2021 Durango City Council Candidate Race

Local First’s City Council Candidate Forum

View the facilitated panel discussion hosted by Local First on Monday, March 8, 2021
focusing on the issues directly impacting the vitality of our independent business community and local economy.

Q1: If elected to city council, how will you prioritize the rehabilitation of our locally-owned business while continuing to prioritize public health as we begin to enter, what we hope will be, the final months of the pandemic?

Q2: Given that our community’s workforce is often relegated to scarcely accessible rentals, with few opportunities for upward mobility across income levels, what actions can be made by city council to provide opportunity for affordable home ownership in Durango?

Q3: How would you support these previously-adopted City goals to ensure forward momentum? (1) An 80% reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from 2016 levels by 2050, and (2) 100% use of Renewable Electricity by 2050.

Q4: How will you prioritize local sourcing for city operations, project contracts, and the climate change initiatives we have adopted as a community?

Q5: How will you, as a member of the city council, prioritize the Local Movement to ensure all community members have an opportunity to obtain sustainable local jobs, access entrepreneurial resources, and spend their dollars locally?

Q6: Do you have any closing remarks you’d like to share with the audience?

Remaining Forum Questions

Lodgers Tax: Do you support the Lodgers Tax increase and Council-adopted allocations on this April’s ballot, with 55% allocation to sustainable tourism marketing; 20% to transportation and transit services; 14% to arts and culture programs; and 11% to any of the previous uses or other tourism impacts?

Jessika Buell

Yes. I am absolutely For the lodgers tax and for the allocation. I’m excited that all three enterprises (Lodgers Association, Tourism Office & Arts and Culture Community) came together and all agreed (first time in 30 years this has happened). This is a win. I believe that when we collect a tax, it should be spent to benefit the thing that is taxed. For example- if we take a fee for the fire district, we need to spend that money of fire district. Same should apply for Lodgers tax and I think we came to a good consensus.

30% of economy is tourism, whether you like tourists in Durango or not. We NEED THEM to survive. I’m excited for the marketing money for tourism to focus on stretching our visitors into the off seasons and shoulder seasons. Keeping our lodging full then, restaurants busy then, shops visited then. We are a sales tax based community and need to support our tourism- to bring money to our City through people shopping in our local stores and dining in our local restaurants- the sales tax they pay goes back into our community. When we take away from tourism marketing we miss out on the reach of our marketing and this is detrimental. We need new visitors coming to Durango to shop in our Downtown stores and keep Downtown Durango vibrant. Tourists have an entire globe to go to and we have to stay competitive with our tourism marketing. We have been at a 2% lodgers tax forever and everyone else has been at 5% or over forever. In my mind, even with approving the increase we will still be below where a lot of our competitors are. We can’t argue about the economy if you aren’t going to support the biggest part of our economy in a REAL way- making real money all year around.

Seth Furtney

Yes. Durango’s current lodger’s tax is now over 40 years old and proving inadequate to fund both visitor needs and address the impact of visitors upon our town. I thus support an increase in Durango’s Lodger’s Tax from 2% (generating ~$1.1M/Year) to 5.25% (generating ~$2.8M/Year). This proposed increase brings our lodger’s tax more closely in line with other mountain towns and is the result of a long collaborative effort between stakeholder groups.

Durango will benefit from funding for an Arts & Culture Fund to support our local cultural non-profit organizations. Durango will benefit from additional funding for public transportation. Durango will benefit from tourism managed more sustainable by prioritizing stewardship for our environment and our town. City Council may want to armchair quarterback, but even though sausage-making isn’t always agreeable, once the sausage is cooked most everyone like how it tastes.

Frank Lockwood

Yes. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes.  The good news is: we don’t pay this tax.  Visitors do.  The same way we pay tax for any hotel or Airbnb when we travel.  Before this increase, Durango had the second lowest Lodgers Tax in the State of Colorado (2%).  Pagosa Springs Lodgers Tax has been at 5% for years and Pagosa spends about the same on tourism marketing as we do, despite being 1/10 our size!

Anyone in business knows that good marketing is essential, especially in today’s world of Internet marketing.  If we don’t keep up with our competitors, like Pagosa, Aspen or Telluride (Telluride spends five times as much as we do on marketing.), we fall behind.  That is a simple fact of business.

Why is this important?  Tourism accounts for over 3500 jobs in our area, about 41% of all jobs.  It is truly the bedrock of Durango’s economy.  Without visitors coming to town a few months out of the year, a substantial number of our businesses would close down and those 3500 employees would have no place to work. Chances are that your favorite restaurant would go out of business if we had no tourism industry here.

In that way, tourism provides us with a much higher quality of life, not only in our excellent restaurants, but dozens of other businesses we love here in town.  And, the millions of dollars of taxes visitors happily pay (lightening our load), in sales tax in addition to the Lodgers Tax, help pay for our police, schools, road repairs and parks.  Without tourism, our personal tax burden would increase substantially, or worse, our quality of life here in Durango would diminish.

