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What’s next for Durango’s Buckley Park?

9-R may sell property, but may want to see green space protected
The Professional Women’s Network holds a meeting Tuesday in Buckley Park as other people lounge on the grass. The park is a popular meeting place for fundraisers, political rallies and a shady place to relax near downtown.

Art Gomez remembers Durango High School football practices at what is now Buckley Park. Nancy Ariano remembers the park’s hillside used as a sledding run for children as far back as her childhood in the 1950s.

Gomez and Ariano, old-time Durangoans, aren’t alone. The park seems to engender affection from the almost 19,000 residents in town, where it has become the go-to place for political gatherings.

It’s served as a hub for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, hosts a summer concert series, the San Juan Brewfest, Apple Days and outdoor fundraisers such as Men Who Grill. Most of all, it’s a shady place to chill near downtown.

Buckley fans have grown increasingly concerned about the park’s future as the landowner, Durango School District 9-R, begins the process of marketing its central administrative campus as the district looks to raise money to finance school improvements and take care of delayed maintenance needs.

While there are no deed restrictions on the property that holds the 1.12 acres upon which Buckley Park is located, 9-R Deputy Superintendent Andy Burns said the district will inform real estate agents that they would like to see it continue to be used as a service to the community.

He noted initial talks with the city indicate all entities have a goal of preserving the space as a park, whatever the eventual fate of the remaining central campus.

Currently, the property is under a 10-year lease from 9-R to the city that expires April 2, 2023. The city paid $1,000 for the 10-year lease. The property is zoned “Central Business District” but has a future land-use designation as “Parks & Recreation.”

The 9-R Board of Education, at its July 14 meeting, will vote on whether to hire CBRE, a national commercial real estate firm, and the Wells Group, to jointly market the property, which the district estimates could generate anywhere from $12 million to $18 million for schools.

“We won’t necessarily see this resulting in a quick transaction. There’s a large amount of due diligence that will be required, and our conversations with the city have emphasized the importance of Buckley Park to the community,” Burns said.

Historic documents dating back to 1886 include the Durango School District 9-R’s original boundaries, bond financing documents and an ordinance that vacated alleys to the district. District 9-R now uses the downtown property as its central administration campus.

Active marketing of the property likely won’t come until September. Burns said the old Durango High School, built in 1916 and now serving as the 9-R Administration Building, contains asbestos, lead paint and has the maintenance needs you’d expect in a 104-year-old building. And all those issues present problems likely to delay any quick action with the property.

The 1.12-acre Buckley Park portion of the property was appraised for $500,000 in 1993, when 9-R was looking to sell the property, along with the Mason Center, to the city. Eventually, only the Mason Center was sold to the city.

The school district kept the park because the city would offer only $100,000 for it.

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie remembers getting involved with the park in the early 2000s, after a decade when it had fallen into disrepair and was known colloquially around town as “Stoner Park” for the drug deals reported in its shady, comfortable grounds.

High Noon Rotary had taken on a project to improve the park with the club providing seed money, and Brookie remembers designing an ill-received plaza using paving stones. Eventually, some of Brookie’s ideas for the park were preserved in the southwest corner’s rock garden that provides an area for sitting and relaxing.

“That was when I developed a thick skin,” Brookie recalls of fending off criticism for his plan.

But the episode showed how popular having green space close to downtown is for the many Durangoans.

Durango School District 9-R’s lease of Buckley Park to the city cleared the pathway to allow alcohol to be served in the park for special events such as the Concert Hall @ the Park series.

If the land is ever sold, Brooke said Durango’s recent adoption of an urban renewal authority, called the Durango Renewal Partnership, could offer a pathway to allow a private developer to reinvigorate the buildings on the property, the old high school and Big Picture High, while at the same time protecting the park.

The Durango Renewal Partnership offers a mechanism where private developers could keep increased sales tax revenue generated by their project for improvements specific to their own development while allowing the city to protect the park as a condition of approval of any new development.

“I, personally, would like to see the park protected. It’s the only green space we have downtown,” he said.

Art Gomez’s DHS Class of 1965 was behind the renaming of what was then called the “Old Durango High School Park” in 1985. The class rechristened the park, improving the sandstone sign that had worn thin through the years, in 2015.

The class wanted to honor two brothers, longtime Durango educators Warren and Wendell Buckley.

“What the Buckleys instilled was respect,” Gomez said. “They were old-school and firm, but that’s an important element I think is missing in education today.”

Durango School District 9-R plans to put its central administration campus up for sale, and that has many Durangoans looking for ways to protect Buckley Park from development.

In Gomez’s day, Buckley Park was used like any high school field. Students with sack lunches ate beneath trees. The football team practiced there but played its games at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

“It’s a special place for anyone who grew up here after World War II,” he said.

David Martinez, another member of the DHS Class of 1965, said the park is eventually where teenagers would end up to socialize after cruising up and down Main Avenue.

“I’d hate to lose the park. I believe the best way to protect the park would be to turn it over to the city,” he said.

Affection for the park by longtime Durangoans continues.

Nancy Ariano, DHS Class of 1969, has been working with DHM Design and the Durango Creative District to upgrade landscape features and to provide more natural seating opportunities with the use of boulders and stones along the park’s perimeter.

Ariano said the plan for the improvements should be complete in about three months.

“It will be professionally done with a purpose, and we won’t take up any of the usable space in the park,” she said.

Like Gomez and Martinez, Ariano doesn’t want a property transaction to put an end to the park: “It’s not just property values that are important. The values in your heart are important, too.”


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