It took months of work by local activists, working in conjunction with a statewide land trust, a national conservation group, and other funding partners, but the backers of an innovative "healthy living park" in the heart of Alamosa have finally secured the money to complete the acquisition of 38 prime open-space acres on the Rio Grande — land that two years ago seemed destined to become a private, high-end RV resort.
"The Rio Grande Healthy Living Park embodies what can happen when a community rallies to protect and enhance its character and way of life," says Jake Caldwell, program officer for the Wyoming-based LOR Foundation. The foundation's $700,000 grant, along with another recently announced $254,000 grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) lottery proceeds, will pay off a bridge loan and complete a complex transaction that shifted title of the property from private hands to the Trust for Public Land and now to the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition, along with a conservation easement that will be held by Colorado Open Lands.
As we reported in 2013, the Alamosa School Board's decision to sell the Polston School property property to an RV park developer for far less than its appraised value deeply divided the town. The site sits on prime top soil adjacent to the Rio Grande and Alamosa's largest public park. Several area nonprofits and community activists had supported a plan to raise the $755,000 appraised value of the property in order to prevent private development. They envisioned connecting the trails on the property to the park system and making Polston the future home of a botanical garden, an all-weather clam-shell amphitheater for live music and other amenities that could appeal to tourists, as well as a place for 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 and to a farm-fresh restaurant on the site; a commercial kitchen, available to small-batch bakers and chefs trying to launch their own micro-businesses; and much more.
But many in the local business community agreed with the school board's decision to sell the land to Dan Russell, the county's elected land surveyor, for $500,000, arguing that Alamosa needed the tax revenue to be generated by a high-end RV resort that Russell planned to build. Recordings of closed-door meetings, later released in the course of the lawsuit filed by the park group against the school district, revealed that school officials had reservations about the nonprofit groups' ability to raise the purchase price and referred to the park supporters as "a bunch of hippies from Crestone."
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Mediation efforts ultimately led to an agreement by Russell to sell the property to the park backers for $900,000 — a significant increase over what he paid for it and a dramatic demonstration that the school board had badly undervalued the property. Facing a tight deadline at the end of June, the park supporters raised $375,000 through local donations in four months and secured a bridge loan from private lenders for another $700,000.
"We are thrilled to have secured the funding needed to purchase the property free and clear in the coming months, to finish the planning process, and give the City of Alamosa a trail easement over the public trails on the property," says Julie Mordecai, director of the Rio Grande Healthy Living Park.
Next up: a capital campaign to develop the farm plots, recreational aspects and other features that Mordecai hopes will turn the property into a regional attraction.