The announcements this week that both Frontier and Avelo airlines are bringing new service to the Grand Junction Regional Airport are encouraging headlines in our continued recovery. While the rest of the country is still grappling with the COVID recession, we’re well on our way to building a stronger economy than we had when we went into the pandemic. Our recovery from the 2008 recession has been a decade-long effort, however, if you look back just five years, we are in a very different place today than we were then when gentrification wasn’t even in our lexicon and we couldn’t imagine a housing shortage.
In 2016, instead of waiting for a recovery that wasn’t coming, our City Council made a bold choice to develop the riverfront at Las Colonias Park. It was a creative, innovative decision to partner with the private sector and build a park that focused on the outdoor recreation economy while adding an incredible amenity that was open to everybody. Nothing like it had been done in recent years and it took a full year to design the park and figure out the partnerships.
In 2017, the City of Grand Junction created the Las Colonias Development Corporation (LCDC), a non-profit development corporation to develop and manage the commercial sectors of Riverfront at Las Colonias Park. This consists of a business park and retail plaza area that make up about 15 acres of the 147-acre city park. The City invested $14 million into the horizontal infrastructure in the park including landscaping, ponds, trails, dog park, streets, irrigation system, utilities, a festival area, restrooms, and a lazy river. The City leased the 15-acre business park and retail plaza to the LCDC for 99 years. The LCDC is governed by a five-member board consisting of a representative from the City Council, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, the Downtown Development Authority and Bonsai Design (who was integral in partnering with the city to design the park and was the first tenant to commit to building a headquarters in the business park). The fifth member is an at-large position chosen by the other four members. I currently serve as Chairman of the LCDC board as the GJEP representative.
Development corporations are not an uncommon model and there are examples of economic development corporations all over the US that manage property or land owned by a municipality. We believe it’s a great model where all profits earned by the LCDC would go back into capital infrastructure opportunities along the riverfront corridor, creating a sustainable funding model for future projects. The LCDC takes on the functions normally done by the private sector such as land lease contracts and vertical development, while the city continues the work that it does with respect to zoning, planning and allocation of public funds. The LCDC has made two requests for funding to the City, and the requests and the City’s decisions were all made in public meetings. The public can follow every taxpayer dollar that went into the development of the park.
Last September, incoming City Councilmember Dennis Simpson filed a lawsuit against the LCDC after requesting the private lease contracts between the LCDC and its two tenants, Bonsai Design and RockyMounts, which he believed were subject to CORA. We are not the first, nor will we be the last organization sued by Dennis Simpson who considers himself a watchdog of public process and taxpayer money. The judge ruled in the LCDC’s favor because the LCDC was created to take on functions that the City would not normally perform (specifically commercial development, property management, and leasing). All traditional governmental functions regarding the park, including the expenditure of taxpayer money, are done by the City and are matters of public record. The lawsuit was dismissed last week, seven months after it was brought to us.
I suppose I should be overjoyed with the ruling, but I’m not. I believe it was the right outcome, however, it sidelined us from a project that had been in the works for four years, cost us significant money in legal fees, shadowed the LCDC with a lot of unwarranted suspicion, and took time away from other projects that were far more important than fighting what we consider a frivolous lawsuit. Oh and of course there was a global pandemic we were trying to manage. I hope that this is not a precursor of what’s to come.
We, along with our many partners, have been working for over a decade to rebuild what was lost after the Great Recession. Those partnerships, which were already in place, set us up well to deal with the COVID pandemic and are why we have fared better than any other county in Colorado. We kept kids in schools, stayed at 50% capacity instead of shutting down, created small business grant and loan programs and generally kept things moving. The focus has been on creating conditions where everybody can thrive- from small businesses to families to kids. Our recovery isn’t a matter of random chance but the result of hard work and good intentions.
It’s been an incredibly difficult year, but 2021 is looking really bright. It’s easy to complain when you’re on the outside looking in, and a lot harder when you’re actually sitting at the table doing the work. I commend our incoming city councilmembers for making the choice to serve and I hope that they choose to be part of the solution.