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La Plata County will not move fairgrounds to Durango Mesa

Commissioners voted not to accept offer of 200 acres, citing projected $80 million cost
The La Plata Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday not to pursue the development of a multi-event center and fairgrounds at the Durango Mesa Park. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

After years of anticipation, the long-held vision of moving the La Plata County fairgrounds was officially laid to rest Tuesday – at least for the time being.

The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to decline an offer from the Durango Mesa Park Foundation to purchase or accept a donation of 200 acres within the 1,928-acre park. The BOCC also voted to disband the Multi-Event Center Commission, given that the panel is no longer needed following the decision to decline participation in the park’s development.

The Board cited financial concerns, saying that the question of whether to expend the large sum needed to relocate the fairgrounds should be put before voters.

The vote ended a conversation grounded in a 2017 planning process that yielded a proposal the build a new multi-event center and fairgrounds – to the tune of $80 million.

Durango City Council voted to annex the enormous plot of open space last week. The city and county have both explored how to best develop the park, which sits above State Highway 3 east of Durango, ever since it was donated to the foundation by Mercury Payment Systems founder Marc Katz in 2019.

The 200 acres in question fall within the larger parcel annexed by the city – the process enables future development, but does not mean the city owns the property.

The city will continue to pursue development of other recreation opportunities in the park, including 7 miles of mountain bike trails connecting to the adjacent Horse Gulch trail network that are scheduled to open later this week. A BMX bike park and community gathering spaces are also in the park’s future.

In August, the Durango Mesa Park Foundation sent the BOCC a letter requesting that the two entities formalize a partnership by the end of the year. The board had received updated financial estimates in July and September.

“Somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million is the basic entry fee to get infrastructure up on the mesa – and that’s the county’s share, not the total cost,” County Manager Chuck Stevens told the board during his staff report.

The development of facilities, such as the livestock barns, show arena and community barn, contained in the 2017 plan could cost well north of $80 million.

“It became clear that an ask of this nature would need to go to the residents of La Plata County to confirm that this is where they want their tax dollars being spent,” Stevens said.

Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton emphasized that she would be open to continuing the conversation, noting, “I’ll stay at the table for any discussions.” However, she said the deadline set by the foundation meant that the county could not support the development at this time.

Commissioner Matt Salka added that he had made a personal commitment to ask voters to increase taxes to fund road and bridge improvements before anything else.

Pam Petrie, the producer of the True Western Roundup, was one of two members of the public to offer comment at the BOCC meeting Tuesday morning. She asked commissioners to invest in the current fairgrounds given the decision not to pursue a new venue.

John Simpson, a self-styled financial watchdog of local governments, accused the board of “holding the families in this county hostage” by refusing to fund amenities until voters approve a property tax increase.

In an indirect response to Simpson’s comment, Stevens said that indeed the county does have a fund balance it could put toward funding new fairgrounds – but that does not necessarily mean it should, citing other priorities such as the Road and Bridge fund and public safety concerns that also demand financial support.

“The board needs to be asking … is this the right use of the county’s fund balance – to fund Durango Mesa Park,” Stevens said. “That’s a question that the Board of County Commissioners needs to consider, and frankly you probably need to hear from your residents.”

La Plata County Fair Board President Amy Peterson said she was not disappointed by the decision because the fair’s organizers did not want to move anyway.

“It's been there for 75 years,” Peterson said of the current fairgrounds. “When you move a fairground somewhere other than where it's always been, you lose a lot of business. People decide they don't want to go to it. So they're just happy where they are.”

The grounds certainly need some improvements, she added. But she would rather see those improvements made than move the grounds all together.

Moira Compton, the executive director of the Durango Mesa Park Foundation, said although the organization is left holding the bill for development, the city and the nonprofit will continue to pursue infrastructure development in the park.

“We look forward to continued dialogue with the County and to working with them if or when they decide to move forward with their master plan for Durango Mesa Park in the future,” Compton said in an email to The Durango Herald. “Durango Mesa Park Foundation has direction with infrastructure investment over the next 3 to 4 years that will provide future public access.”


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