EDITORIAL: County’s Big Plans Getting Smaller? Part Six

Read Part One

In the November 23 issue of the weekly Pagosa Springs SUN, reporter Marshall Dunham informed us of a decision by the multiple owners of a vacant lot where, just over a year ago, a fire had gutted the historic Adobe Building — home to a once-popular restaurant and numerous professional offices.

Here’s a photo I took last week at the site of the former Adobe Building. You can just barely make out a corner of our abandoned County jail, across the street — adjacent to an empty one-acre parcel that’s been vacant for the past decade.

The vacant lot that once accommodated the Adobe Building. November 2017.

And here’s the SUN headline:

Many years back, the building had been converted to condominium ownership, and a “supermajority” of the multiple owners had, according to Mr. Dunham’s article, voted to sell the now-vacant downtown parcel, rather than try and rebuild the structure.

Most of our readers can probably understand the rationale behind that decision. The cost of construction, all across America, has increased substantially over the past few decades — at a rate much higher than average employee wages. Here, for example, is a chart from the “Construction Analytics” website… showing the relative cost of three types of construction in 2017, compared to 1992:

Here’s that same chart — originally created by economic analyst Ed Zarenski — showing only the price increase for “Non-residential Construction” such as the type that will presumably be built — someday? — on the vacant Adobe parcel downtown. The index has been altered (by the Daily Post) to show 1992 as “100 percent” and the relative increase in (approximate) percentages:

Below, we compare the cost of new commercial and governmental buildings since 1992 to the average wage growth among U.S. workers with a Bachelor’s Degree, (derived from a chart originally created by the University of Oxford):

I didn’t show the wages for unskilled labor because the wages fell below the bottom limits of the chart. In other words, the wages in 2017 are actually lower among that employee sector than they were in 1992. (Adjusted for inflation.)

What does it mean — in the larger scheme of downtown Pagosa’s future — that a sizable group of successful business owners have chosen not to rebuild their commercial building, located in the very heart of our downtown commercial district, following a fire?

Does it mean anything at all to our Archuleta County Commissioners, for example? Let’s join them at their November 21 brainstorming session with facilitator Yvonne Wilcox, and see if we can get a sense of their intentions.

The specially designed white board that Ms. Wilcox used during the BOCC brainstorming session on November 21 included a veritable amusement park full of circular shapes, intended to help guide a productive 60-minute discussion. I snapped this photo of the ‘Gainstorming’ board prior to the beginning of the session:

A blank slate, essentially. A place to be creative.

The three County Commissioners — Steve Wadley, Ronnie Maez and Michael Whiting — had a clear choice, as they sat around the work session table, looking up at Ms. Wilcox and her white board.  Would they fill her white board with old, stale ideas? Or would they find the courage to be “creative”?

Ms. Wilcox has herself spent many years as a creative director, prior to becoming a meeting facilitator. In her capacity as an award-winning graphic artist, her job was to take “blank slates” and transform them into something attractive and useful. Into something “unexpected”… maybe even “amazing.”

Those of us in the audience had to wonder: Would Ms. Wilcox be able to help the BOCC produce something unexpected and amazing, on her special ‘Gainstorming” white board?

From the ‘Gainstorming’ website.

At the end of an hour of brainstorming, some of us in the audience may have had a sinking feeling… a feeling of disappointment. Here’s the basic plan our three commissioners settled upon, after an hour with one of the most creative facilitators in Pagosa Springs.

1. The goal is to have a brand new justice center open its doors by 2020.

2. In order to accomplish this goal, the BOCC needs to develop and sell a tax-increase-funded project to a majority of the county voters. They need to have buy-in from the Sheriff, the Sixth Judicial District and the Town Council, and from all three commissioners. They will fund the project with a sales tax increase, and will build something that won’t require significant expansion or alteration for at least “a generation” — but which will not be “too big or extravagant.” They will have a plan for the abandoned Courthouse in the center of downtown.

If the above plan strikes our readers as nearly identical to the plan our BOCC put forward back in August, that’s quite understandable. It is, indeed, nearly identical… except that the facility approved for the ballot in August did not include Sixth Judicial District facilities. As we consider at what the BOCC settled upon after an hour of brainstorming with Ms. Wilcox, it appears to be even bigger and presumably more expensive than what the taxpayers voted down on November 7.

Why a group of intelligent leaders would choose to plow ahead with essentially the same plan as the one the community so recently rejected — except to make it larger and more expensive — I cannot say.

Why the BOCC believes someone will want to purchase the existing courthouse and jail, once it is totally abandoned, and proceed to “revitalize” that corner of downtown — when a large group of successful business people have chosen not to rebuild on the opposite side of the street — I cannot say.

One thing I can say, however. I attended the earlier November 14 public hearing, when the BOCC invited the community to step up and suggest the best way to move forward, to solve the problem the BOCC created in 2015 when they chose to abandon our existing jail facility… a problem that continued to snowball over the following 2 1/2 years. At that public hearing, we heard a wide variety of opinions about “next steps.” If there was a consistent theme among the suggestions, however, it may have been that the BOCC had failed to engage the community in the planning process.

It can’t be a bad idea to get your community involved in a problem that will require the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars… in a town where we cannot keep our roads in good repair… where acres of commercial property sit vacant and for sale, both uptown and downtown… and where our workforce struggles to find affordable housing.

But I would humbly propose that “doing a better job of selling an even bigger project” is not exactly what is meant by the term “community engagement.” In my book, you get community engagement by asking the community to give actual, creative input into the final solution.

You can’t allow someone actual, creative input into the final solution… when you’ve already decided on the final solution you want to sell them.

Just saying.

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.