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.
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.

"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.

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."

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."

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.

"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.)

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.

"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.

By contrast, Porter extols the deal presented by Russell, with whom he's "been having conversations about this on and off." He describes Russell as having "the ability to get some stuff done" and points out that "an appraisal is just an opinion of value," one of several factors that need to be taken into account in deciding between a private-sector buyer and the TPL offer.

Minutes before the vote was taken on May 9, boardmembers pressed Porter for his take on what they should do. Porter, who conceded that he wore "several" hats in the community, replied, "Are you asking my advice? As an economic-development board member and a downtown businessperson, I certainly prefer private enterprise."

Porter didn't respond to a request for comment about the Polston sale, but testimony in a court hearing a few weeks ago suggests that there was some confusion among boardmembers about Porter's role in the deal. He had begun as a seller's agent and advisor to the board, but the closing documents list him as a "transaction broker" for the sale of the property to Russell. Under Colorado regulations, a transaction broker works with both sides without being an agent of either one. Porter collected a full 6 percent commission ($30,000) for the sale.

"In court, six out of seven school boardmembers testified that they didn't know if [Porter] was a seller's agent or a broker or when that had changed," says longtime activist Francisco Martinez, one of the attorneys for the park plaintiffs. "They were unaware of the difference." The seventh boardmember, an attorney, stated that Porter had properly performed and disclosed his part in the sale.

"The school board was very complacent," says gardener Oen. "They did not do their work, looking at TPL. I feel that Preston Porter had undue influence on the board. He planted the seed that they'd never see the money, that it would take too long."

Russell told the board that his project would provide as much as $50,000 a year in property taxes; he hoped to build around 200 RV lots, a private fishing pond, and eventually a gated community that would have ready access to a nearby golf course. But his project came with many caveats and "moving parts," too; it hinged on a land swap with the city, trading several acres of Polston land closest to Cole Park for ranch land owned by the city at the north end of the property, and annexation by the city to reduce tap fees and other costs. Yet those complexities didn't seem to bother Porter or the board nearly as much as similar uncertainties concerning the healthy living park.

Many in the Keep Polston Public group believed that Russell's tax calculations were overly optimistic. In the end, they maintained, the decision wasn't about who could offer the best price or which proposal would be best for Alamosa economically — assuming the school board had any business making that call. It was about the close-knit professional and personal relationships that exist in a small town, the web of influence and mutual backscratching that can skew policy and shape sweetheart deals.

As he kept reminding the board, Dan Russell belongs to a family that's lived in Alamosa for four generations; he's a graduate of Alamosa High School and Adams State, a respected local businessman and public official. Of the ten Keep Polston Public plaintiffs, only Danny Ledonne is an Alamosa native. Several of the others have lived there for fifteen, twenty or thirty years, but in the eyes of some natives, they are still newcomers, outliers — possibly even hippies from Crestone. Given a choice between two very different futures for the property, the board chose the known quantity.

Months later, Ledonne is still wrapping his head around the idea that his former elementary school, the place where he filmed all that gardening magic, is slated to be a stable for Winnebagos.

"I think Russell's RV resort is a great idea — for 1955," he says. "It's based on disposable income through tourism and a number of resources that continue to cost more, and I don't think that's a very recession-proof model. One reason I moved back to the valley is that I saw a lot of resilience coming from local communities that were able to support themselves. This model where you get your salad from 3,000 miles away is ending. We should really start thinking about how we build our infrastructure to be more self-sustaining, and that's why the healthy living park is a great idea for 2013."

***********

The school board concluded its sale of the Polston property to Russell on July 2, a month earlier than anticipated. The Keep Polston Public leaders promptly filed a lawsuit against the board, the school district and Russell, claiming that the open-meeting law had been violated and that the board had illegally provided a gift to a private entity by selling the property for $250,000 less than its appraised value.

The KPP plaintiffs soon obtained a temporary order halting work that Russell had begun on the property, including removing an acre of topsoil for a parking lot. In public meetings, Russell indicated that he'd be willing to give some of the topsoil to the "garden people," but he also complained in an affidavit that the plaintiffs were interfering with his plan to help finance construction on the property by selling the topsoil to landscapers; by his estimate, the alluvial topsoil is worth between $30,000 and $45,000 an acre.

If Russell's estimate is correct, says agronomist O'Neill, then he could recoup the entire purchase price of the property by scraping and selling off the topsoil in areas of his resort that are simply going to be paved over. "There are probably sixteen or seventeen acres that are going to be scraped away," O'Neill says. "It would be prohibitively expensive to put it back, ever. They sold it at an incredibly low price; I don't know any two ways about it."

