An interview with the Community Vision Council co-chairmen
Council leaders answer some of the hard questions
David J. Brown and Mayor Ross Aragon say they have become friends during the past eleven months working together as co-chairmen of the Community Vision Council.
“The Community Vision Council is not a governing body, we’re an advisory body. We have no authority. I work for the Mayor,” David J. Brown said.
I sat down with Brown and Mayor Ross Aragon on a sunny December day in the Mayor’s office overlooking downtown Pagosa Springs. From this vantage point, much of the one square mile focus of the recently unveiled conceptual master plan for the community of Pagosa Springs is visible.
“I’m really excited about this. It’s what makes me get up every day. It’s very fulfilling to see what we’ve accomplished in eleven months and we’re just at the beginning,” Brown said, his voice soft and gentle, a broad smile on his face, a glimmer of joy in his eyes.
“You know I was sick for three years, and I was off my feet for 2 ½ years with cancer. I just decided that I have a lot to offer and a lot to give back and I want to make the best use of the remainder of my days,” Brown said.
The best use of his time might be in helping Pagosa Springs develop a vision for the future and create a master plan for economic stability. With over 34 years of real estate experience, as the founder of Orchard Properties, Brown has acquired and developed over 8.5 million square feet of commercial real estate, primarily in California. With an MBA from the Wharton School, he was a founding member of the Wharton Real Estate Center and his professional affiliations include the UC Berkeley Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics, the Urban Land Institute, and the National Association of Industrial Office Parks.
Add to those credentials Co-chair (with Mayor Ross Aragon) of the Community Vision Council, Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
“CVC has turned the master planning concept over to the Town and now it’s up to the Town to take it wherever they need to. We will continue to advise them on other priorities,” Brown said.
How the CVC was born
“To me, it’s always been about the economy,” stated Aragon, a Pagosa Springs native who has been Mayor since 1978.
In February 2004, Brown contacted Aragon and asked him to participate in a meeting of community leaders, elected official and citizens. About 25 people attended including J.R. Ford, Bob Goodman, Mamie Lynch, Sally Hameister, Aragon and Brown. Also at the meeting were California based consultants: Marianna Leuschel from L. Studio in Santa Monica, CA and Philip Durbrow of Marshall Strategies in San Francisco, CA.
“The consultants were working at Bootjack Ranch, for me, on another project,” Brown said. “I asked them one day if they had ever done any work with towns to help create a vision and establish a plan and help create a focus. They said yes and that’s kind of how the thing started.”
The idea was for the group of 25 to help underwrite some preliminary studies that would help the community create a vision for the future. The consultants spent a few days prior to that initial meeting talking with local business owners and civic leaders.
“The thing that I remember is what Philip Durbrow said. His statement was that the merchants are hurting,” Aragon said. “And that remark stayed with me. The revenue derived from sales tax is the only source of income that the town has. So, if the merchants fail, we fail as a community. I thought it was academic and imperative that we get involved and try to promote the town so we can have the economy be stable, not on a seasonal basis, but twelve months of the year. So that’s how I got involved.”
“I think the feeling is that the town doesn’t have a central focus, and it’s growing very rapidly. Based on the experience of the consultants and other people in the room, the concern was that if we don’t grab hold of this it’s going to grab a hold of us and we need to guide it rather than let it control us,” Brown added.
The Mayor’s Council for the Future of Pagosa Springs was born. With seed money provided by Brown and a few others, including public funds from the Town of Pagosa Springs, the preliminary study was completed.
“This stuff is extremely expensive. This study cost over two hundred thousand dollars. The Town didn’t have the funds to do it, so the private sector stepped up to help fund it,” Brown explained.
One square mile or an entire community?
I pointed out that the growth figures used to justify the CVC plan are from Archuleta County. Population for the Town of Pagosa Springs has not grown significantly in ten years as Town Manager, Mark Garcia pointed out at the November 17 public presentation. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the community vision to embrace all of Pagosa Springs and not just one square mile downtown? I asked.
