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Temporary Safe Outdoor Space Approved for Centennial Park

After 75 minutes of public comment from a full gallery to start off their May 17 regular meeting, the Salida City Council  moved through a large agenda, twice extending the meeting duration to nearly 9:40 p.m.

Potential site for Safe Outdoor Space summer housing, in Centennial Park near Holman Avenue. Photo courtesy City of Salida.

The next-to-last agenda item Resolution 2022-22, unanimously approved an amended agreement with the nonprofit group “Bringing Everyone Through The Crisis of Housing” (BETCH).  The agreement, which has been described as a “tryout”, is meant to address “a local housing emergency” according to council and staff.  It is aimed at supporting locally employed, but unhoused seasonal workers serving the retail and food service businesses that Salida depends on for 83 percent of its sales taxes revenues.

The program, set to run from June 1 to Oct. 31, 2022 sets aside spaces for up to 15 vehicles in a 24/7 hosted site at the northwest edge of Centennial Park behind the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center (SHSAC).

Vetted applicants working at least 20 hours per week will pay a $10 daily fee to spend their off-hours (with vaccinated pets allowed), inside their vehicles and use the SHSAC bathroom and shower facilities.

This aspect of the housing crisis was first broached late last year and has repeatedly been on Salida work session and council meeting agendas ever since, with BETCH group representatives attending every meeting.  One site after another was considered then abandoned, as the clock kept ticking towards the summer tourist season (visitors are already arriving).

Initially, city-owned land in the former railroad yards were requested as having the most available, close-in space. But terms of purchase from the Union Pacific Railroad prohibit any use other than open space.

While further away, Chaffee County Fairgrounds also looked promising but the city was unable to obtain agreement from the Town of Poncha Springs for its use.  That led to consideration of the Marvin Park “Boneyards” beyond the baseball fields. But the costs of providing services on raw land there were considered to be too high.  Finally (and only a few weeks ago), the Centennial Park site, which is largely ready to use (in the area formerly devoted to recycling), became the most viable.

While the topic has been written about in Ark Valley Voice for months and with council discussions always available in real-time and on YouTube, some neighbors on Holman Avenue, K and L Streets expressed that they felt blindsided.  With the selection of the park only being finalized two weeks ago, and only one BETCH outreach meeting held, opponents of the project were clearly frustrated.

They cited the need for the project, but given that in their view it is mostly families and children using Centennial Park, they said they felt that it was not an appropriate location. In retrospect, a city-generated mailed notification to neighbors (like those used for zoning matters) might have been advisable. But with BETCH volunteers, city staff and council members all working full-time on city matters as well as on an operating agreement with BETCH, even an 11th-hour mailing would be a challenge.

BETCH supporters, the mayor, and council members all encouraged the public to join the community oversight group that will be formed to help ensure that the project starts off on the right note and stays that way. The concept is for it to collect residents’ feedback and for close supervision by BETCH to help these workers also be good neighbors in the neighborhood.

The project was described by one elected official as “a good faith agreement” on the part of BETCH, the city, and the expected workers. According to Salida Community Development and Planning Director Bill Almquist, it is one that will likely need to be fine-tuned as everyone moves along a learning curve.

More Public Comment About F Street Plaza, Performance Stage

Two other topics were a focus of the public comment agenda: Business owners on First Street expressed that their foot traffic suffers with all the attention paid to the F Street Pedestrian Plaza.  Sarah Briam requested signage, maps, and beautification of First Street. Lisa Wilborn agreed with Briam, saying there is a need for signage. She showed a mockup of a QR code for a poster that said “Scan QR code to get a map”, showing all area businesses.

The second topic, gaining momentum from multiple speakers, was a request for financial support to create a community performance stage in front of Natural Grocers on F Street for the summer plaza.  Hannah Michaels requested $10,000 to $15,000 in city support and mentioned the sudden passing of “Magic Steve” Kucera.  At the end of the evening, during council member reports, the stage idea was brought up by Justin Critelli and seconded by Harald Kasper, in a motion directing the staff of the Arts and Culture Division to look into the idea and bring back a proposal to the council.  If approved, it was suggested that it be named “The Magic Steve” Kucera’ Stage in honor of Kucera.

Other Action Items

Ordinance 2022-08 received a final reading and public hearing for the Green Heart LLC minor subdivision at 535 West Seventh Street. It faced no opposition and passed.

The 2021 Annual Comprehensive Financial Report was presented by Matt Miller, lead partner at the McMahan & Associates audit firm.  The city received a “clean” audit opinion, including the single (special) audit required when the city received significant federal ARP funds.  The report, accepted by the council (and once signed by the mayor) will go to the Government Finance Officers Association for consideration of an award of excellence, to be judged at year’s end.

After a presentation by Finance Director Aimee Tihonovich, Resolution 2022-19 proposed a budget amendment for 2022.  After a public hearing, the amendment was passed unanimously. Finally, in financial matters, the council heard from Salida Fire Chief Doug Bess who presented a recommendation from the panel evaluating responses to the design-build project for the new Salida Fire Station.  The firm Neenan Archistruction was chosen from five bidders and the negotiated contract will now be signed so that design work may begin.

The Salida Crossings Planned Development Modification request for timeline extension was continued until June 7, 2022.

After brief reports from council members and the mayor, Treasurer Bergin reported that total sales taxes from March, 2022 increased by seven percent over March, 2021 with the majority of the increase coming from accommodation and food services.  In-state summer visitors may again find Salida to be a bargain destination, given skyrocketing airline and hotel prices. Bergin noted that retail sales taxes were virtually unchanged year-over-year for March, perhaps reflecting inflationary food and fuel pressures on consumer budgets. However, he reported that they were greater than in February, 2022.