How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over

Right up until everything fell apart last May, Luette Frost thought the deal was actually going to happen. The seed that she and a few others had planted, then nurtured for five years, was ready to bear fruit.

Frost had moved to Alamosa in 2002 as the coordinator of a San Luis Valley nutrition-education program sponsored by the University of Colorado. She soon became the head volunteer at a community garden that had sprung up at Polston Elementary School, next to a bend in the Rio Grande as it turns south toward New Mexico. The garden had begun as a way to teach kids about the environment and healthy eating, but over time it had evolved into a magnet for some of Alamosa's most civic-minded residents — the kind of people who serve on nonprofit boards and volunteer at food banks, people who champion locally produced foods and farmers' markets and sustainable agriculture.

See also: Video: Meet the people and ideas behind Alamosa's "healthy living park" project

At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.
At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.
At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.
At public meetings and in court, park supporters Renee Mackey and others challenged the Alamosa school board’s decision to sell property to RV-resort developer Dan Russell for $250,000 less than their group was offering.

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"People who are active in nonprofits, people who show up to feed the community at Christmas — those were the ones who were interested," Frost says. "People who believe we're not going to bring our community out of poverty with more minimum-wage jobs."

In 2008, Frost learned that the school district was planning to close Polston and replace it with a new school at a new location. It was likely that the old building, too burdened with asbestos to be repurposed, would be demolished. Frost and several of her fellow gardening enthusiasts began kicking around ideas about what could be done with the 38-acre site — which, because of its proximity to the river, contained some of the richest topsoil in the entire region.

"We got super-inspired to think beyond the garden," recalls Liza Marron, executive director of the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition. "It was all these different community ideas that converged."

Alamosa's central greenspace, Cole Park, was situated right across the river from Polston, and one of the ideas involved extending trails and better connecting the site to the existing park. There was talk of a botanical garden, modeled after a popular one in Cheyenne, an all-weather clamshell amphitheater for live music, and other amenities that could appeal to tourists as well as locals. But as it took shape, the dream project also featured a number of daring innovations: small farm plots that could help struggling families and train aspiring growers in sustainable methods; a production greenhouse that could supply produce to valley schools, as well as a farm-fresh restaurant on the site; a commercial kitchen, available to small-batch bakers and chefs trying to launch their own microbusinesses; and much more.

In short, the place was to be a community-owned, community-operated park, business incubator, food hub and ecotourism generator. There was nothing like it anywhere in Colorado, let alone in Alamosa County, where more than 40 percent of households earned less than $25,000 last year, making it one of the poorest counties in the state.

All the high-flown discussions eventually coalesced into a single proposal for the project, which backers called the Rio Grande Healthy Living Park. The group also acquired a down-to-earth partner, the Trust for Public Land, a national organization with a lengthy track record of protecting and revitalizing parks, farms and natural areas. When it came time to obtain an appraisal of the property, TPL split the cost with the school district. TPL officials were confident that the organization could raise the appraised value, $755,000, from funders such as the Colorado Health Foundation (which has committed millions to promoting better nutrition and fighting obesity in economically disadvantaged regions like the San Luis Valley) and Great Outdoors Colorado (which allocates lottery funds to local heritage and open-space projects).

Supporters of the project presented their proposal at several public forums and sought input from a long list of government agencies. "We met with the city, the county, the parks-and-rec people, the school board," Frost says. "We thought we did a pretty good job of that."

Last April, the Alamosa Board of Education signed a letter of intent with TPL to sell the Polston property for $755,000. The agreement was non-binding, but the property had been on the market for two years with no other serious offers, and many backers regarded the sale as virtually a done deal, just as soon as TPL could negotiate its way through the grant process with its funders.

But on May 2, Frost received a call from a reporter with the local newspaper, the Valley Courier, who informed her that another suitor for the Polston property had surfaced at the school-board meeting that morning. Dan Russell, who operates his own surveying firm as well as serving as the elected county land surveyor, had presented a plan for purchasing the property and developing it into a "high-end RV park" for tourists motoring through southern Colorado.