“The answer is yes and no,” Brown said. “The problem is a matter of economics. We felt that if we could re-instill the historic downtown, the one square mile, and bring activity back to the town that the entire area will then benefit. And we had to start someplace. We certainly do agree that it needs to be expanded, but we had to start. We felt that this is where the history was, this is where we were founded, these are the values that the people love, the river, the central part and there’s a lot of character here that could be redeveloped and preserved,” Brown continued. “We feel very strongly that there is an opportunity here to redevelop historic downtown to make it a place where people from all over the county would like to come and work and live and have fun. I think the other thing we felt was, that if we could create a model here, and develop the criteria of what we want the Town to be and what we want in the future, then, is it not logical that it would spread to the entire community. This gives us a model and a case study to start.”
I spoke with a local merchant in the Pagosa Lakes area who felt left out of the future vision. They pay taxes, because they are part of the Town, but they are not included in the conceptual plan. How do you respond to them? I asked.
“We’re community oriented and we have representation from all sectors. We had to start somewhere,” Aragon echoed. “People stop here, in Pagosa Springs, in the town, because the hot springs is here, so we’re trying to sell that. I was in the restaurant business for 22 years and I’d see people coming and going, stop and eat, and guess where they were going? To take the train ride to Silverton or to Mesa Verde and it would almost make me sick that they weren’t staying here, they weren’t utilizing our recreation and all the things we have, all the amenities that we have, because there was nothing to make them want to stay here. But now, with us doing the historic renovations and all these things. Its going to be different.”
“This is a philosophical thing, too,” Brown continued. “We are certainly not ignoring those people. You mentioned that they are paying taxes. This thing has been funded 90% by private enterprise. If the Town and County could have afforded to do this, then private enterprise wouldn’t have had to step up and do it. Everybody is invited to participate. We have sent a plea out for everybody in the community to please help fund this. It’s extremely expensive. And if you think about it, this is what we call ground zero.” He pointed out the large window onto the Town below and then continued.
“If these businesses down here do well, which is where the tourists are going to come first, because the tourists want to come to where the tourist attractions are, which is the hot springs and the river and the trails and the hiking. Then it has a r
ipple effect and it will benefit all the merchants. That’s just the way towns grow. Everybody needs to unite and realize that this is for the benefit of everyone, and not to the benefit of a few. Those merchants out there are just as important as the merchants down here. But they need to pitch in and help us, too, and not feel left out because it’s not a matter of feeling left out it’s a matter of practicality. Where can we start?”
I asked if the CVC had approached Fairfield Resort, and if they were participating in the vision.
“The committee has approached everyone in terms of the public outreach.” Brown responded, adding: “People have to make a choice whether they want to participate or not, that’s their choice. No, we haven’t excluded them. I think the issue is that they bring a huge tax base to the community, but when those people come here in the timeshare to stay, where are they going to go shop, where are they going to go have dinner? Where are they going to go to the river? Where are they going to go to the hot springs? So this makes sense. This is going to be the stabilizing influence on the economy. I think it just makes sense.”
It sounds as if you are asking merchants to help fund the study and implementation of the plan, which focuses on one square mile of downtown Pagosa Springs, I said. What about the business owner who is thinking, what am I going to get out of it? Doesn’t that mean that more people are going to go downtown and they aren’t going to visit my store out West or East?
“That’s not what really happens in other towns and cities throughout the country. What really happens is that competition breeds competition. If there are more people here coming through the community that means everyone does better, whether the shop is over there or down here. Every town and city in the country grows this way. It’s an attitude. Do we join together and work for the benefit of the whole or do we all say well, I’m only going to worry about my little shop. That’s not very good thinking,” Brown said.
Some people want to work together and some have this very independent spirit. How do you reach them and get them to participate? I asked.