The allocations have been negotiated between all the interested stakeholders
and are well balanced. The city is helping fund its transit system, the creative community will enhance our community for us and visitors, and will have a huge ROI on said investment, and the city has a flexible fund to address any impacts of tourism or related matters.

Lisa McCorry

It is wise to increase revenue from the impacts of tourism. However, there are greater needs in the community than sustainable tourism marketing.

Harrison Wendt

While I do support the lodgers tax, and I am thrilled to see a potential tax revenue come in where it is not paid by locals and increases the cost of living. I have very strong and vocal disagreements on the allocation of that revenue. As it stands, 55% will go toward marketing and ‘sustainable tourism.” The major beneficiary of that will be Visit Durango, who in the last two months have created a 2021 marketing strategy that outlined that Durango’s ONLY target audience should be higher-class “males or females”, or lower-class “hunters” with little respect for “local restriction, regulations, or rules”, and from their most current ad “Durango Tourism Matters”, White. Visit Durango co-opted the language from the civil rights movement “Black Lives Matter”, to benefit their marketing strategy. Let me be clear, they used deaths of BIPOC to increase tourism in Durango and promote the Lodgers Tax. Inclusive marketing is not at the top of Visit Durango priorities, which in return goes against The City of Durango’s first and most important goal of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Our community needs help. Our small businesses need help. Our transit is massively underfunded and we are running the risk of it driving off a cliff in 2023. While 20% of the revenue is to go towards our public transit. IT IS NOT ENOUGH. Public Transportation is crucial for our affordable and attainable housing crisis, as well as for our working/middle class people and our neighbors living with disabilities. While 14% for Arts and Culture is more support than the arts have ever received in Durango, it is also still not enough. Arts and Culture is imperative to the future of our City and the social and emotional wellness of many people living in our community. I have decided I will not make my personal vote on the lodgers tax public. This is for each individual to decide. But as a community, we need to start holding our leaders and power-holding organizations accountable. We can only successfully start to dismantle structures of systematic oppression if we hold each other accountable.

Melissa Youssef

Yes.  As part of my commitment to the post-Pandemic economic recovery and development and revitalization of our economy, I support the Lodger’s Tax Ballot proposal as presented. All parts of the proposed Lodger's Tax will directly benefit Durango's economy.

Impact A: Tourism-dependent Durango businesses often experience ‘feast or famine.’ 55% of Lodger’s Tax revenue will fund sustainable marketing to promote tourism during "off" seasons. Focused marketing can additionally target conventions, conferences/seminars/training events and sporting events. Visit Durango has suggested that every $1 invested in tourism generates $28 in broader economic impact.  The point is that Durango's entire economy suffers during seasonal slow spells and we need to take steps to invigorate off season tourism.

Impact B: Tourism-dependent Durango cannot achieve economic sustainability without diversification. 14% of the Lodger’s Tax will go to a ‘Cultural Fund’. A portion of those funds could be directed to our recently established Durango Creative District. This would be an important step toward diversification and revitalization, especially since Durango might qualify for state funding that is available only to designated creative districts.  Ridgeway’s Creative District has recently been a beneficiary of this program, receiving over $10 million to revitalize their downtown. Funding for other Creative Districts has been used for renovation of historic buildings, promotion of arts and cultural activities and infrastructure to support work-housing space and mixed-use development. Additional benefits of supporting local culture and art are that doing so strengthens communities by fostering a strong sense of community place, pride, and

Impact C: 20% of the Lodger’s Tax will help fund public transportation, a critically important social service that has been severely challenged by budget cuts at the state level. This will help us maintain our current service levels, while we continue to seek alternative sources of funding to further develop our public transportation system into the future.

The remaining 11% may be allocated to any of the above purposes - or to other pressing needs related to tourism, as city council determines.

Potential City Purchase and Relocation to the Worldpay Building: Are you in favor of the City purchasing the Worldpay Building and do you support the potential relocation of City and County offices (including the County Courthouse) from their current downtown locations?

Jessika Buell

I think the best use of the WorldPay building would be to attract business to Durango. Businesses that would provide high quality and high paying jobs. Is there a company or companies out there that we could find first? Partnering with the La Plata Economic Development Alliance and Silverlake (as we are already doing) would be key to finding this potential business or businesses. The real issue that comes up with this, is our current housing scenario. It is hard to relocate businesses and people if there is no housing inventory for them. This is a real issue that needs to be addressed.

A think a secondary strategy is for the City to purchase the WorldPay building to repurpose our current assets. We need to be really careful about relocating all City employees out of our downtown- I feel like the City should be in the heart of our downtown, go to lunches at our restaurants and support our downtown area. However, if some of our current assets downtown or near downtown could be repurposed for workforce housing, mixed-use development, etc… then it could be a good plan. We need to be thoughtful in our approach here and what really is the best scenario for our City.

