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What will a new year bring to Southwest Colorado?

A new fire station? An end to drought? Here are a few things sure to make news in 2022
Hal Doughty, front, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, and Randy Back, deputy chief, describe how fire trucks would enter and leave the area near the Durango Big Picture High School building. The fire district wants to build a fire station where the Durango School District 9-R Administration Building is located. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

No crystal ball is needed to know that certain things will make news in 2022 in Southwest Colorado.

The pandemic will enter its third year. Skyrocketing real estate prices will continue to challenge working families. Durango and La Plata County officials will continue to be challenged on where to locate people without housing.

But other things are a bit more uncertain: Will a prolonged drought persist another year? Will the look and feel of downtown Durango be forever altered with permanent bump-outs? How will local governments spend millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan?

And then there are the things no one can predict: Crime. Crashes. Fires. Who will voters elect in 2022? Will a local school or student lay claim to a state championship in sports, debate or 4-H?

Here is our best guess at some of the things that will make news in 2022:

Durango

Fire station No. 2

Durango School District 9-R sold its Administration Building at 201 E. 12th St. in the heart of downtown Durango to the Durango Fire Protection District in December.

Now, the fire district must work with the city of Durango on a site plan, use concepts and a traffic study. It could make for contentious discussions. Residents in the general vicinity, including on East Third Avenue, have expressed fierce opposition to the plan. Other residents are concerned a fire station could affect parking on 12th Street or change the character of Buckley Park.

Efforts to address housing shortage

The city of Durango has made some inroads on providing affordable housing, but more is expected to happen in 2022. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Money was budgeted in 2021 to develop a Housing Innovation Department, and a new housing manager position will provide a full-time focus on workforce housing possibilities.

In 2022, the city hopes to move forward with an effort to convert the Best Western Inn and Suites on the U.S. Highway 160 in west Durango into 120 affordable housing units.

City buying Buckley Park

Buckley Park in the 1200 block of Main Avenue is owned by Durango School District 9-R, but plans are in the works to transfer ownership to the city of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Durango wants to purchase Buckley Park from Durango School District 9-R in 2022.

In 2021, the city subdivided the park from the school district property, the first step in a potential purchase of Buckley Park. The move also allows the school district to sell off the Administration Building separate from the park.

Business
The city of Durango turned Main Avenue into a two-lane road from a four-lane road during the 2020 pandemic to allow businesses to have bump-outs, or outdoor space. Some businesses would like to make that a permanent feature on Main Avenue. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Will bump-outs be permanent?

The Business Improvement District and the city of Durango are engaging in discussions about whether to make business bump-outs a permanent fixture of downtown Durango.

Tim Walsworth, BID executive director, said a study including public input sessions and a public survey will be employed to gauge downtown stakeholders’ feelings toward making bump-outs permanent.

Walsworth said the matter of bump-outs is a big-picture discussion, which is just the sort of discussion the BID likes to have, particularly after the business community has been forced to be reactive amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Businesses take an interest in housing

The BID is also looking forward to the development of several housing projects in 2022. Walsworth said it can be difficult to attract new businesses and prospective employees to the area when there is a low quantity of affordable housing.

The old Downtown Durango Inn is being converted into apartments by a private developer; the city is working on the Best Western property; and another housing project on north Main Avenue could create a permanent affordable housing component where units would be kept at a stagnant, affordable price.

What is the future of the BID?

Regarding the BID itself, Walsworth said the organization is set to sundown in 2025. He said there is an option to continue the BID, which the board would like to do, but how and in what capacity needs to be decided.

Discussions about the BID’s future will take place through 2022. Eventually, Walsworth said, the question will be posed to constituents who will vote on the BID’s fate. The election is likely another year or two away, he said.

Cops and courts

Durango Police Department

Employee retention has been a challenge for many job sectors but especially in law enforcement, where the pay is considered too low to support a family or to keep up with the cost of living in Southwest Colorado.

Nationwide, law enforcement has been under the microscope as a result of high-profile officer-involved shootings and years of statistics that suggest a pattern of implicit bias in policing.

