There’s no doubt that 2008 held one of the most monumental elections in United States history when voters flooded polling places and elected Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.
The Nov. 4 election results suggested a shift in demographics in Ouray County (along with the rest of Colorado), as voters preferred the Democratic candidate for President, U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative in all three national races. Obama received 54.5 percent of the county’s vote, becoming the first Democratic Presidential Candidate to win Ouray County since LBJ in 1964.
U.S. Senate candidate Mark Udall received 54.6 percent of the county vote in a bitter race against Republican candidate Bob Schaffer. U.S. Representative candidate John Salazar received 60.2 percent of the vote.
Democratic candidate Lynn Padgett soundly won the District 1 County Commissioner seat against the Republican candidate Bob Wolford, by 254 votes, in a race that historically has been decided by less than 10 votes.
While Republican Candidate Scott Tipton ultimately won the race for the State’s District 58 Representative seat, Democratic candidate Noelle Hagen won Ouray County by 52.6 percent.
The election, at all levels, was often heated (the Udall/Schaffer debate on NBC’s Meet the Press) and very emotional (Obama’s acceptance speech as the Democratic candidate in Denver and his victory speech in Chicago).
Perhaps one of the biggest winners in the county was Clerk and Recorder Michelle Nauer, who jumped through countless mandate hoops to run a flawless election, which had a record-breaking turnout of 94 percent. Of 3,285 eligible voters in Ouray County, 3,064 voted.
And since this year’s ballot was the longest ballot since the 1920s, it was a monumental year for early voting and mail-in ballots. Sixty-seven percent of county voters voted by mail.
It was just after 9 p.m. on Nov. 4 when Republican candidate John McCain gave his concession speech, but it was sometime after 11 p.m. when Nauer and her staff posted the county’s results.
“As of 7 p.m. when the polls closed, [Nauer] was still at one of the precincts,” Padgett said after the election. “The county was operating with their own staff and what they were able to do that evening was phenomenal, given the turnout.”
“This was huge,” Nauer said days after the election. “This was the biggest election.”
#2 Voters Want a Place to Play
With belts tightening in a national recession, Ridgway voters on Nov. 4, by a margin of 329 votes, approved a $2.2 million bond to build a new gymnasium with locker rooms, a performing arts studio, a music classroom, a climbing wall, and a weight-training room at the Ridgway Secondary School.
The effort to raise funds for a “Place to Play” remained a grassroots, community initiative in 2007 and raised $696,738. In August of 2008, the Ridgway School Board decided to take the fundraising effort to the voters through a ballot measure that would allow the school district to borrow money to build the new facilities.
In addition to the money that had already been raised, $480,000 in grant money was made available to the district if the bond measure passed.
In November 2003, voters approved the issuance of $7.75 million in bonds to underwrite the purchase of property in north Ridgway, the installation of infrastructure, the completion of the secondary school facility, and the renovation of the elementary school. Escalating costs of metal and concrete during the construction phase resulted in the district’s scaling down of plans for the facilities; the new construction to be funded by the bond will complete the secondary school complex.
Students became very involved in rallying support for the bond issue by designing advertisements, presenting oral and Power Point presentations, designing and creating the layout for the brochure that was mailed to Ridgway community members, and calling every registered voter in the school district.
“They were awesome and contributed greatly to the bond passing,” secondary school Principal Emma Brockman said after the election. “Exciting changes are in the works at the Ridgway Secondary School thanks to the support of our community. The passing of this bond will allow us to have a facility that better serves the school’s exemplary program.”
#3 Deaths of George Gardner and Brian Peters
The unexpected deaths of two fixtures of the Ridgway community came in late July when longtime Ridgway resident and schoolteacher George Gardner died in a solo climbing accident in Wyoming and then, just 10 days later, Ridgway resident Brian Peters died in a rollover accident on Dallas Divide.
Peters had a long history in the region and was known as an outstanding community activist. He served terms on the Ridgway Town Council and the Ridgway Planning Commission, and also served on numerous boards and committees locally. He was becoming known regionally and even statewide for his work on broader issues, including the Barack Obama campaign.
“Brian was well read and extremely articulate, and often challenged those of us in town government to think and act more outside the box,” said Mayor Pat Willits. “Brian loved Ridgway, and he aspired for us to be the very best community we can be.”
A carpenter and contractor, Peters left his mark as a craftsman throughout the region. He was an environmentally minded person, interested in and supportive of green building. At the time of this death he was involved in the construction of a straw bale home on the west side of Dallas Divide. Peters was also admired for his skills in the kitchen, and loved playing golf, camping in the desert and being with children and animals.
