If you build it, will they come?: Talk of an events center sparks disagreement at town hall in Dolores

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MONTEZUMA COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS ENTRANCE

The Montezuma County Fairgrounds is one place that has been proposed as the possible
site for a new convention and events center. Photo by Gail Binkly.

When the Montezuma County commissioners have a town-hall meeting, they generally hear comments and questions on a wide variety of topics. But the meeting they held on June 24 in Dolores turned into a discussion sharply focused on the concept of an events center and the need for more tourism.

The meeting, held with the Dolores Town Board, drew about 20 audience members. From beginning to end, most of the comments had to do with the idea that has been floated recently for the construction of a convention and events center, and the general desire to draw more visitors to the area.

It featured frequent verbal clashes and produced little apparent comity among the participants.

Susan Lisak, director of the Dolores Chamber of Commerce, voiced concern about the fact that the county’s Lodgers Tax Committee, which oversees funds collected from the tax, is reportedly planning to cut the amount of revenue it gives the Dolores and Mancos chambers by more than 75 percent beginning next year. The committee wants to direct those funds toward the center proposal instead.

The Cortez Area Chamber of Commerce doesn’t get any funding from the lodgers tax, which generates around $150,000 annually.

Lisak said the lodgers-tax funds that the Dolores Chamber receives are used to operate the town’s visitor center and do some promotion.

“Staffing the visitor center is probably the biggest chunk of money with lodgers- tax money,” she said in answer to a question about how the funds are used. “Also for marketing – printing brochures and maps, running the website.”

Lisak said an email she had received from Brian Bartlett, manager of the Baymont Inn in Cortez and a member of the Lodgers Tax Committee, had caused confusion.

In the email, dated June 18, Bartlett told her that lodgers tax money – which comes from a 1.9 percent fee on hotel rooms, campgrounds and similar lodging in the county – is “supposed to be spent exclusively to bring additional tourism dollars into our county.”

“Therefore, starting this year. . . if you are running a chamber primarily on lodgers tax money instead of through your chamber memberships, special fundraising events, etc., you need to know that this money will NOT be available for you to continue to use to keep your chamber solvent,” Bartlett wrote in the email. (See below for the full text of Bartlett’s  email.)

“If we lose funding it will basically close the visitor center, not the chamber,” Lisak told the commissioners at the town hall.

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said the county’s lodgers tax is one of the lowest in the state and there is discussion about raising it by at least $1 a night. That, he said, would bring in thousands of dollars more.

“We’re looking at creating a fund to promote business such as an events center,” he said.

Commissioner Keenan Ertel said the Lodgers Tax Committee members “don’t want to be the funder of the Dolores Chamber of Commerce or the Mancos Chamber of Commerce.”

“Dolores and Mancos are so small compared to Cortez,” responded Lisak. “We don’t have the number of businesses to support a huge marketing campaign.”

Ertel said no decisions have been written in stone yet.

The population of the town of Dolores was 936 in the 2010 census. Mancos’s was 1,341, while Cortez’s was 8,482.

An activity hub

The town of Dolores usually gets $28,000 a year from the lodgers tax fund, said Shawna Valdez, an audience member. (Mancos gets a similar amount.) She added that the tax committee has three people on it from the greater Cortez area, “so we need representation.”

But Suckla said the county had run ads for a month seeking more people to serve on the committee, which reportedly has five members, but no one had applied.

Audience member Kirk Swope, owner of the Outpost Motel in Dolores, said he had been appointed to the committee some time ago but after he attended a single meeting, he never got another call or email about when the next meeting would be, so he eventually quit.

He questioned the idea of creating a convention center. “This is not going to help the town of Dolores. It’s going to help Cortez,” Swope said.

“You don’t think some of people are going to come to McPhee Reservoir and do something?” Ertel asked.

Ertel also said the proposed facility is not being called a convention center at this point, but an events center.

Commissioner Jim Candelaria agreed, saying the facility could serve as the hub for a number of local events. In May there is the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde mountain-bike race at Phil’s World and in June there is the Ute Mountain Roundup Rodeo, he said. “That place as an events center can be anything.”

