EDITORIAL: Musings on the Courthouse Question, Part Two

Read Part One

They say two-thousand-zero-zero, party over, ooops, out of time,
So tonight I’m going to party like it’s 1999…

— ‘1999,’ hit song by Prince

Another beautiful Thursday in Pagosa Springs, and a fine day to meet with concerned citizens, over coffee.

I had the pleasure, yesterday, of meeting one-on-one with three of our elected community leaders. Three meetings, at two of our local coffee shops.  Not a typical day, for this small-town editor.

Two of these public officials wanted to talk about the County Courthouse controversy — one of my favorite subjects. And both of them, at one point in the conversation, asked me why I thought two members of the Board of County Commissioners — Clifford Lucero and Steve Wadley — had picked the most expensive, least suitable location for a new “justice center.” That would be the 4.9-acre parcel on Hot Springs Boulevard, across from Town Hall, which is specifically deed-restricted to prohibit construction of a “justice center.”

Not that the parcel itself is expensive. The County already owns it, and has owned it since 1999.

And that date — 1999 — might give us a clue as to why Commissioner Clifford Lucero pushed so hard to insure that the only site seriously considered for a justice center was the one across from Town Hall, and why he embraced a $28 million price tag, when all the other options were less expensive. And why he urged the BOCC to pursue eminent domain to remove the deed restriction — regardless of how much it might cost the County to get involved in a possibly lengthy lawsuit with the Levine family, who happen to operate a law firm specializing in real estate law.

It’s fun to come up with theories that might explain seemingly irrational behavior.

So, just for the fun of it, let’s drift back to 1999. A smart young man named Jay Harrington has been hired as Town Manager by the Town of Pagosa Springs, to oversee what appears to be a wonderful and somewhat remarkable blossoming of a little, rural community following some serious economic distress experienced during the 1980s.

Between 1990 and 1999, the full-time population of Archuleta County had nearly doubled, according to the U.S. Census.

The “blossoming” was not taking place evenly across the community, however. Most of the growth — the lion’s share — was occurring four miles west of the historic downtown, in the Pagosa Lakes area.

In fact, the old downtown was seeing very little growth at all.  The Town’s sales tax revenues were somewhat spectacular, what with all the new people in the county, but almost nobody was building within the historic downtown.

Pagosa Mayor Ross Aragon and his Town Manager, Jay Harrington, had come up with a plan to bring more of the growth into downtown. The plan involved expanding the commercial area down the dirt road known for years as Light Plant Road — but now to be known as “Hot Springs Boulevard.”

The plan involved four key pieces. Hot Springs Boulevard was to be transformed from a dirt road into a wide, paved road with spacious sidewalks. A new Town Hall would be built near the southern end of this new “boulevard.” A new Community Center would be built next door to Town Hall. And the County government would purchase the parcel across the street from Town Hall and relocate their administrative functions to a new building there, leaving the courts, the Sheriff and the County jail to occupy the old Courthouse.

This trio of public buildings — these economic magnets, built at the very end of the boulevard — would magically cause the acres (and acres) of vacant land south of the Springs Resort to quickly fill in with commercial and residential development, and would restore the Town of Pagosa Springs to its rightful place as the “center of the community.”

There were a few hang-ups, however.

The County never set aside the money to fund a new administration building; 18 years later, the County has still not built the facility that Mayor Aragon and Manager Harrington envisioned.

The Community Center has failed to become a popular center of civic activity.

And no development has taken place on the acres (and acres) of vacant land south of the Springs Resort.

Basically, the plan flopped. The Pagosa Lakes area has become the virtual commercial and residential center of the community, and the old downtown has struggled to remain economically viable, in spite of its proximity to three popular hot springs facilities.

But the County still owns that damned parcel, where the administration building was supposed to go. Enter the Colorado Judicial System, complaining about lack of space in the old Courthouse and seemingly threatening legal action if the Board of County Commissioners don’t get off their butts and provide more office and courtroom space.

Just so happens, Mayor Ross Aragon’s protégé — Clifford Lucero — is sitting as one of the three County commissioners. And remarkably enough, the County jail experiences a serious roof leak right when the discussions between the Judicial Department and the BOCC are really heating up.

Two simultaneous crises that seem to point to the idea of building a brand-new “justice center” — to provide space for the Judicial Department, and a replacement jail for the one that got flooded. And what better place to build this new facility than across the street from Town Hall — thus fulfilling, finally, Mayor Aragon’s dream of a three-pronged government complex at the south end of Hot Springs Boulevard.

The Judicial Department seemed to have some grant money available. Did it really matter that the Hot Springs Boulevard parcel was the most expensive, least suitable place to build a justice center? And did it really matter that the County had promised, back in 1999, never to build a jail on that parcel?

I mean… really?

Typically, the least expensive, most suitable place to locate a building is exactly where it already exists. The County Courthouse already exists, and can easily be expanded upon, and remodeled, for less than half of what Commissioners Lucero and Wadley have proposed on Hot Springs Boulevard.  A team of well-paid architects have already confirmed this.

archuleta county courthosue pagosa springs colorado

If the BOCC really cared about the massive problems that Archuleta County faces, right now and into the coming decade — roads, housing, childcare, education, healthcare, public safety — they would never plan to completely max out the community’s credit cards building a new facility on Hot Springs Boulevard, only to leave yet another abandoned building in the center of the old downtown.

But this might not be a case of “caring about Archuleta County.” This might be a case of caring about a former Mayor’s dream, left unfulfilled — a dream of a more vibrant and expanded downtown, to be brought about through lavish spending on government buildings.

That’s my theory… and I’m sticking to it.

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.