camping, outdoor cooking, musket-shooting, and other “mountain man” type activities.  (There might even have been some banjo-playing; I can’t recall.)

The Four Corners Folk Festival recently finished cleaning up the hill following its 17th annual Labor Day festival; the Town staff reported at a recent Council meeting that the cleanup had left the Hill looking “immaculate” (or something to that effect).  This was the first year that the festival sponsors, FolkWest, added a $1 surcharge to its tickets, with that extra fee going to the Town government to help maintain and upgrade the hill.

We gradually got used to having two annual music festivals on the hill, and having an undeveloped, wilderness park for the rest of the year.

Then along came Bob Hart and the Town Tourism Committee’s new Reservoir Hill Amusement Park Business Plan.  Plan A.

A plan that implies massive government debt.  A plan that would most likely drive the Folk Festival off the hill.  A plan that would permanently “commercialize” our 130-year-old wilderness park.

I was able to attend a few of the community meetings that led up to the creation of “The Friends of Reservoir Hill.”  Some background on that process in tomorrow’s article…

Read Part Four…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson spent a pleasant 18 months living in downtown Salida, during which time he did his best to understand the inhabitants and their motivations. He then escaped back to Pagosa Springs to resume his work at PagosaDailyPost.com