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

"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.