The lawsuit and temporary suspension of work on the property didn't improve relations between Russell and the plaintiffs. The developer had agreed to let the Guatemalans harvest their crops this year, and he allowed the public to continue to use the trails that were on his property — except for the people who were suing him. That led to a heated encounter this summer between Russell and Ledonne, who had been heading toward the Guatemalans' garden with his camera to shoot more footage.

"I was walking along the dike, and I saw through the corner of my eye this figure running through the trees," Ledonne recalls. "It was Dan Russell. He just started swearing at me."

According to Ledonne, Russell called him a "little dickhead" and told him to "get the fuck off my property." He then called police to report a trespasser as Ledonne left, banished from the garden he'd been filming for years.

Russell declines to comment about his conversation with Ledonne or other Polston-related matters, citing the still-pending litigation. But he says he's confident that his resort will have a positive impact on his town: "Tourism is an important industry, and I think that Alamosa will benefit from the increase in tourism that this RV project offers."

Last month, both sides went to court over a preliminary-injunction motion filed by Keep Polston Public in an effort to halt the sale and development. No local judge would take the case because of perceived conflicts, so it fell to a visiting senior district judge, Scott Epstein, to sort things out.

Epstein seemed genuinely impressed, both by the "unquestionable merit" of a healthy living park and Russell's "visionary" effort to enhance tourism. He conceded that removing the topsoil would cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs' hopes for that property. And he scolded the school board for its "fairly shabby treatment" of the park supporters who'd been wooing them for two years, only to be dumped at the altar: "I think it could have been handled so much better, and perhaps without the drama that we now are faced with."

But shabby treatment didn't equate to illegal conduct. Epstein ruled that the plaintiffs hadn't met all the elements required to obtain a preliminary injunction. The board's executive sessions had been irregular, but the crucial vote had been done in public. He said he couldn't reverse the sale at this point and didn't think the plaintiffs would prevail if the case ever went to trial. He ordered the parties to mediation and lifted the temporary order that prevented Russell from removing topsoil or developing the land.

An unsigned editorial in the Valley Courier hailed Epstein's decision as "a victory for free enterprise." The writer lamented, "Unfortunately, sometimes the [San Luis Valley] could be defined as having a nonprofit mentality.... A region that thrives on nonprofits will soon suffer overall." That notion soon brought a flood of letters from park supporters, who said their project had been misunderstood.

"I see these two paradigms," says Karen Lemke, who works with the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition. "The old model is one big solution, this savior who comes and saves our community by generating all this tax revenue. Our proposal was, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a hundred people make $10,000 more in their family income?'"

The mediation has not yet been scheduled, but Russell has moved ahead with his annexation and land-swap plans, which have been received well by city officials. The project has the strong support of the downtown business community, many of whom signed letters published in the Valley Courier that carried over 300 names.

Ledonne was not one of those signers. "I would be sad to see the RV resort fail, but I also would be sad to see it succeed," he says. "Is it going to be filled all summer, so that every time I walk or bike along that area I'm going to see some Texan out there, shaving and waving at me? Or is it going to be a black concrete abandoned space? Neither one of those appeal to me."

The Keep Polston Public plaintiffs say they haven't decided yet whether to proceed with further discovery in the case; Oen says she's hopeful that mediation could at least lead to some of the topsoil being used in other gardens around town. Several are now focused on looking for other sites for a potential food-distribution center and maybe even a healthy living park.

After the rumpus over the Polston sale, three local landowners contacted the local-foods coalition to offer other possible sites. None had water rights or topsoil comparable to what was at Polston, but the offers led a few of the park supporters to believe that something good might come out of their battle after all.

"One of my goals was to get people thinking about the local food system, and we have definitely done that," says farmer Kretsinger. "We've started to talk about transparency in government. We've got three commercial kitchens now in the valley, coming online in the next few months. This is huge for us. I think we're going to make a big difference in the economy."

The irony of being portrayed as hippies hasn't been lost on the park supporters. You could pick any of them at random — physician, educator, small-business owner — and just as easily describe them as members of the town's professional class. Luette Frost, who's now lived in Alamosa for almost twelve years, figures it's up to "newcomers" like her to keep challenging the status quo.

"It raises a question for me about whether this community wants to move forward in new ways," she says, "versus the same old economic line, which is, 'Let's try to get in these chain stores.' Some people want Cinnabon to come to the corner of State and Main, and they think that's going to save their community. You have to have alternatives. In the end, something like the healthy living park is a step along the way."

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9 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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