“We’ve lost somebody very large in our community,” said close friend Susan Baker. “He was a man with a huge heart. His rudder in life was justice.”
Gardner, 58, died while solo climbing Wyoming’s Grand Teton. Climbing had been his passion for 28 years. Gardner had been rehired by the Ridgway School Board earlier in July to be an outdoor education teacher and was to teach the newly approved Brain Gym 101 class.
“He had a Nobel Prize winning smile, he guided with a lot of enthusiasm and was a very popular teacher – not only here but also in Ridgway and at Sterling College,” said Jack Turner, president of Exum Mountain Guides.
“George had power,” friend Jerry Roberts said. “He was a mentor to me and many others. He mentored by not mentoring. By living his life, he taught compassion and kindness is the highest form of wisdom.”
Although still in the early stages of development, an ongoing initiative is in the works to build an outdoor education facility in honor of Gardner at the Ridgway Secondary School.
#4 State Denies Charter School Application
The State Board of Education upheld an August 2007 decision of the Ridgway School Board to deny the charter application of Owl Creek Community School during a January appeal hearing in Denver.
All but one of the seven state board members ruled in favor of the Ridgway School Board’s denial of the charter application after representatives of both the board and the Owl Creek Community School were given 30 minutes each to present their case.
Owl Creek Community School proposed the charter agreement with the Ridgway School District and had planned to open a K-5 school last fall for approximately 27 households in the area.
State board members cited reasons to uphold the denial, such as an unrealistic budget based on unrealized monies – grants that had not yet been awarded – and lack of a clear curriculum with no detailed process to monitor student growth beyond CSAP scores.
“This [application by Owl Creek] just didn’t have enough meat and potatoes to do this to a small district,” said Board Chairperson Pamela Jo Suckla, who represents the district in which Ouray County resides. “I know this to be a very good school and one that involves the community.”
The size of the proposed charter school was also a considerable factor in determining the viability of the charter school budget. Public school budgets are determined by per pupil enrollment; with only about 30 students attending, the proposed budget would be very small.
“The notion of having a charter school for 30 is not sustainable,” State Boardmember Elaine Berman said.
Though the state board’s decision over this application is final, some suggested the applicants rework a new application.
“I would encourage the applicants to go back and very clearly state how they are going to assess the students,” said State Boardmember Peggy Littleton, a former charter school teacher herself.
#5 Communication Tower Sharply Divides Community
After a multitude of public hearings, planning meetings and worksessions, an 80-foot Verizon communications tower and accessory building have yet to be built on Log Hill Mesa. The proposed tower, which would improve cell phone and emergency communications throughout Ouray County, has sharply divided the community.
Opponents of the tower are concerned with possible negative health effects and its visual impact, while proponents say emergency communications need to be improved as the region grows.
The Ouray County Joint Area Planning Board recommended approval of the 80-foot communications tower back in July. The Ouray County Commissioners then approved a special use permit for the tower in September. The commissioners’ approval came with six conditions surrounding construction of the tower, including a requirement that the visual impact restrictions of the Ouray County Land Use Code be considered; that the Log Hill Village Unit 1 Architectural Control Committee must also approve the application; and the prohibition of lights on the tower.
Commissioner Don Batchelder added a condition requiring a bond for removal of towers at the site that are not being used, and specified that any uses other than those approved would require additional special use permits. A sixth condition requires appropriate documentation between Verizon and Ouray County on any subleasing of the tower.
On Oct. 2, the Peter and Susan Hayward Revocable Trust filed a complaint in Ouray District Court against the commissioners and Dallas Creek Water Company, Inc., requesting that a hold be placed on issuance of the building permit. The complaint alleges that the county commissioners abused their discretion in granting conditional approval of a special use permit for the water company to erect the tower. The complaint says the commissioners failed to determine whether the proposed tower met visual impact regulations established under the county land use code, and instead delegated that determination to the land use department, which is expected to review the project during issuance of a building permit.
As it stands right now, the Log Hill Mesa Fire Protection District is in the process of applying to build at 35-foot monopole with an 800-megahertz microwave antenna as a short-term solution to keeping a 2005 Colorado Wireless Interoperability Network (CWIN) grant of $500,000. It could be possible to move the microwave from the monopole to the 80-foot tower if it is ultimately approved and constructed.
#6 Douglas Bissonette Resigns From Ridgway Schools
Last November, Ridgway School Superintendent Douglas Bissonette tendered his resignation to the Ridgway School Board after almost six years of holding the position.
