Downtown rises against move
Petition circulates opposing possible courthouse move to Bodo

Cars line up in front of the La Plata County Courthouse early this week. The Board of County Commissioners authorized the purchase of land in Bodo Park last October as a potential new home for the municipal mainstay. The prospect of moving the courthouse has drawn strong reactions and opposition from downtown Durango./Photo by Todd Newcomer. 

by Amy Maestas

Downtown Durango business leaders are sounding a rallying cry by circulating a petition in response to La Plata County’s recent land purchase in Bodo Park. The petition urges county leaders not to move the courts and civic offices out of the Central Business District.

Such a move, the petition and its circulators believe, could be potentially devastating to businesses – and even the soul – of Durango’s historic downtown area. They see possible threats to an economically vibrant and diverse district if county leaders move offices from the existing courthouse on East Second Avenue to a possible new building in Bodo Park.

“It’s going to be a full-court press, for sure,” says Rod Barker, president of the Business Improvement District, about circulating the petition.

Barker, who also owns the Strater Hotel, said the group, along with the Downtown Durango Partnership, is gaining significant support in its reaction to any potential move – whether now or in the future. Barker said he was surprised to hear any talk of moving county offices south of town. He said he’d expected the land to be used for jail expansion, not to draw people away from the Central Business District.

“Even though it may seem the small distance from downtown to Bodo Park isn’t significant, it is,” says Barker.

In early October, the county closed a deal on 2 acres of land and a building at 679 Turner Drive, adjacent to the county jail. Commissioners bought the land from Santa Fe-based Jebco Inc., for $945,000. Part of the reason for purchasing the land, commissioners say, is to expand the overcrowded and outdated jail. Commissioners also look to the land as a possible site for county offices, including civil and criminal courts, but to date they haven’t made any concrete plans. Such a move could solve the prisoner-transportation problem. Currently, prisoners must be driven from the jail in Bodo to the courthouse – a costly and unsafe practice, they explain.

What rankles Barker and other petition circulators is the seeming lack of information the county put forth on the purchase of the Bodo property. Barker said the county isn’t gaining public input as the process moves forward. But Commissioner Wally White disagrees. White said the business owners and those who back the petition are acting hastily, causing a stir based on speculation.

“There is a lot of speculation. They don’t know what the county is contemplating. We haven’t made any decisions about anything,” says White. “There is no plan.”

White says the county conducted a facilities needs study in 2002, which recommended developing a new criminal justice complex to alleviate crowding at the courthouse. In 2003, the county retained the firm Reilly Johnson Architecture to develop a master plan for the justice center which, according to a report by the firm, was possibly going to be located on the property where the Pepsi Distribution Center is located. Today, commissioners are using the study as a working tool, says White, not as a directive. “It’s just a conceptual plan,” he explains. “This board has never discussed it being the way to go, and the board has no other plans we are working from.”

The petitioning group fears that Durango would suffer the same fate as dozens of other towns across the nation that withered when their civic centers were moved from the downtown area. Barker says the Business Improvement District and other business groups look to these examples in determining their reactions.

“The fact of the matter is, courts are the highest generators of foot traffic,” he explains. “I don’t think the cost of having to transport prisoners should come at the cost of impacting downtown.”

Many of those worried point to the city of Durango’s Downtown Vision Plan, which councilors recently adopted as an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan. According to the plan, keeping civic centers downtown is fundamental. “It is important that they remain in downtown for the vitality of downtown due to the number of people they employ and the visitors they attract, as well as the numerous private businesses that support the government uses,” Barker said.

City Councilor Sidny Zink says the city should rely on the plan’s guidance, but she is tempering her response to the county’s actions.

“I’m naturally concerned about any effect on downtown, but I don’t want to jump into panic mode. I hope the county thinks very carefully about peripheral impacts before going forward. But, they do have a legitimate space problem, and we can’t expect them to suffer just to keep downtown alive.”

Since the petition popped up, county officials have reacted by opening communication with business and community leaders. It’s something Phil Bryson, president of the Downtown Durango Partnership, welcomes. Bryson says he expects the county to do a better job of looking at ways it can solve its problems and remain in the Central Business District. He doesn’t think the county should meet their own needs at the possible expense of a thriving downtown Durango – even if the solution is costlier than moving to Bodo Park.

“I think they are doing the most expedient thing and doing it with their own agenda,” Bryson explains. “We are beginning the dialogue now, though. And I think they are on a path that will make them realize they need to look for other options.”

Bryson adds that if the county fully exhausts downtown options and ultimately decides Bodo is the only solution, he’d support it.

“I think their intentions are good. They just haven’t looked at the big picture,” he says. •

 

 

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