James Biard, a trustee on the Dolores Town Board, said the events center in Grand Junction has three major events a year and a new center in the town of Montrose has just one.

But Suckla said the Montrose County commissioners had “told us the thing is packed all the time.”

Equine events

Katie Yergensen, media relations manager for the city of Montrose, told the Four Corners Free Press in a phone interview that their events center opened its doors in April 2018. The 93,000-square-foot facility cost between $10.5 million and $11 million to build, she said.

It has an indoor arena that features a dirt floor beneath a removable floor.

“It’s quite lovely,” Yergensen said.

It is not currently used much for large conventions, she said, though it has meeting rooms including one that can hold 350 people. It is utilized for numerous equine events.

The idea of constructing a convention center has been widely discussed since this spring. Two locations that have been proposed are the county fairgrounds, located outside Cortez, and the long-empty site of the old Walmart, which is within city limits at a shopping area on Cortez’s east edge.

According to the Journal newspaper, those pushing for an events center say there are groups that want to come to the Cortez area, but there isn’t a site that can host several hundred people.

“The motel people said if they had more space they could book more people,” commented Candelaria at the town hall. “The biggest room around here is 250-300 people.”

Biard, however, pointed out that there is a sizable space available in Towaoc on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

The commissioners said Cortez, Montezuma County, and the Lodgers Tax Committee will probably be involved in a cooperative effort to finance and launch a feasibility study for the events center idea.

Taking away

Members of the Dolores Town Board expressed a number of concerns about the idea of pulling funding from the town in order to help the events center.

“Our chamber is working on a rebranding” for the town, said trustee Cody Folsom. “It’s a pretty good ball rolling. This funding is valuable to our chamber for future success.”

However, the commissioners pointed out that it’s the tax committee, not them, who originated the idea of taking funding away from Dolores and Mancos.

Trustee Val Truelsen listed places such as the Elks Lodge in Cortez, the facility in Towaoc and the Dolores Community Center as possible losers. “If you build a convention center, how much will it take away from them?” Truelsen asked.

Tramway to the park

According to the Journal, it’s been suggested that the convention/events center could be tied in with building a tramway from Cortez to Mesa Verde National Park to attract more tourists and reduce vehicle traffic into the park.

However, in 2004 a feasibility study looked into the idea of an aerial gondola system to the park and found that a privately financed tram would lose an estimated $1.6 million a year. The $28,000 study, by BBC Research & Consulting of Denver, said that though the gondola ride up the mesa would be a “noteworthy attraction,” it would probably not draw many new visitors to the area and could harm existing businesses by attracting new hotels and restaurants to the gondola’s base.

It also brought out a number of other concerns, such as the fact that if visitors rode the gondola into the park and a wildfire broke out that shut down the tram, they would have no way to evacuate unless a fleet of buses and drivers were maintained in the park for emergencies, which would be “prohibitively expensive,” the study said.

Also, a tram would require public transportation for the riders once they disembarked at the Mesa Verde terminus, a sure-to-be-costly venture that would no doubt require a public-private partnership to finance.

Struggling towns

Dolores Town Board members brought out some concerns about the email from Bartlett. Truelsen said it implies that Mancos and Dolores are misusing lodgers taxes, while Jen Stark questioned its statement that Mesa Verde Country, the area organization that promotes tourism, produces a “7 to 8 times return on that initial dollar spent.” The Lodgers Tax Committee reportedly doesn’t plan cuts in its funding to Mesa Verde Country.

Suckla said Mesa Verde Country had produced a video of the area shot with a drone that can be watched on Youtube.

Suckla said Cortez is doing fine with tourism while Mancos and Dolores are struggling. “What is Dolores doing?” he asked.

Lisak listed a number of ideas the town is pursuing, including expanding Escalante Days to two days and hosting a possible 4-by-4 truck event and a convention.

“Don’t forget the single-track fat-bike trail in the winter,” said Suckla, who is an avid cyclist.

