The Request for Proposal (RFP) the Basalt government sent out in December 2018 with the intent of soliciting bids to update the town’s master plan contained several references to “Our Town,” a grassroots effort that ran from 2012 to 2014.
Verily, the RFP contained at least a half-dozen references to Our Town. Those references directed companies responding to the RFP to incorporate past municipal planning efforts into their proposals. At least five of the eight firms that responded to the RFP, including the outfit that eventually was awarded the master plan update contract — CTA Group/Connect One Design — mentioned Our Town in their proposals.
So, two questions naturally arise: What exactly what was Our Town? And what happened to it?
To answer those questions, the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal initiated what turned out to be a month-long email back-and-forth with two of the main Our Town players:
- Jim Kent, whose firm, JKA Group, was contracted through the Basalt town government to run Our Town, was the manager of the program from the conceptual side.
- Steve Chase, who held several gatherings in his home during the input-gathering stage of Our Town.
Conspicuously absent from this dialogue is Mike Scanlon, Basalt’s ex-town manager, who both Kent and Chase credit as having been the driving force throughout Our Town’s multi-year life. Several attempts were made via email and voicemail, as well as via soliciting third-party intercession, to get comments from Scanlon. He did not respond to any of those attempts.
As well, Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt was asked almost exactly the same questions as Kent and Chase. Her response via email was: “This was a few years ago and I have few memories of the details. The outcome seemed vague and some thought contrived. Staff may have more documented info regarding your questions.” That response was cc’d to Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney, who did not take up his current position until June 2017 — well after Our Town ended.
For those whose schedules might not allow sticking with this Q&A narrative to its end, in a nutshell, Our Town was a citizen-initiated effort that culminated in a report, titled “Our Town Planning: A Report on Informal Networks” and a series of recommendations to the Basalt town government regarding the development options of three proximate parcels of land — the much ballyhooed Pan and Fork parcel, the Clark’s Market parcel (referred to later in this story as the Town Center parcel) and the parcel where town hall, the Art Base and the Basalt Area Chamber of Commerce are located.
Input from more than 1,200 citizens was distilled into a series of architectural renderings depicting potential integrated development ideas for those parcels. That input overwhelmingly suggested that a density-based development be placed upon the portion of the Pan and Fork property most often called the CDC parcel — 2.3 acres of seemingly endless acrimony located next to the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Herein are the questions, along with intertwined follow-ups, posed to Kent and Chase regarding Our Town. Understand that these had to be condensed, as the full responses would have filled a book.
RFWJ: What exactly was Our Town?
Kent: When it came time to look at three major parcels — Pan and Fork, the old Clark’s market site and Lion’s Park — in Old Town, it was decided to extend the social capital process into what became known as Our Town. The basic idea was to engage the residents of Basalt in a grassroots process that had them define the design of the future use of those parcels. In order to insure that people were heard, it was decided to use neighborhood chat sessions, held in people’s homes. A second process was to have a drop-in Citizens’ Center — located in the 3 Bears Building — which owner Norm and Laura Clasen generously donated for this use — where people could come in at any time and draw pictures on blank board that had the three parcel areas whited out. The Citizen Center became a hit. It became a gathering place, where people would drop by to check on the process, have a cup of coffee and have face-to-face discussions with their neighbors. Bill Maron, now Planning Commission chair, ran the program. I suspect that is why Our Town was included in the current master plan update RFP. In the end we had over 1,400 drawings from kids to seniors and everyone in between. Incredible ideas were generated and pasted on the walls. When you came into the Three Bears Building room, you could just feel the energy. There was a movement to keep the Citizen Center open, which was an excellent idea, but the “formal system” was a bit threatened by the citizen energy and decided that it should go away.
RFWJ: What was your role/involvement with the Our Town process?
Kent: My company, the JKA Group, was contracted through the town to run the Our Town planning process. I was the manager of the program from the conceptual side.
Chase: I was one of several people who had gatherings at my home to explore several options for what was to be the “commercial portion” of the Pan and Fork property as designated by the previous master plan. After the property was cleared [of the existing trailer park], the request came from the town council and Mike Scanlon for public input. A professional planner — Jim Kent — was assigned to the project, along with Bill Moran, who I believe was the head of P&Z at the time. It seemed peculiar to me at the time that the members of the council were discouraged from participating
RFWJ: How did the Our Town process get started?