“In these six years, I have accomplished a great deal and am more than satisfied with the quality and direction of Ridgway Schools,” Bissonette stated in his resignation letter. “The time has come to live in a place where both travel time and the cost to be with family and life-long friends is not a barrier.”
The school board, charged with finding a replacement for Bissonette, at a meeting earlier this month decided to hire the Colorado Association of School Boards to take the lead in the superintendent hiring process.
“I am sad that Ridgway will be losing him,” school board President Kara Mueller said. “He has done an outstanding job overall and has accomplished a great deal in his six years. We have developed our academic program from being an average program to a really excellent program. Douglas has worked hard to keep our class sizes very small and he has been very successful hiring and retaining excellent teachers.”
Mueller added that during Bissonette’s time as superintendent, Ridgway Schools has added Spanish to the elementary and middle schools’ curriculum, changed the secondary block schedule and developed an outdoor education program.
With the loss of Bissonette and the voter approval of Ballot Issue 3B to build a “Place to Play” at a cost of $3.3 million, the school board unanimously voted in November to appoint Don Batchelder to fill Howard Butcher’s vacant seat on the school board. The board cited Batchelder’s experience in school governing as a much-needed quality during this time of change. Batchelder previously held a seat on the Ridgway School Board for 10 years, with that tenure ending in November 2007 because of term limitations.
#7 Former BIOTA Plant Now Owned Locally
The latest chapter for the BIOTA (Blame It On The Altitude) water bottling plant in north Ouray came late last summer when the land, plant and equipment were sold to Ben and Tracy Lockard, Ouray residents, and Eli Doose, a native of the town.
With 40,000 square feet of floor space and 3,000 amps of electricity to use, Doose and Ben Lockard are looking to lease parcels of the building to house locally owned and operated light industry and value-added manufacturing businesses, specifically those that require more floor space than might be available elsewhere in town, i.e. 4,000 square feet or more.
Lockard and Doose’s company, High Country Development Group, bought the building from Mountain Pure Water of Bee Branch, Ark., who bought the building and equipment at a July 17 auction for $2.35 million. The July auction was the result of a failed deal between UPS and Black Gold, which foundered after a dispute over rights to the BIOTA name.
BIOTA made it to the #4 slot of the top news of 2007 when it filed for bankruptcy and subsequently sold at auction.
Lockard and Doose plan to house their own businesses in the building. Lockard is a cabinetmaker and owns Kitchen and Bath Design in Montrose. Doose, a welder, owns Elite Welding, which manufactures structural steel components and architectural metals. He formerly owned a sushi restaurant, now Salon Envy. Tracy Lockard is a yoga teacher and owns Inner Mountain Yoga in Ouray.
“We like to make things. We want to keep our businesses in Ouray. At some point our companies will be operating out of that facility,” Lockard said.
Lockard said that the duo’s intentions are to help diversify the Ouray economy and create a more stable job market in the coming days of gas shortages and economic tensions.
“A lot of mountain towns are going through the same issues we are,” he said. “We’re starting to look at some inevitable economic realities coming down, and we need to start planning for them.”
Lockard said that they plan to rent out the space for about 30 percent less than what the same space would go for in Montrose, “largely because we want it to be an incubator for local businesses.” Lockard said that though the process would be selective, he hopes to see a dozen businesses operating out of the building, and 100 people making their livings there.
Ideal businesses for the space, according to Lockard, would be already established manufacturing businesses. Also, due to the prohibitively high cost of freight, with the nearest interstate being two hours away, “it has to be products that stay here, or something where the shipping is inconsequential,” he said. He suggested a climbing-gear manufacturer as being an example of a good fit. “But we’re not going to attract a particle-board plant here,” he joked.
#8 Paper vs. Electronic Ballots
Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman threw county clerks across the state a curveball in December of 2007 when he decided to decertify the Hart InterCivic electronic voting machine because of an “accuracy issue.”
Coffman’s decision, harshly criticized by Ouray County Commissioners at a meeting in January, forced the county to pay additional expenses, more than once, to bring its scanning equipment into compliance with the Colorado Election Code. The county had already spent $35,000 for electronic voting equipment and software, along with $60,000 in grant funds provided by the state.
The decertification also left unanswered the question of whether or counties would be using paper ballots, or electronic ones come November.