“I haven’t seen that,” Aragon said. “I’ve never heard that until you mentioned it that we might potentially be alienating the people West of Town. That’s not the intent. We didn’t call it the Town Vision Committee we called it the Community Vision Committee because we consider community, by definition, a long way from town. Town is here, downtown, the core area, we’re not saying the core area, we’re saying community. That’s the last thing I would ever want to do is to alienate anyone. However, no matter what you do you can’t please everyone, and so we have to deal with that.”
Aragon pointed out that Mark Weiler, president of Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship is a representative of the Pagosa Lakes area as a member of the CVC.
The wheel revolves around a central axis
“Let me try to explain it how I’ve learned from my own business.” Brown said asking for a piece of paper on which he drew a circle, some spokes and a rim. “This is a wheel. If you’re a shop owner out here on this spoke. And this is the entire community. This wheel won’t go around if you are just one spoke. What makes the wheel go around is that you have a core, a hub and you have the spoke. So in my view, if you’re a shop owner sitting out here, you have two choices to make. You can remain a spoke. Or you can say, I want to do better, I would like the town to do better. It’s important for my business to do better, so I have a choice to make. I can sit here by myself and not worry about everybody else, or I can choose to join the center and by everyone joining the center and working together, then the wheel goes around.”
Brown handed me the piece of paper and continued his explanation, pointing out that the conceptual plan is only an idea and that now it was up to the members of CVC and civic leaders to reach out to the community and show us that this idea will benefit all of us.
“We’re looking to the global, total benefit of the community and Pagosa Springs is the center of the community. It’s the largest town in the county. We’re talking about things like education, we’re talking about traffic, we’re talking about parks and recreation and the safety of our children,” Brown said with passion and conviction. “This is a huge model when you think about it. So I guess the choice that people are going to have to make and I’m sure I’ll be criticized for this, but I think everybody has to make a choice. Do they want to join and be a part of this or do they not want to join. But history shows that if we all work together, we do a lot better.”
Marketing a Community
Well, then how do you envision CVC working to support local businesses? I asked.
“Marketing strategies would be one way,” Aragon said.
“Marketing is number one,” Brown agreed. “If you are a business owner, what do you do to attract people to your business? We need marketing. We need to promote the tourism. We need to promote the image. We need to make this a more desirable place for people to come and visit and stay. That’s a key thing. That helps the local businesses. Right now, we’re a drive-thru community.”
Many visitors complain that stores aren’t open on weekends and evenings. How can the CVC work with local business owners to coach them, train them or advise them on how to appeal to tourists. I asked. Do you see that as a role you might play?
“The answer to that is that we have to create a reason for people to come downtown and to stay here and then the shops will stay open. Right now, the shops can’t afford to stay open because there is nobody here. What we need to do is to promote more activities around the hot springs or more activities like the balloon festivals, the horse events. We have to create events and festivals like Music in the Mountains. That started with zero and now we’re going to have 1,000 people come this year,” Brown pointed out.
“The shop owners would stay open if they knew people were in town,” Aragon added. “In fact, going back to Philip Durbrow, I remember him stating that he visited one business that had two sales in one week. Why are they going to stay open on the weekend? Why?”
“You’re hitting on a key thing,” Brown said. “Part of our job is to market and create more activities and more reasons for people to come and visit Pagosa so they’ll spend more money, and therefore the shops will be doing better, whether the shop is out near Fairfield or down here, I don’t think makes any difference. Because when you go to a town and you’re a tourist, you want to look at a lot of shops, right? So what we need to do is promote. Everybody needs to join together to promote their own shop, but for the benefit of the total.”
Somewhat like the work that the Chamber of Commerce does, I suggested. Will CVC be working with the Chamber of Commerce, local business owners, the lodging association, to develop and implement the marketing plan to attract more tourists to this area?
“We have representation from the Chamber on our CVC,” Aragon said.
“We’d like to see the downtown business owners get reunited and help work together to create that central core. They are stakeholders,” Brown added.