The tapes were a revelation. While some boardmembers seemed genuinely torn between the two buyers, others had been almost contemptuous of the park proposal from the start — treating it, at best, like a loonbag cause, to be humored only until something serious came along. In particular, board president Bill Van Gieson and member Arlan Van Ry, both military veterans who now work for construction companies, had inveighed heavily against the project.

In a meeting last March — evidently the first time that Russell's interest in the property became known to the board — Van Gieson and Van Ry can be heard agreeing that "this TPL thing" (the park proposal) is "kind of a long shot."

Over the next two months, as the discussion becomes more detailed, their enthusiasm for Russell's RV park is obvious. They seem convinced that the project will stimulate the local economy, while describing the healthy living park as a venture with uncertain financing, a "donation" that will burden the city with ongoing maintenance costs.

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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"One way to look at it," Van Ry comments at an April meeting, "[Russell] develops this thing, puts in a four- or five-million-dollar RV park, our property taxes may go up and we're going to start making money on it for the school district...compared to donating it to some free-thinking nonprofit, and we'll never get a penny off it for the next hundred years."

"There is a lot to consider," Van Gieson agrees. "It's like Arlan's saying, it could actually generate revenue. Whereas, you know, this garden thing, that's not gonna generate anything.... Just a bunch of hippies from Crestone.... It would be the summer campground for La Puente." He then reminds the board that the school district had already okayed a community garden at another elementary school: "Shit, we gave them property over there at the school."

"They want more money from us to maintain a free piece of property," Van Ry says, drawing laughter from the board.

In subsequent executive sessions, Van Ry again rails against selling the land to a nonprofit: "Do we have any more La Puente free gifts out there?" He jokes about being "worried about marijuana plants being put there" if the garden boosters buy the property.

Van Giesen scoffs at the notion that the healthy living park, with its botanic gardens and trails and local-foods restaurant, would be any kind of tourist draw: "I don't think this garden thing is gonna attract people.... Why would you want to come to Alamosa to see this garden? You can drive all over the valley and see fields."

As the weeks dragged on, the constant carping about the park proposal's reputed drawbacks seems to have swayed members who'd been on the fence. "I'd love to sell that land for 750,000 [dollars], but it's pie-in-the-sky," says board secretary Christine Haslett in one of the final sessions before the vote. "We don't know what that's actually going to look like. That may be an eyesore. It may be something that's started and never finished."

Even though Russell's offer was substantially lower, boardmembers seemed to have a preference for a "cash up front" deal, rather than waiting months for TPL to line up its grants. (Russell would later disclose that he'd obtained a $495,000 loan from a local bank at advantageous terms, which meant he only had to present 1 percent of the purchase price from his own funds at closing.) But many of the board's objections to the TPL plan seemed to be gross distortions. The funding would take time, but the prospects for such funding were hardly "pie-in-the-sky." Title in the property would be held by the city or county, not La Puente or any other nonprofit. The concept was not simply a garden but a vast array of amenities, including several for-profit enterprises, such as the restaurant and commercial kitchen, that were designed to be self-supporting and defray maintenance costs.

Tim Wohlgenant, the Colorado state director for TPL, says concerns about the long-term viability of the project would have been addressed as different elements were implemented over several years: "That was something we were just going to have to work out over time. It was not going to be an easy project. There were a lot of moving parts."

Wohlgenant says his organization typically has a piece of property under contract before granters will consider a request for funding, leaving a gap of several months before the closing can occur. "There aren't any great examples around the country of projects like this," he observes. "This would have been cutting-edge — several nonprofits partnering not only to create a public-access park but a community food-distribution system. That's why we needed a year [to secure funding]. But if you want to do something cutting-edge, you have to take a risk. It would really take a partnership, and the school board wasn't ready to do that."

It wasn't exactly a surprise to learn that the board was wary of such a partnership. But what the Keep Polston Public group found most startling about the recordings was the extent to which a private citizen had played a central role in the sale discussions. Preston Porter runs a real-estate company in Alamosa and represented the school district on the recent sales of several properties, including Polston. In the executive sessions, he describes the healthy living park as "sort of a crap shoot," a project that "has about a 20 percent chance of happening." He complains that TPL had suggested that he forgo part of his commission to make the deal more viable — a common request in public-land deals, Wohlgenant says — and warns the board that the group would be "hitting everybody up" for funds.

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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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