Kent: The original idea was almost like over a beer. Scanlon was new to his job and some of us were concerned that he was not getting to the people, wasn’t hearing the people. I think it was Gino Rosetti who had the idea first. Why not set up a process called “Breakfast with Mike,” an informal gathering and meet at the pavilion in Arbaney Park, where folks could come and talk over their concerns and issues and dreams with Mike? We could also hear from Mike what his plans were, what he was concerned with and what he wanted to accomplish. This was the beginning of Our Town. Susan Philp [Basalt’s planning director] made sure that there were coffee and donuts at the pavilion at 8 a.m. every Wednesday. Many folks joined us and it became an event to look forward to. The key was that it was informal and anyone could come. I think we had eight of these breakfasts and Mike loved them, as did the citizens. People loved it — informal conversation about our town (Our Town).
Parallel to “Breakfast with Mike” were other informal efforts. Tom Lankering, a therapist in town, began having a lunch gathering in the plaza at River Walk every Tuesday. Soon, there was talk about making these gatherings a core part of town planning. From the core group, a discussion ensued on how best to expand the richness of the face-to-face gatherings to a broader audience. An informal group gathered with Mike to talk about how to accomplish this. It was Paul Andersen who came up with the idea of blotting out in white the three parcels that were available for development and having the people draw in their ideas in each parcel about what they saw as a future Basalt. Mike and the group decided that we should try to get the large ground floor space in the Three Bears Building. Norm and Laura made the ground floor available to us for our project. They have both been huge supporters of Basalt and influencers in the Our Town process.
My theory of informal networking was used to open the Citizen Center and to hold Chat Sessions. Scanlon found the resources that were needed for JKA, my team, to run the program. We opened the doors at noon and kept them open until 6 or 7 o’clock. The room became a gathering place with incredible discussions and interactive dynamics. I recruited Bill Maron, who was on the town payroll, to manage the program. We launched with a community gathering at Bill Kane’s house, with the mission of introducing the idea of citizens filling in the three parcels. That gathering had most of Riverside Drive there, as well as others who had been contacted. I believe there were 40-plus people at the first gathering. From this gathering is where we got the idea of having informal Chat Sessions in the various Basalt neighborhoods, in people’s homes. These were a complement to the Citizen Center activities. About 20 Chat Sessions were held in neighborhood homes. Extensive notes were taken on a flip chart detailing the discussions. These notes became a part of the rich record of citizen ideas about the town. New candidates for town council would attend these session.
Chase: Many of us were involved early on with the process of supporting the efforts to define the future of the [Pan and Fork] property. We were the “Friends of the Fork.” Once an acceptable solution was reached for the residents of the trailer park and the land reclamation had begun, the word went out to begin that process.
RFWJ: What was its goal?
Chase: The goal was to reach a consensus as to what services would be desirable and how much of a footprint should be developed versus how much open space to integrate with the Pan and Fork parcel. Early on, there was substantial enthusiasm for a “boutique hotel,” but of course, not by everyone.
Kent: There were two goals. One was to produce an integrated design for the three parcels via a unique citizen interactive process, which we called Our Town. The secondary goal was to build the process from an informal networking base, from the ground up, where people shared on a daily basis their ideas and would drop into the Citizen Center to record them or update their drawings.
RFWJ: How did the process play out?
Chase: In addition to the private home meetings, there was, in fact, a storefront donated by Norm Clasen, that continued to accept public comments and was a center for both rough and professional renderings that the public could view at any time. There were notices and posters in the window to attract public input and it was frequently attended by each of us. The location was open and attended for several months. At that point, it was pretty much a clear palette. No further direction was given.
Kent: The citizens were in charge of the ideas creation, trying them out, drawing them and discussing them in relation to other ideas. It was a totally interactive process, where even a sledding area was suggested for the hill by the high school. There were ideas all over the place. Big drawings, little drawings, people bringing in their design work. Geno Rossetti, an internationally famous architect who lives on Riverside Drive, and another social capital practitioner, worked with a group of students to design the whole area around the old City Market. It was an amazing design, with water flows, creative solutions to old problems. This was one of seven major designs that emerged out of the process. Designers and architects on their own accord and on their own nickel came in with their own ideas. One had designed the whole town into a railroad motif. Incredible. A report on the process was written, with pictures of the visioning. Several of the projects are already done.
RFWJ: How much money was spent on Our Town and where did that money come from?
Kent: I think the total amount spent over about two years was $50,000. It came from the town government via Mike Scanlon.
RFWJ: How did the Our Town process end?
