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Diversionary Reframing and other threats to public discourse

Essay by Martha Quillen

Salida Golf Course Expansion – August 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

SALIDA WAS FOUNDED as a division point on the railroad, so in some strange way it makes sense that even if the trains have gone, Salida remains in a state of division. At the moment, the main cause of division is a battle over nine new holes for the municipal golf course.

Once again, the Merchants’ Association, the Lodging Association, the Chamber, the local newspaper, the radio station, and the golf club support the Eighteen Hole Plan.

It’s easy to understand why they want a full-sized golf course, rather than the current nine holes. The problem is that there really isn’t an Eighteen Hole Plan.

For at least a decade, the Salida Golf Club (which operates the current nine-hole course on land leased from the city for a nominal sum) has worked toward an expansion: nine more holes, built on 51 acres across the road currently owned by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The city would get the 51 acres — currently an irrigated pasture — by trading a nearby gravel pit and some water rights to the DOW.

That trade would take care of the land. But turning the land into a golf course would require some serious money — at least $450,000 and perhaps $1 million.

In 1995, Salida voters narrowly defeated a proposal to sell 4.3 acres next to the current golf course, and to use the rest of the nine-hole golf course for collateral for a loan to build the additional nine holes.

Even after the defeat, the land trade could have proceeded — indeed, at the end of 1997 there was a deal on the table so that the city could “swap a gravel pit for a meadow.”

That deal stalled with the election of a new mayor and five new city councilors, along with the selection of a new city administrator, all taking office in early 1998.

So what’s the deal now?

The golf course expansion proposal still involves that 51 acres. But at a meeting in May, it was clear that Salida councilors didn’t even have any idea what that 51-acre plot of land was worth.

At the May meeting, several people said they opposed making a million-dollar trade with the DOW for a golf course expansion. But one councilor announced that he didn’t know why people kept talking about a million dollars when the land in question was worth less than $100,000. He also reminded everyone that the 51-acres had been appraised at less than $100,000 just a few years earlier.

At that point, Tom Spezze, a spokesman for the DOW, disagreed, pointing out that since the DOW had removed previous covenants on the land, the one million dollar figure was more in keeping with what the land was worth. And according to Spezze, the DOW expected to make a “value for value” trade.

In other words, the 51 acres was worth about $100,000 when the DOW had it encumbered with restrictions against construction. But the DOW, for whatever reasons, wants to remove those restrictions, thereby making the 51 acres worth a lot more, perhaps $500,000 or $1 million.

So what would Salida have to provide, in addition to a gravel pit and some ditch water, to get this 51 acres now? If any people at that meeting knew exactly what it would entail, they weren’t telling. And they still aren’t telling.

But one thing the DOW does want is that gravel pit owned by the city but leased to Kaess Construction. And they want it ASAP. Or at least they want gravel mining to cease.

Apparently, the DOW is relying on clean spring water to resolve whirling disease contamination at the local fish hatchery, and their clean water supply is threatened by the city’s gravel mining operation.

Thus, in order to fulfill the city’s contract with Kaess, some council members want to put a gravel pit next to Franz Lake. But that proposal doesn’t sit well with recreational users of the park surrounding Franz Lake, or with nearby homeowners, or with Tim Glenn, who wants to expand the cemetery onto that piece of land.

A gravel pit by Franz Lake would also mean that the Gun Club, which is currently on that land, would have to move. But the city has assured the Gun Club that it will find them another location.

About then, local resident Mark Emmer protested that rather than transferring mining operations to Franz Lake, the city could probably nullify its contract with Kaess, since the company had recently been cited by the state for mining outside of its seven-acre contract area.

At which point, several people heatedly defended Kaess, and the council pointed out how — after mining for ten years — Kaess could reclaim the land next to Franz Lake by putting in another lake, and then Salida would have a brand new recreation area and a water storage reservoir, to boot.

At the end of that May meeting, Salida City Administrator Scott Hahn and a city council member told the audience that the city’s negotiations with the DOW were not about a golf course expansion.

Perish the thought. This is really about Opportunity, they said. The audience was told that this 51-acre tract did not have to become a golf course. It could be used for anything; it could become a park. And so at that moment the decision was not about a golf course. It was about whether Salida wanted to continue its negotiation with the DOW and assist them in their fight against whirling disease.

So there you have it.

Salida doesn’t have a golf course expansion plan. It merely has a plan to cure whirling disease, put in a new reservoir, gain a new and improved Gun Club range, and obtain a beautiful meadow at one entrance to town.

For as many a proponent will tell you, “Who wouldn’t trade a gravel pit for a meadow?”

Except, what are we to do with a meadow? The pit, at least, provides aggregates for our roads and concrete; what’s the point of owning a meadow unless we have some use for it? The city presumably operates to serve its citizens, not to increase its asset base.

At this point, some people not enamored of golf courses actually want to turn that 51 acres into a park. But that’s crazy.

Why would Salida make a million-dollar trade for a park? Or even a hundred-thousand-dollar trade? Salida already has parks.

It has Riverside and Alpine and Centennial parks. It has Sands Lake and Franz Lake and a national river recreation area. What it doesn’t have is good sewers. So if we’ve really got assets to spare, let’s sell ’em off and fix our sewers.

Or let’s buy ourselves a golf course. A real first-class 18-hole golf course — not one with a 51-acre back nine with more than 10 acres of wetlands in the middle and a busy road separating it from the front nine, but a really good course.

Or at the very least, let’s start looking into the alternatives.

— Because with only 51 acres on the agenda, the price seems to have increased tenfold in the last few years. The city’s negotiating skills are, at the least, quite suspect. And with the golf course proponents clamoring to make this deal without even knowing or caring what the price will be, that price may well go up even more.