The Durango Police Department hopes not only to maintain its staffing level, but wants to add at least two police officer positions in 2022.

La Plata County Jail

Two inmates escaped last year from the La Plata County Jail, and both occurred when inmates scaled a wall and slipped through a fenced-in area. The Sheriff’s Office has acknowledged it has a security issue, and says the lapse will be addressed as part of the 2022 budget.

6th Judicial District courts

After serving nearly nine years on the bench, 6th Judicial District Judge William Herringer announced in December he will retire March 9. Applications are already being accepted for a new judge, and a nominating commission will begin work in February on making a recommendation for filling the seat.

Education

Election lawsuit pending against Durango 9-R School Board

Durango School District 9-R plans to fight a lawsuit filed against the school board and its former spokeswoman Julie Popp about their handling of a school board vacancy that came up in 2021.

The lawsuit claims the school board did not give residents a fair chance to run for a position on the board after board member Andrea Parmenter vacated her District D seat.

The school district says it learned Parmenter moved in August, and no special election was required, because Parmenter vacated the seat within 90 days of the November election. The plaintiffs claim she moved out months earlier.

The lawsuit will play out in 2022.

Evolving curricula at Durango School District 9-R

Durango School District 9-R will re-examine its curricula from several angles next year.

The school district was notified in November by the Colorado Department of Education that adjustments to its teacher training regarding K-3 reading curricula are needed for the district to re-enter compliance with the updated READ Act. The READ Act requires evidence-based training be provided to all teachers in grades K-3. The school district has until Aug. 1 to implement evidence-based training to teachers and bring reading curricula up to speed.

The district is also looking to reshape curricula to align with skills and values sought by employers in the Durango community. The district hosted its first community meeting in November to seek input from stakeholders on what traits and skills students need to standout to Durango employers.

Environment

Water

Farmers, ranchers and water managers hope for the best but are preparing for the worst in terms of precipitation in 2022. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Water is always an issue in Southwest Colorado and next year will not be any different. La Niña, dry soils and climate change are expected to have a significant impact on water resources next summer. La Niña tends to shift storms farther north. Dry soils absorb early winter precipitation, reducing snowpack and natural water storage. And climate change has shifted runoff earlier and lengthened the growing season, boosting evaporation and transpiration.

After a dry summer that left reservoirs at historic lows, all of these factors could compound to cause headache for water managers, farmers, ranchers, outdoor recreation and residents of Southwest Colorado.

Public lands and recreation

Recreation on public lands has soared in recent years. National forest visits increased by more than 20 million between 2016 and 2020. From 2019 to 2020, visitation grew by about 18 million. Research has connected growing outdoor recreation to increased wildfire risk and harmful effects on wildlife. Public land and wildlife managers have begun equating the negative impacts of recreation to those of oil and gas and other historically disruptive industries. The end is not in sight. Outdoor recreation is projected to continue to grow in the coming years.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are all searching for ways to balance recreation with their responsibility to protect natural resources. Trail and road closures have become an important tool for limiting the human footprint on public lands. Permits for high-travel areas are also being discussed as another management strategy. And agencies are thinking more about how they develop trails. These solutions will all likely be coming to the public lands of Southwest Colorado and next summer could be a critical testing ground.

La Plata County

American Rescue Plan Act

American Rescue Plan Act money will begin flowing to projects in La Plata County in the coming months. The $1.9 billion stimulus sent $10.9 million to La Plata County with a spending deadline of 2026. The county refrained from spending that money in 2021 so it could listen to public input and ensure it was spending the money where it was most impactful. La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens called the funds “once-in-a-lifetime money” and said the county commissioners were looking at legacy projects that could benefit the community for generations.

How the county spends the money will be a constant topic of conversation in 2022. The county has wide discretion over how the money is spent. Broadband and affordable housing projects are on the table, as well as investment in water and sewer infrastructure.

