Even as the school was being phased out, the garden evolved into what Oen calls a "grassroots collaboration" among several community groups, producing up to a ton of produce a year. When a local mushroom farm filed for bankruptcy in early 2012, school-district officials agreed to let some of its laid-off employees, immigrants from Guatemala, cultivate another section at Polston, growing corn, beans, squash and other staples for their families — at least until the property was sold. By the following fall, the Guatemalans had some of the tallest corn ever seen in the valley.

That was no surprise to local agronomist Patrick O'Neill, who says the eight-inch topsoil at Polston, nourished for centuries by sediment from the Rio Grande, is about the best he's ever come across. "That soil is incredibly rich in organic matter," says O'Neill, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. "There are not many places in the San Luis Valley that could compare to it. It's river-bottom soil, with all these minerals that have washed out of the river. It isn't something you can develop without thousands of years to do it."

When Danny Ledonne came home to Alamosa from college a few years ago, he was struck by all the activity around the garden, the way people talked about it as a special or even magical place. Ledonne had attended Polston Elementary as a kid, and he began filming people at work in the garden, intrigued by how it had become a community resource for groups like La Puente, a local nonprofit that operates a food bank and homeless shelter. When he returned again from graduate school a few years later, he found the proposal for a healthy living park moving ahead at full steam.

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.

"It was such a good idea that it seemed obvious to me that it would prevail, right up until the board's vote," says Ledonne, who now teaches film and video production at Adams State University.

Yet if the healthy living park seemed logical, even inevitable, to its supporters, other locals tended to regard the proposal with suspicion and even resentment. Some considered the involvement of people from La Puente, the local-foods coalition and other do-gooders as proof that the project was some kind of handout to the poor. The microenterprise and business-incubator elements were largely ignored or seen as nuisance competition for established merchants. And the backing of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit headquartered in exotic San Francisco, prompted at least one Valley Courier letter writer to denounce the whole scheme as an insidious plot by outsiders: "Maybe the true motivation for owning this property is a move to keep the water rights from getting into private hands. Is this just another California water grab? Think about it Alamosa!"

The supporters tried to respond to such canards with their public presentations. They pointed to TPL's role in converting a railyard in Santa Fe into a thriving park and plaza, its transformation of a weed-and-glass-choked vacant lot in east Denver into a community park and garden ("Grand Opening of East 13th Avenue and Xenia Street Park and Gardens," June 26, 2012). But misperceptions about the project persisted — even, the group would discover much later, among school-board members who seemed enthused about it.

"It feels so sad that this was so misunderstood," says Renee Mackey, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the Polston sale. "There are so many things it could have been. I pictured a playscape for my kids, a place for music, a way to connect with trails. This was a multimillion-dollar project that our community couldn't afford to put together on its own, and that property was absolutely ideal for the design we had in mind."

As the day of the vote approached, Mackey took comfort in the fact that TPL's offer was the only one that reflected the appraised value of the property. Even if the school board was skeptical about the park, surely the members had a fiscal duty to accept the highest legitimate offer, she told herself.

"Even if they think we're just dirty hippies, we were offering them $250,000 more," Mackey points out. "There was no way they could turn us down without looking like idiots."

***********

When Mackey, Oen and others decided to challenge the school board's decision in court, they had little difficulty raising funds or finding allies. As it turned out, there was no shortage of residents who had no direct stake in the healthy living park but believed that the school board had been high-handed and furtive in many of its dealings.

"The school board has a long history of making decisions behind closed doors and not being fully responsible with taxpayer money," says Bill Brinton, a primary-care physician who's lived in the area since 1986 — and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "They spend more time in executive sessions than in public meetings. Too much was going on without allowing people to come and listen to what they were deciding."

The board had discussed the Polston property during at least six executive sessions in the weeks leading up to the sale. In the uproar that followed, boardmembers insisted that the sessions had been conducted properly but conceded that they'd failed to provide proper notice about the topics to be discussed in those sessions. In response to claims by the plaintiffs that state open-meeting requirements had been violated, the board agreed to release the recordings of the confidential discussions about Polston — which proved to be cassette tapes, recorded on antiquated equipment and reused over and over. (The tape of a seventh session, held three days before the vote, was completely inaudible, triggering quips about Rose Mary Woods and the famous eighteen-minute gap in the Watergate tapes.)

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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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