Four years ago, Salidans voted against a golf course expansion bond. So this time around, the council has let the Golf Club negotiate with the DOW. And yet the city maintains that this negotiation is not for a golf course.

Let’s get real here. The only possible city use for the 51 acres is for golf course expansion. Salida already has parks and open space. Unless we start putting the police on horseback, what use does the city have for a pasture?

Two councilors, Bob Engel and Monika Griesenbeck, have taken a stand against the current negotiations. And one councilor, John Bayuk, has occasionally wavered. But the other councilors, the mayor, and the city administrator have pretty steadfastly nourished it. And that has not been in the best interests of Salidans or the Golf Club.

— Because the council’s blatant prejudice has pushed this process forward with dozens of questions still unanswered.

First off, according to most councilors, this will not be a million-dollar deal. But if it is, will the council still support it? Is nearly $20,000 an acre a rational price for golf course land? Is there land available for an entirely new 18-hole golf course near Salida? If so, could it be purchased by acquiring, subdividing, and selling the 51 acres?

If Salida decides it doesn’t want the 51 acres, does the DOW have something else we’d want in trade for the gravel pit?

If a new location for an 18-hole course could be found, what would the city do with the present nine-hole course? Certainly it would make a great park — far more accessible than the 51 acres under discussion — but is this land saleable? Is it developable? If a portion of this acreage were developed, could the funds go toward purchasing and building a new golf course?

FOUR YEARS AGO, when Colorado Central showed the 51-acre plan to various golf pros, some of them found it inadequate or worse. Has the council discussed the fact that this new course will not be a very good one?

Second, Salida is not a wealthy city, and its citizens earn far less per capita than the national average. So if this deal is really about eliminating whirling disease, why should the City of Salida assume the costs? Is that a proper use of city funds? Given that the city represents the interests of its citizens, shouldn’t it at least try to drive a harder bargain with the DOW?

Third, many of the arguments for and against the proposed nine holes have been faulty. But the worst is that Salida needs to have an eighteen-hole golf course before a private club comes in and steals revenue from Salida’s nine-hole course. For if a private club could threaten our little, already-paid-for course, what will one do to our bigger, mortgaged, not very state-of-the-art, eighteen-hole course?

And rest assured, if our county continues to grow as a resort area, a private 18-hole golf course might well arrive here no matter what Salida does. Most private courses are not put in to compete with municipal courses; they’re designed to sell nearby real estate. Thus, if property values continue to escalate, a private course is a very real possibility.

Which is why we feel that Salida’s city council has totally fumbled this issue.

INSTEAD OF DRIVING the best bargain possible, instead of asking the hard questions, instead of determining what the Golf Club will do if it is unable to meet the financial obligations of expansion, instead of developing any coherent, explainable plans, our city suggests we support a vague non-plan.

Should Salida trade an undisclosed, unspecified amount of land and/or water for 51 unimproved acres? What kind of question is that?

By presenting such an option without revealing terms or costs, Salida’s government merely encourages the people who want a golf course to wrangle with the people who don’t want one.

In that climate, public discussion about how to keep costs down and build a viable course has been entirely missing. Also missing has been any honest attempt to present the facts or address the concerns of the opposition — even though many of those concerns in no way threaten a proposed golf course. (For example, surely adding nine more holes does not rely on putting a gravel pit next to Franz Lake.)

Public discourse has degenerated. Salida’s current golf course serves a diverse local population at affordable prices — it’s not some elite country club.

A city that improves its parks, builds hiking trails, constructs a skateboard bowl, offers youth recreation programs, and remodels a swimming pool might reasonably provide a larger golf course. In sum, these facilities and programs make Salida a better place to live, even if no one person uses them all, and many citizens want a larger golf course, too.

Thus the questions should be things like: Can Salida afford this? How much will it cost? What is the budget? How will we pay for it? Where should this course be? What is the best design?

Instead, in Salida, proponents argue that the merchants support this and that the merchants are the responsible, hard-working people who bring money into Salida, whereas opponents are anti-growth, anti-progress, backward-thinking dinosaurs. Whereas on the other hand, opponents charge that proponents are rich, elitists who expect the poor to pay for expanding their expensive playground.

But when issues like this get raised, the discussion moves away from the real issues at hand — the questioner becomes the issue, as was explained in a fine book about the debate over gambling a decade ago in Central City (Riches and Regrets, by Patricia A. Stokowski):

THE RELEVANT POLITICAL PROCESS is known as “diversionary reframing,” and “as a campaign proceeds, claimants on one side of the debate divert attention from their critics’ concerns by reframing the discussion around other topics … [such as] the legitimacy of, and the values held by, the opponents themselves. The result of such a process is that the campaign becomes less about the real issue (the merits or problems of gambling development) and more about the political beliefs of potential opponents (`They just want our community to remain impoverished!’). Under such circumstances, values become central, negativism escalates, and objectivity about real issues related to development disappears.”

Repeatedly Salidans have asked about the terms of any agreement with the Division of Wildlife, and just how a golf-course expansion would be financed. And instead of answers, they hear that they are against prosperity and in favor of building a medieval wall around the city. Thus this golf course proposal is disintegrating into yet another fight about who’s who, who’s got the power, and who can manipulate the city government.

Yet even if nine new holes are built — if a private course does arrive in Chaffee County, or if projected growth in our valley doesn’t meet expectations — the Salida Golf Club may need money from the city.

And that could require a vote.

So all we can say is — it really would be best to refrain from alienating any more citizens.

— Martha and Ed Quillen