Dolores town-board trustee Melissa Waters said promoting outdoor recreation needs to include some education about environmental impacts.

“I implore you to have a consideration that stewardship and preservation are an important part of that,” she said. “I don’t want ‘outdoor rec’ to turn into ‘outdoor w-r-e-c-k’ because that will eliminate any reason for anybody to come here… Some thought needs to be put into conscientious stewardship.”

ATVs in town?

Suckla also brought up the idea of the town allowing ATVs to ride through its streets in order to motor up into the national forest.

Throughout Colorado, some cities and counties have opened some or all of their roads or streets to OHVs in order to boost tourism. Montezuma County allows them on county roads in unincorporated parts of the county.

Suckla said the idea had been suggested some months ago for Dolores but the town had yet to act on it. The town has an ordinance against the use of OHVs on its streets.

Stark said there are residential committees and a town planning commission that need to be part of that discussion. The town’s manager, Jay Ruybalid, is also new.

The town’s land-use code also needs to be updated, she said.

“If you don’t have the proper infrastructure in place… it is not appropriate for you to say that we need to hurry,” Stark said.

But Suckla was very critical of the town board, saying it is “not doing anything, as far as I’m concerned. Give us a timeline. When are you going to take a vote?”

“We’re not going to take a vote,” Stark said. “This board has not elected to go that way.”

Trustee Tracy Murphy agreed. “We are working on our own timeframe,” she said. “That may include an OHV talk but we have other fish to fry.”

Ruybalid said opening up town limits to ATVs would have to be addressed through changes in the land use code, which would take money.

“You don’t have to hire a consultant,” said Suckla, who said the county doesn’t hire a consultant to change its own land-use code.

Ruybalid said the town’s planning commission members said they don’t feel they have the expertise to rewrite the code.

Suckla said paying a consultant would be “a waste of taxpayer money,” Truelsen said a number of town residents don’t want ATVs motoring through it.

“Till you have the public meeting you’re never going to find out,” said Suckla, insisting that the town board members are not working hard enough.

“This town will stay still until somebody sits in those chairs who is willing to roll up their sleeves and do something instead of planning and planning,” Suckla said.

The commissioners have scheduled another town-hall meeting for Friday, July 12, at 6:30 p.m. in Cortez’s City Hall.


Email from Brian Bartlett

The following is the text of a June 18 email from Brian Bartlett, a member of the Montezuma County Lodgers Tax Committee, in answer to a question from Susan Lisak, director of the Dolores Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center.

Ok Susan, so the lodgers tax is money that is supposed to be spent exclusively to bring additional tourism dollars into our county. Although some folks at the chambers seem to think this is just a nice general slush fund for running their chambers, that is NOT what this money is, or ever was, for. Therefore, starting this year, and especially as we go into next year, if you are running a chamber primarily on lodgers tax money instead of through your chamber memberships, special fund raising events, etc, you need to know that this money will NOT be available for you to continue to use to keep your chamber solvent. The bottom line is that too many folks have come to rely on this tourism tax money just to keep their organizations in the black, instead of using their portion of the lodgers tax funds for a special event that brings tourists and their dollars into our county. This money was never meant to be used to run a chamber that is failing as a chamber to do their basic job of creating and promoting business memberships in each community, etc. Unfortunately, many of those who have gone before you just assumed that they would be given whatever amount they asked for just to keep the doors to the chamber open – or to keep the chamber afloat. Chambers of commerce (although important in some basic ways) actually do extremely little to promote and drive tourism into and through our area. The only organization in our community that is actually tasked with doing this and that truly delivers on this task is Mesa Verde Country. So, if we are going to be spending lodgers tax dollars to promote tourism, we are going to be more likely to spend those dollars through an organization like Mesa Verde Country where we get a 7 to 8 times return on that initial dollar spent. I hope this helps some, and I have cc’d Lee Cloy, the Chairperson of the Tax Committee in case I have been unclear in any way.

Thank you for asking and all the best, -Brian

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From July 2019.