JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Desperate to mend the ailing economy, town officials plan to add recreational amenities to Reservoir Hill in Pagosa Springs, but opponents say it will create an “amusement park” environment unsuitable to the open space.
The proposal calls for a chairlift, alpine coaster, observation tower, tree-top zip-line tour, amphitheater, hot-air balloon ride, water-splash park and enhanced trail system for hiking and biking.
The recreational amenities will promote tourism and, hopefully, keep visitors in town an extra day, said David Mitchem, town manager.
“It’s all about growing tourism in the community,” he said, “It’s all about helping downtown businesses.”
Opponents said town officials are commercializing a public park that is enjoyed as a wilderness retreat by locals. The plan is riddled with flaws, and most community members don’t support it, said Pagosa Springs resident Norm Vance.
“There’s just a general dislike for the idea of turning our town park into a commercial and private entity,” he said. “It kind of destroys the ambiance of a nice, peaceful park to have mechanized and motorized amusement rides.”
Reservoir Hill is a thickly vegetated hill that sits on the eastern side of downtown Pagosa Springs. The city owns 110 acres that is currently used for hiking, biking, picnics and disc golf. Two music festivals are held there each year, including the Four Corners Folk Festival, which ended Sunday.
The proposed development would cover about 10 acres, Mitchem said. About 40 percent of the pine trees that cover the hill will be thinned, mostly to prevent wildfires and bark beetle infestation, he said.
The Town Council voted 5-2 on Aug. 23 in favor of the plan and directed town staff members to begin looking for ways to fund the estimated $4.3 million project.
Funding options include going for a bond or forming public-private partnerships with companies that would operate amenities, such as the alpine coaster or the zip line.
Construction could begin as early as next summer if funding comes together, Mitchem said.
“It remains to be seen how quickly we’re going to pay it off,” he said. “We’ve got to do some more research before we figure that out.”
The town received a free chairlift in December 2010 from a ski area near Walsenburg. The two-seater has about 64 chairs and is 1,200 feet long. It sits in pieces in an overgrown field behind a fence at the town’s wastewater treatment plant.
The town paid about $40,000 to have it dismantled and delivered to Pagosa Springs. It plans to spend another $500,000 to install the lift and make modifications, which include a new motor and braking system.
A new lift would have cost $1.5 million to $2 million, Mitchem said.
Critics say town officials are hellbent about installing the lift and finding ways to pay for it, which is why they are proposing “amusement park” type amenities.
Pagosa Springs resident Ken Levine said the chairlift is too short and needs numerous alterations before it can be licensed for use.
A swath of trees will need to be cut to make room for the lift. He worries the town will need to install more recreational amenities to pay for the lift and make it economically viable.
“They’re really ramming something down our throats here,” Levine said. “I don’t think it’s right.”
Vance said the alpine coaster will be one of the shortest in the world. Locals will ride it once and be done with it, he said.
In addition, a fence will need to be installed on both sides of the coaster that will cut off existing trails.
The local newspaper, The Pagosa Sun, has editorialized against the project, saying it is ill-conceived, is unlikely to produce much revenue and is a misuse of public land.
“We do not believe amusement park amenities serve long-term, healthy and quality growth downtown,” reads an editorial published Aug. 23. “Such amenities will not draw additional tourists here, nor will they keep tourists downtown.”
Mitchem said opponents have loud voices, but they are in the minority. He points to two petitions for and against the plan. The one in favor of the development has 730 signatures, he said, and the one against the plan has 104 signatures.
Town residents question the validity of the petitions. One man signed his dog’s name, Winslow, to the petition, according to the PagosaDailyPost.com, an online community magazine. Others individuals signed on behalf of their whole family, including children.
An online poll last week on the Sun’s website – with 203 votes as of Friday – showed 85 percent opposed to the plan and 7 percent supported it. Eight percent supported portions of the plan.
Vance said town officials are desperate to boost the economy, and they’re ready to try anything to do it. The town has more than 30 empty store fronts, he said.
“It’s not pretty over here from a business standpoint,” Vance said. “They’re just desperate to find something.”
The privately owned Springs Resort & Spa, with 23 mineral hot-spring pools along the San Juan River, has about 175,000 visits each year.
The town also has created fishing habitat and whitewater features in the San Juan River.
Town officials insist the amenities planned for Reservoir Hill are good for boosting tax revenues.
Many tourists come from lower elevations and are unable do hikes or mountain bike rides at higher elevations, said Bob Hart, chairman of the town’s tourism committee.
Tourists have expressed a desire for more activities in Pagosa Springs, and the proposed amenities on Reservoir Hill would be fun for the whole family, Hart said.
Mitchem said the town is trying to grow the community in a way that is friendly to both residents and tourists.
“Anytime you do something big and different, you encounter opposition,” he said.
“All this development will be right adjacent to downtown, and it should assist in growing business downtown, both retail and restaurants. I think it will also assist the lodgers.”