Purple Cliffs and homelessness

Homeless residents are allowed to camp at Purple Cliffs, south of downtown Durango, but the city and La Plata County governments are trying to identify a location for a permanent managed homeless camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

County staff members held an informational meeting earlier this week to discuss a potential managed camp near the land at the back of the Durango Tech Center. The county is searching for alternatives to Purple Cliffs, with an eye toward clearing the current camp before next winter. Fires, parking issues along La Posta Road (County Road 213) and unsanitary conditions are just a few of the reasons why the county is considering a move away from Purple Cliffs. The city of Durango and La Plata County’s Strategic Plan on Homelessness identified a managed camp as one of the gaps in their efforts to tackle homelessness.

However, the decision has already been met with uproar and divided the Durango community. Some think a managed camp is a necessary development that has been too long in the making. Those who live in the Crestview neighborhood and on Ella Vita Court firmly oppose the project, remembering the chaos of the previous camp at the landfill from 2015 to 2018.

Homelessness continues to be an issue in Durango and La Plata County, and with limited affordable housing, the question remains how the county will address Purple Cliffs.

Health

Behavioral health access

Medical providers and public health officials have increasingly focused on behavioral health in Southwest Colorado in recent years as studies have identified clear gaps in services. A 2017 study by Mercy Hospital found that behavioral health and alcohol use drove emergency room admissions. In response, the Mercy-led Southwestern Colorado Opioid Overdose Planning Consortium has been working to tackle substance abuse in La Plata County. Other providers like Axis Health System have used community programs and health care to address mental health.

Conversations often surround access to critical services, which are difficult to find and pay for in rural parts of the state. Southwest Colorado lacks a substance treatment facility, but local governments have discussed pooling money from Colorado’s opioid settlement, which will bring $4 million to La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan and Dolores counties, to establish a treatment center in the next few years. San Juan Basin Public Health and medical providers plan to also expand access to behavior health services next year through preventive care and treatment programs, such as clean needle exchanges and Narcan, for those struggling with opioid addictions.

Omicron

As the coronavirus pandemic enters it third year, scientists and public health officials warn that the disease could persist and continue to devastate communities with the rise of the omicron variant. California confirmed the first case of omicron in the U.S. on Dec. 1. Less than three weeks later, federal officials said the variant accounted for nearly three-quarters of new cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists omicron as a variant of concern along with delta, but scientists still have much to learn about the transmissibility, the risk it poses and the efficacy of vaccines. The New York Times reported Dec. 19 that it looks as though vaccines will offer less defense against contracting the new strain of COVID-19. Vaccines still appear to protect against severe disease, according to a report by U.K. Health Security Agency.

After the fall 2021 surge in Southwest Colorado, La Plata County schools, hospitals and businesses could again feel the effects of the pandemic in 2022.

Bayfield

Workforce housing

In 2022, the town of Bayfeild wants to further address its lack of workforce housing.

The biggest project the town has on the horizon is development of the Cinnamon Heights subdivision. Last year, the town purchased 30 lots to develop workforce housing.

The town plans to have between 25 to 28 of the townhomes be deed restricted, and sell for around $275,000.

Town staffing

The town of Bayfield plans to hire a number of new staff members in 2022, including a community development director, a recreation coordinator and a new deputy.

Bringing on new hires, the town wants to increase law enforcement presence, and fill other positions that will help improve economic and community engagement.

Ignacio

Broadband infrastructure

Ignacio hopes to install new broadband infrastructure for residents in 2022.

A plan for development was put in place in 2021, and grants have already been submitted to get the project underway.

Town Manager Mark Garcia said there is federal money for infrastructure that will be available to Ignacio in 2022.

Housing development

With a study completed in 2021, the town of Ignacio hopes to begin developing a property near Rock Creek to combat the town’s housing shortage.

One of the development plans is for a larger 60-unit apartment complex. Other potential plans are to develop multifamily housing, like duplexes or fourplexes

Downtown redevelopment

Garcia said town staff members want to begin working on plans to redevelop Ignacio’s downtown.

The plan will be used to write grants that will help pay for potential redevelopment projects.

Garcia said some redevelopment ideas include streetscape improvements, and some building relocation projects.

The section on Purple Cliffs and homelessness has been updated to reflect that the strategic plan on homelessness was a joint effort by the city of Durango and La Plata County.

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