Polston's prime location, near the intersection of state highway 17 (which heads north to Great Sand Dunes National Park) and U.S. 160, the main east-west highway across the valley, made it particularly attractive for commercial development. In his remarks to the board, Russell had scorned the idea of wasting the site on a "community garden" and stressed that his venture would generate tax revenues for the county.

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10 comments
civil.disobedience
civil.disobedience

It appears to me the existing RV parks, such as the one in Ft. Garland are not bringing in revenue, but slim shady tenants. Why add another?

Randy144
Randy144

Again and again, fascinating articles by Mr. Prendergast.  

This one was compelling, because it clearly described both sides of this complicated issue.

I went back and forth between thinking the local food concept was great, to thinking the Board made the right decision selling to a businessman. 

A local garden with land this valuable: a concept that may never work and that will probably never make money.  I look at the Community Gardens in Denver and Englewood and see the obvious inefficiency and absurdity. If this model could work, farmers would be tearing down houses and local farmers would be rich. Alas, the cost of these gardens is never logical or productive. Even with free land they barely produce enough to pay for the water used in the production of the 10 mini-crops that feed just a few, for just a few weeks.  If this were productive, everyone would have a producing garden in their yard. Only Government subsidies give this a chance to work, and then the business model is one that is not revenue producing for the local government.

And then, to see the Board sell this land for such a low price, with the topsoil alone worth the purchase price, is quite disturbing. What a deal that guy got. Wow. It reminds me of the old Resolution Trust deals where only the rich could buy and benefit from the low prices. All of this based on one appraisal. And the deal: 1% down on a commercial loan!!!  That is a heck of a lender, but also a strong sign that the property was undervalued and the bank loaning the money knows it.

All of this over nearly vacant land in a difficult economy.

In the end, it takes a businessman to take a property like this and turn it into something of value. Governments cannot do it. A local garden, even 30 acres, would not help Alamosa. The tax revenue from the new business will.

So many questions. Such a thought provoking article.

Great work.


Randy Brown




Johnathan Valdez
Johnathan Valdez

I grew up in the SLV and it's sad that this story doesn't surprise me at all. The Valley is an amazing place but the fact of the matter is that it is about 20 years behind the times. The "Valley bubble" that natives who've left so often joke about is very real and this is a perfect example of it. There's good reason why many SLV natives leave, myself included, and it's because of the backwards, antiquated thinking that plagues the region. Sad to see that a fantastic idea of a healthy living space was scraped for a paved black tar resort for Texans.

Ryan Terpstra
Ryan Terpstra

I'm not sad I left Alamosa at all. I grew up there, and it is one of the most shadily run deal-with-people-in-the-back-room towns I've ever had the displeasure of living in. If it doesn't involve lining the pockets of the legacy families that live in the town, nobody's interested. And I also learned from this article that a prick cousin of mine growing up is now on the school board. Neat. Another reason never to go back.

Brandon Fischer
Brandon Fischer

gardens are stupid, pave everything! alamosa needs a mcdonalds and starbucks there duh

Charlene McCune
Charlene McCune

by the way.. Alamosa has built in tourist attractions not to mention a really good college... if that town is having money problems to the point where the school district needs to sell the land for something like an RV park eyesore... then that is bad city management...

Charlene McCune
Charlene McCune

That is sad... it's disgusting how greed will trump common sense or community and civil loyalty.. oh that's right... I forgot .....

Bothe
Bothe

@Randy144 I agree with you Randy, if it were just a garden there wouldn't be much economic potential, but this quote from his other piece sheds more light on the project:  "What is a healthy living park? The Alamosa version, which would have been developed around a thriving community garden next to the Rio Grande river, called for trails connecting the area to an existing park on the other side of the river; a botanic garden and area for live music; half-acre farm plots in the rich topsoil that could be used for feeding local families and teaching sustainable methods to aspiring farmers; a commercial kitchen for small-batch bakers and chefs; a farm-fresh restaurant and production greenhouse; and more. Think park, small business incubator, and farmer's market, all rolled into one."     Keep in mind that we don't have a farm-to-table restaurant anywhere near Alamosa, there is a huge demand for one. 

Bothe
Bothe

@Brandon Fischer got a McDick's and three $tarbuck franchises, Ne$tle shop soon, too!

 
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