“I’m ready to march into his [Coffman’s] office and you know… this has now arrived at a point where this is so asinine and so bass awkward that it is impeding service to the public in this state and to every public entity attempting to deal with this and ultimately it’s the voters who suffer. I mean this is absolutely crazy,” said County Commissioner Heidi Albritton. “Somebody in the whole chain of events should be looking out for the whole voting public.”
The Clerks Association formally requested “swift action” from the state legislature to allow a one-year stop-gap measure providing for a paper ballot delivered by mail, the only “immediate and workable solution,” they contended, for elections scheduled to occur in 2008.
“They’re not calling it an emergency, but that it [action by the legislature on the ballot type] be expedited,” said Ouray County Clerk/Recorder Michelle Nauer last January. “It was in multiple portions including certification, delivery of ballots and how we report the totals.”
Then on Feb. 28, Coffman announced that the machines had been conditionally recertified, with the caveat that all ballots contain language notifying voters to carefully check their ballots for any extraneous or stray marks within the voting boxes. And in the event of a recount, every ballot would have to be physically examined for the presence of extraneous marks in voting boxes so voter intent could be properly recorded by election judges.
Still, electronic voting machines were once again in need of updated software in the months leading up to the election. Most voters in Ouray County opted for the mail-in ballot because of its exceptional length, and on Nov. 4 elections ran smoothly across the state, despite the bumpy ride getting there.
#9 Town Creates Guiding Document for Development
One year ago, in a different economy, development of the 138 acres of rural land that lies within the Northwest Master Plan area seemed imminent. A master plan document, to shape the development and its speed, was of utmost importance.
Now, with the economic downturn, it is anybody’s guess if and when a major development will be proposed. Regardless, the Town of Ridgway has a guiding document for when the opportunity arises.
“It may sit on the shelf for a while,” Town Manager Greg Clifton said, “but by gosh, when we need it, we will have it.”
The plan was originally approved by the Ridgway Planning Commission in September, with town council ratifying the plan on Dec. 10. The plan complements the current 1999 Land Use Plan and the 2000 Comprehensive Plan. It designates land use, roads, trails, open space, parks, the rate of development, and densities.
The plan proposes four different categories for density, with most of the area being designated medium-density residential with lot sizes between 4,000 and 8,000 square feet, interspersed with trails, parks and open space. The northern portion of the area is designated low-density residential, with lot sizes being approximately 10,000-20,000 square feet. The high-density residential zone in the plan abuts the western edge of the 6.9-acre Ridgway Town Park, west of Green Street. This area is planned for 12-18 dwelling units per acre, limited to two stories above grade with a maximum height of 27 feet.
The area west of the existing River Park Planned Unit Development Industrial Park is designated mixed-use density for commercial and residential development to accommodate work/live arrangements and to provide a transition from industrial to medium-density residential uses.
The maximum height of buildings in the mixed-use zone, approved by the planning commission to be three stories high, up to 35 feet, was a sticking point for town council. The planning commission later added wording that the height could be up to 35 feet “when incorporating architectural features and roofline variations.”
#10 School Board Dismisses Spradling Before End of Contract
The Ridgway Secondary School started 2008 in search of a new principal after the Ridgway School Board, last January, put Principal Greg Spradling on paid administrative leave and voted unanimously to not renew his contract for the 2008-09 school year.
At the time, neither Superintendent Douglas Bissonette nor the school board could give reasons why they decided to not renew the contract, and it remains unclear if he left his position voluntarily or was forced out. Just 10 months prior to his dismissal, Bissonette recommended that Spradling be hired to replace Principal Susan Lacy, who stepped down after four years. The board agreed to pay Spradling his full $75,000-plus contract after deciding for non-renewal.
In April, Spradling, in a letter to the school board, described what he called “a pattern” at Ridgway Schools and pointed to inconsistency in the evaluation process due to turnover of administrative personnel.
Questions about how the school board evaluates its staff arose when, in April, the board voted unanimously to not renew four teachers’ contracts.
Recently, the school board has been working to clarify evaluation processes and documentation for teachers and principals.
In May, Bissonette announced the hiring of Emma Brockman as the secondary school’s new principal, to fill Spradling’s vacant chair.
Brockman grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and spent childhood vacations in Colorado, she said. Brockman has worked as an Outward Bound instructor in Maine, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, and has traveled extensively through Kenya, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Bali, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, and Mexico.
“It is with great pleasure and excitement that I introduce myself as the new principal of Ridgway Secondary School,” Brockman said in May. “My appointment as principal at this school is truly an honor. Our school’s reputation in the state is one of high academic standards for all students in a supportive climate. I see that my challenge is to maintain and continually improve that reputation.”