EDITORIAL: Pagosa’s Housing Crisis, According to the Experts, Part One

Two economic and planning specialists arrived in Pagosa Springs earlier this week to help explain the seriousness of our local housing crisis.

A few people attended their Monday, September 25 presentation, held at the Ross Aragon Community Center.

Andy Knudtsen, the senior member of the team from Economic and Planning Systems (EPS), is reasonably familiar with Archuleta County, considering that he lives in Denver and comes to Pagosa two or three times every decade to help assemble some kind study or planning document on behalf of this or that local government.
For example, he worked on the 2005 ‘Economic Development Plan’ for the Town government, for example. That document was produced at the instigation of billionaire developer David Brown, who was at that time purchasing downtown properties — mostly, older housing units — and demolishing them to make way for a “more vibrant” tourist-oriented town. Mr. Brown had formed a private “think tank” here in Pagosa — the Community Vision Council — to envision a brighter future of this struggling community, and he had invited then-Mayor Ross Aragon and then-Town Manager Mark Garcia to participate in the process.

That 2005 EPS report (which you can download here) began like this:

The Town of Pagosa Springs is a vibrant small town that has been transitioning from a resource-driven economy to a service-based economy based, to date, largely on second-home development and tourism. As a result, the community is experiencing growth and development pressures that have implications for the character and quality of life in the Town. In response to these and other growth and development issues, the Town of Pagosa Springs, with support from the Community Vision Council, has undertaken an economic development plan and strategy.

BACKGROUND
Some long-time community members expressed concerns that the “new economy” will raise housing costs and price them out. Others were more focused on the impacts of the related changes in community demographics and income on the type and location of commercial development in the community, and in particular the impacts from the potential of large national retailers moving into the Town. Some considered these changes as inevitable or at least acceptable, as long as a greater number and diversity of jobs can be developed so that all segments of the community can share in the potential for greater wealth and prosperity. The Town government’s greatest concerns are fiscal, particularly with respect to growing capital facilities needs, particularly roads.

Planning for the future is a challenging job, and Mr. Knudtsen probably knows that as well as anyone. Predicting the future is even more problematic.

Here, for example, is the population forecast for Archuleta County, made by Mr. Knudtsen’s expert team back in 2005, broken down into the growth within the Town limits… the growth within the parts of the county adjacent to the Town limits… the growth within the more remote county areas… and of course, the total growth:

If we were to graph the forecast made by Mr. Knudtsen’s expert team in 2005 against the actual growth we experienced, the graph might look something like this:

The blue line is the actual estimate of the population, according to the U.S. Census. (I added a dotted line, from 2017 through 2020, based on nothing but a wild guess.)

The pink line is the forecast by EPS, for which the Town government and the Community Vision Council paid a pretty penny in 2005.  The forecast by the economic experts, then, was built upon the general concept that things move in a straight line. But they don’t. The future arrives in fits and starts.

We could shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, it’s easy to be off by 33 percent, even if you’re expert — when you get into predicting population growth (or decline). Hey, no big deal.”

Except that the entire 2005 “Plan” was based on a seriously inaccurate number. We paid for a plan that assumed only one particular future situation — straight-line growth of the population.

This is not the way to make a sensible plan, in my humble opinion. To make a sensible plan, a business or government or group of concerned citizens needs to assume that the future is wildly uncertain, and use a planning forecast that gives us a range of possible future situations.

1. What if the population grows much faster than it’s doing at the moment? What then?

2. What if the population grows at the same rate? What then?

3. What is the population doesn’t grow, or even drops? What then?

All of these possible futures are exactly that: possible. The best planning process would take all these potential futures into account, and give us an expert view of how we would address those possibilities. In my humble opinion.

One size does not fit all possible futures.  Then, what is the best way to plan for a future that even the experts cannot predict?

Maybe we should simply put our energy into fixing our roads?

When EPS produced the 2005 Economic Plan for the Town government, they focused on actions that a municipal government could take to influence the future, to help drive our community towards the best possible outcome. The key concern among our Town leadership, in 2005, was the arrival of Walmart. Was it coming, or not? Would it damage the economic landscape, or would it make the community into a thriving economic wonderland?

Or, none of the above?

In 2017, our concern is no longer about Walmart. Walmart has arrived, and we’ve watched the gradual decline of the “mom and pop” retail sector. We’ve seen downtown Pagosa slowly fill with thrift shops and second-hand stores and pawn shops and tourist-oriented gift shops— selling items that you cannot purchase at Walmart.

In 2017, our concern is about housing.

But maybe we’re not really that concerned? Here’s my photo again, showing the nine people who showed up on Monday to hear the two experts from Denver describe our housing crisis… and give us their ideas on how to address that crisis.

In our next installment, we’ll listen to their expert opinions.

Read Part Two…

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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.