Seth Furtney

Uncertain. The Worldpay Building encloses 81,000 Sq. Ft. of interior space which appears adequately sized to serve as location for consolidated city offices. Durango’s 2015 Master Facility Plan sizing projections indicate that relocating city offices to the Worldpay Building may be sound if the Worldpay Building is found a desirable location for city services and the building sales price competitive.

The Facility Plan Option 1 outlines a city office consolidation project estimated at $35M to consolidate 3 existing city offices into a rebuilt City Hall of ~90,000 Sq. Ft. to serve as long term office site for three currently separated government office sites (1. Carnegie @15,000 & 2. River City Hall @6,000 & 3. City Hall@11,000).

Factors to investigate:

  1. Having city offices located downtown may be part of the “special sauce” that makes our downtown special. The community needs to be comfortable making significant changes to the ingredients within our downtown district.
  2. Office space assumptions need to be reevaluated since telecommuting has matured rapidly this past year and thus certain city functions may be performed via telecommuting employees. If so, releasing space may make it possible for County offices to fit within the Worldpay Building.
  3. Offsetting the estimated $35M price to “rebuild city hall” is relocating to the WorldPay Building adds the City Hall site (.6 acres) available for sale or repurpose in addition to that for River City Hall (2.5 acres). The Carnegie Building is deed restricted for public use and thus not available for sale.
Frank Lockwood

No. I am a firm thumb down on the Worldpay building to be acquired by the city.

There are two problems with this approach:

First, if the Worldpay building to be used for city services, it violates all the studies regarding keeping those services downtown as an anchor to a vital downtown area. Doing so will b e detrimental to Durango’s future.

Second, it is taking the cart before the horse. First you plan, then you carry out the plan, not the reverse. This would be: buy the building then, "hey, what do we do now?" Not exactly good planning.

That being said, there may be a situation where the city gets a good deal and does some type of public-private partnership for the building, but NOT for city services. Perhaps to be used for relocating another established business to Durango in partnership with private money. The Worldpay building is way too expensive to take a financial leap and not know what comes next.

Lisa McCorry

This is a tough question. There are benefits to centralizing city and county government. The Downtown District certainly likes having the over 400 city staff nearby (when we are living and working under usual circumstances) however, the vision of the Character Districts is to expand functionality and use beyond downtown, and this is one of those areas.

Harrison Wendt

I am in favor of purchasing the Worldpay Building to relocate City and County offices from their current locations. The city owned properties on 2nd Ave are prime real estate. While I do not know the current values, there is a serious opportunity for revenue from and the potential building of affordable and attainable housing on these properties. In addition, our downtown is already vibrant. Moving City and County offices, creating a sort of campus, to that part of town could create and uplift business where it is needed most and provide the Durango Mall opportunities for growth and expansion. We must create a vibrant town in every location, not just downtown. South Durango has huge potential for growth, let's do it.

Melissa Youssef

When originally asked at the Eggs and Issues Forum to respond to this question with a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I was unable to do either because I thought it irresponsible to take a definitive, all-in-or-all-out position without more information. Having since then had time to gather information and do some of my own research, I can now give a definitive answer. 

The Worldpay Building is new, beautiful, and convenient, with state-of-the-art internet and some very nice amenities. But it is NOT the proper place for city offices. It seems, rather, the ideal place for a large company, or several smaller companies, that are open to the idea of relocating to Durango. Such a relocation could provide significant and much needed, year-round, high-paying employment opportunities in our community. This would be a huge step forward in terms of sustainable economic development, which is one of the most pressing challenges Durango faces. I see the potential economic benefits here as so important that I believe we should take the idea of purchasing and relocating city offices to the Worldpay Building entirely off the table. I’d like to see the Worldpay Building actively marketed via LaPlata Economic Development Alliance.

Additionally, I am convinced that moving city offices and staff away from the heart of our city could have serious negative impacts on our beautiful downtown. What do I mean by that? First and foremost, a healthy community begins with a thriving downtown. Downtowns are not only the heartbeats of communities; they are also key economic indicators. Thriving downtowns across the country have this in common: a diverse tenant mix, where multiple uses, including city and county services, have successfully integrated with retail, restaurants, and mixed-use offices to serve the broader community. Moreover, the city of Durango is one of the biggest employers in town. If city offices move away from downtown, downtown restaurants and other businesses will likely lose significant daytime trade. When city services move out of downtowns, local foot traffic typically diminishes and other businesses often follow. 

Our successful, historic downtown is one of Durango’s most beloved and desirable features. Unlike many communities, Durango still has a ‘real’ downtown. Civic leaders from elsewhere have seen their downtowns lose vitality when city and county offices moved out - leaving little more than a series of cute shops and restaurants in a quaint setting. Many of them no doubt wish they could turn back the clock.