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

Read Part One

Here’s a short excerpt from an article by reporter Kathryn Flagg, published in Seven Days magazine:

“The Heart & Soul project, with its heavy emphasis on storytelling, may sound touchy-feely. Indeed, McCormack emphasizes the emotionally satisfying qualities of the undertaking, saying, ‘I think people are hungry to have meaningful conversations about their communities.’

“But the initiative is more than a feel-good chance to gab with neighbors. New data from the Knight Foundation’s massive Soul of the Community study demonstrate a direct link between residents’ emotional attachment to a place and its economic growth and vitality. Starting in 2008, the foundation, in collaboration with Gallup, interviewed nearly 43,000 people in 26 communities over three years. It discovered that three main qualities attach people to a place: social offerings, aesthetics and openness (i.e., how welcoming a community is). The communities to which residents were more attached, were also those that saw greater gross-domestic-product growth…”

Reporter Flagg is here writing about an unusual approach to political decision-making in a small but well-off Vermont community, Essex — the recent recipient of a $100,000 “Heart & Soul” grant from the Orton Family Foundation.  The grant will support a two-year initiative guided by local activists, aimed at preserving the qualities that Essex citizens value most.

As another of its goals, however, the project hopes to address (in a roundabout way) the community’s frustration with a divided local government — a government split between Essex, the Town, and the separately governed village of Essex Junction, which is located totally inside the boundaries of Essex, the Town.  (Some of our readers might recognize this situation as somewhat familiar… the Town of Pagosa Springs being totally contained within the jurisdiction of another governmental entity, Archuleta County.)  This governmental disconnect has been a contentious controversy that’s haunted Essex political decisions for at least the past 50 years.

The Orton Family Foundation also awarded similar $100,000 “Heart & Soul” grants to five Rocky Mountain communities — including the community of Cortez, Colorado, two hours west of Pagosa Springs.

The goal of the Orton grants, from what I can gather from their website, is to help bring about a fundamental change in the way small towns and cities plan for the future.

“Traditional [planning] approaches use important data about demographic and economic shifts, traffic counts and infrastructure needs, but frequently fail to account for the particular ways people relate to their physical surroundings and ignore or discount the intangibles—shared values, beliefs and quirky customs—that make a community…”

Political decisions and community development choices, in small American towns, are typically made (as they are here in Pagosa Springs) in boring board meetings, scheduled at often inconvenient times, or (in the worst case) in private back rooms with no public attendance.  The rooms in which these decisions are made are typically sterile environments, and the physical arrangement brings to mind (at least, it brings to MY mind) the throne room of a Medieval Lord.  The Honorable Mayor (with his Counselors to His right and left) sits on a slightly raised platform, facing the Subjects of His Reign, and prepared to hand down judgment on all matters pertaining to the Future of the Realm.

The Board of County Commissioners seat themselves in a similar manner during most public meetings — on a raised platform, looking down (ever so slightly) on the public, while the Board’s loyal Counselors sit to the left and right.

Skateboarder Chris Rapp discusses the 12-year campaign to see a skate park built in Pagosa Springs, during a Town Council meeting in 2009, as the Mayor looks on from his place of honor.

Skateboarder Chris Rapp discusses the 12-year campaign to see a skate park built in Pagosa Springs, during a Town Council meeting in 2009, as the Mayor looks on from his place of honor.

This physical structure, and the manner in which our governments conduct their meetings, define (seems to me) the relationship between our (elected and appointed) Lords and their Subjects.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have a choice.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a non-governmental meeting scheduled at the Chamber of Commerce meeting room.  The gathering included a handful of local activists who have been speaking publicly, on numerous occasions, on the subject of the Reservoir Hill Amusement Park — a $5 million proposal being promoted by Town manager David Mitchem and the Town Tourism Committee, that would forever change the character of Reservoir Hill Park. The participants sat around a table.  No one sat above anyone, looking down.

We all sat on the same level, telling our stories to one another, as equal human beings.

The folks behind the Reservoir Hill Amusement Park proposal — Mr. Mitchem, and the members of the Town Tourism Committee — were appointed by the Honorable Mayor Ross Aragon and His Counselors (otherwise known as the Town Council).

The people who met last month in the Chamber meeting room, meanwhile, had not been appointed by anyone. They showed up because they fervently care about Reservoir Hill as a beautiful, relatively pristine, public park. They all felt saddened by the Town Council’s recent decision to pursue the commercialization of Reservoir Hill (provided “funding” can be found for the amusement park project) — and they all knew that the Honorable Mayor and His Counselors were committed to ignoring all public comments to the contrary, even if those public comments represented the sentiments of perhaps 90 percent of the community.

When economic times are hard — the community’s wishes must be ignored.  That seems to be the Town Council’s approach.

The people in the Chamber meeting room last month didn’t represent any organization.  They didn’t represent any government agency.  They were just ordinary folks who cared about their park.  How to move forward?

The Town Council had officially given David Mitchem instructions to find funding for an amusement park that had been planned by four TTC volunteers with absolutely no experience planning amusement parks.  That was “Plan A”.

It seemed that there were two possible approaches to saving Reservoir Hill from destruction.  One approach would be to carefully (but quickly) develop an alternative plan — “Plan B” — that could be funded without excessive government debt, and that would come closer to preserving the current character and usage of the park.  This approach, although sensible, entailed a hypothetical race to the finish line against a competing Plan A that had already been given the Mayor’s blessing.

The other approach would be through the ballot box.  The Town’s Home Rule Charter spells out the process by which citizens can place a Town ordinance before the voters… and allow the voters, rather than the Town Council, to define, in a small way, the future of Pagosa Springs.  This is the initiative process, and to my knowledge it has never been successfully attempted in Pagosa Springs — although a similar process called a referendum was tried here in 2010.  That attempt failed at the polls to retain some Big Box Retailer regulations that were being repealed by the Town Council.

How to move forward?  Into a future that seems, for all intents and purposes, to be controlled by a Medieval Mayor?

Read Part Five…

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