Frost was shocked — not so much by Russell's proposal, but by the fact that no one at the school board had bothered to inform the healthy living park backers of its existence, despite months of discussions about the Polston property. Russell's offer had apparently been in the works for some time but hadn't been made public before.

A week later, Frost and other supporters, wearing green clothing and stickers that declared, "The healthy living park loves our schools," turned out in force for the board's vote on the sale of Polston. TPL project manager Wade Shelton fielded questions from boardmembers about the financing of his group's proposal, stressed the positive impact it would have on the community and nearby property values, and predicted that the trailblazing venture "will generate national attention and increase tourism." Russell presented his case for an RV resort that, by his calculations, would pump millions of tourist dollars annually into the local economy.

The board then went into executive session, closing its discussion of both proposals to the public. When the public meeting resumed, there was no debate over the merits of each offer, just the obligatory comments about this being a tough decision and the terrific job both sides had done in their presentations. The only sour note came from board vice-president Neil Hammer, the manager of a local radio station. "One of my biggest concerns is the difference in price between the two," he said, shortly before the vote was called. "Two hundred fifty thousand dollars buys a lot of computers and school supplies."

Designs for the Rio Grande Healthy Living Park envisioned trails, botanic gardens, a commercial kitchen and small farm plots.
Designs for the Rio Grande Healthy Living Park envisioned trails, botanic gardens, a commercial kitchen and small farm plots.
Following the bankruptcy of a local mushroom farm, immigrant workers received permission to raise crops in the rich topsoil of the Polston site.
Danny Ledonne for Keep Polston Public
Following the bankruptcy of a local mushroom farm, immigrant workers received permission to raise crops in the rich topsoil of the Polston site.

Hammer's observation puzzled audience member Aaron Miltenberger. "Was Mr. Russell's price $250,000 more than the TPL price?" he asked.

"No," Hammer replied. "Less."

And with that, the board voted 6-1 to accept Russell's offer of $500,000 for the Polston property. Hammer cast the only dissenting vote.

Frost was stunned. The board had decided to sell Polston to a private developer for a third less than its appraised value, a quarter of a million dollars less than the Trust for Public Land was offering. What just happened?

Over the past six months, plenty of folks in Alamosa have been asking the same question. Several of them — not just the park enthusiasts, but others concerned about transparency in local government — formed a group called Keep Polston Public. They soon raised more than $30,000 to hire attorneys, intent on challenging the sale process in court and finding out what had gone on during the board's frequent executive sessions, which they believed were conducted improperly.

The controversial land deal has been a divisive issue in this town of 9,000, fueling a steady stream of impassioned letters and editorials in the newspaper about clueless newcomers and deplorable old-boy networks. It has generated debate about whether an RV park can be a true engine of economic development or if too many locals suffer from a "nonprofit mentality." It's resulted in the ten Keep Polston Public plaintiffs being banned from the formerly public trails on the property and led to a testy encounter between Russell and one of his most vocal critics.

Along the way, the school board has been compelled to release tapes detailing much of the hush-hush deliberation that prompted the board to approve Russell's offer. For those supporting the park proposal, the recordings have been a bitter education in how the public's business really gets done — behind closed doors.

"This went way beyond the park," says farmer Trudi Kretsinger, one of the plaintiffs in the Keep Polston Public litigation. "It was like unpeeling an onion. A really bad onion."


A high desert girded by mountains on three sides, the San Luis Valley has never been the easiest place to raise crops of any kind. The growing season is a brutally short ninety days. Average rainfall hovers around seven inches a year. The Great Sand Dunes hug the flanks of the Sangre de Cristo range, a constant reminder that this is arid and formidable country.

Perhaps because of its harsh conditions, the valley has been a cradle of innovative farming practices, dating back to the Hispanic settlers who started arriving in the 1840s. Today most of the old family farms and ranches have been subsumed by large potato or alfalfa operations, but a respect for locally raised produce and meats is as acute here as in any California foodie haven. Alamosa has had a community greenhouse and a farmers' market for decades, long before such offerings became standard in larger cities.

The tradition of community gardens was one of the factors involved in Jan Oen's decision to move to Alamosa after retiring from the financial industry ten years ago. Along with Frost and other volunteers, Oen, who has a master gardener certification from Colorado State University, soon became involved in turning the Polston plot into one of the most productive in town. As overworked teachers found less and less time to work the garden into their lesson plans, Oen and others stepped in to run the operation and see that the yield got to the local food bank.

"The kids got some educational benefits," Oen recalls, "but the school year was basically done before we planted, and we were harvesting as they came back to school."

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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?


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 .....


@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. 


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