Kent: The Our Town planning team wanted to have a program where the seven architects and design firms that participated would come back into the storefront [at the 3 Bears Building]. They were to look at the 1,200 drawings and integrate them into a design. Each would do their own design. The town would pay them for their work — about $5,000. The seven designs created from the citizen drawings would then be presented back to the citizens. A “best design” would be selected or parts from all of the designs would be integrated into a single new design. Once this process was done, there would be a great celebration and recognition of the citizens and their energy that went into designing their own town.
What happened is that this empowerment process that had involved over half of Basalt citizens was usurped by formalizing the final stage. So, instead of taking it to the natural conclusion as we saw it, a formal group was formed to make final decisions. This was a disconnect of major proportions. Formal groups will become ideological and political, while informal networks remain issue and caretaking centered. The group that was formed was no different from the millions of formal groups that get formed without citizen engagement. It got political and ideological and created a fight that continues to this day. The Our Town people are still there in their networks, waiting to emerge once more when the process and timing is right. Once informal networks are energized, they remain operating. Right now they are invisible and underground in Basalt, but they are there. Rick Stevens is an example of this. What is needed is another “Our Town” process to bring them out once again.
Chase: By my recollection, there was an architectural firm that collated all of the renderings and recommendations and came up with three representative layouts, with one representing the most input. By projecting the “blocks” depicted, it was easy to determine how much of a footprint would be acceptable. The specific designation for each of these blocks was not yet a part of the plan, but the discussions continued.
Kent: From the beginning, the mayor was not supportive of the process. For all the time that the Citizen Center was open, she did not once drop in to see what “her citizens” were designing and creating. Herschel Ross (who was a frequent visitor), Rick Stevens (who understood the magic of the citizen engagement process), Glenn Rappaport (architect) visited, but the mayor — never. What co-opted Our Town was the formation of the formal group — the Downtown Area Advisory Committee (DAAC) — essentially to design implementation strategies. They immediately became ideological with a small core focusing on taking two of the parcels — the Town Center and what is now the CDC river parcel — and making a park out of all the land. Out of 1,200 designs from Our Town, there was only one citizen that made those two parcels into a park. ONE! The mayor, with her ideological group, co-opted the citizen process, uncoupling it from the DAAC. Once uncoupled, and not representative of the 1,200 citizen drawings, there began a separate process of power brokers trying to impose their will, subverting the Our Town findings. Essentially, as the battles formed in the formal system, the citizens of Our Town went underground, keeping the ideas alive in their networks. Those ideas are still in the networks and are alive and well these four years later …
RFWJ: What were some of the most important conclusions reached by the Our Town process?
Kent: That citizens are entirely capable of participating in their governance if the formal government acts as a support to those efforts. Citizens awakening is just around the corner. These processes fluctuate. When the informal systems are in alignment with the formal, all kinds of great things happen. When they are at odds, as is now the case, there is no progress. When a government becomes oppressive, the informal networks go underground, but are still there. They will arise again when the oppression is removed or they have to remove the oppressors.
Chase: The conclusion(s) were best shown in the renderings with an explanation by the architectural firm. The 2.3 acres fronting on Two Rivers Road would be developed for commercial purposes, though their respective identities were left vague. Nonetheless, it began as a roadmap for a developer and/or land planner as far as density was concerned. In spite of months of public input, there was never any serious discussion brought forth about leaving the property open for additional park space.
RFWJ: Whatever happened to Our Town, and why?
Kent: It got co-opted by having the end of the process formalized. The natural extension of the storefront and chat sessions was to have their ideas represented in a design competition where they could see their singular ideas integrated into a town plan by the seven firms and from that, a final project would have emerged and citizens would have owned the process to the end and be empowered. That was subverted and the process short circuited.
There was little if any expressed support from the mayor except for some photo ops. It was several months before a vocal opposition began to respond following the published options of the planning process. Whitsett was involved in organizing the opposition. Bottom line — the input [from the citizens involved in Our Town] was ignored, as we see in [the town council’s] inability to agree on nearly anything for years.
Chase: Following the release of the architectural renderings, a questionnaire was sent out to all residents of Basalt. I don’t know who wrote the document, but one question I do remember was: “I would like a hotel — regardless of size.” This was typical of trying to beg the question and, in this case, pandering to a potentially inflammatory issue. Following the questionnaire, each council member was invited to appoint a citizen to participate in yet another layer of public input. That gave rise to the DTAC, of which I had been selected for, as well. There were participants from “both sides” of the issues that had arisen and we met several times. Paul Andersen was selected as the non-partisan moderator. At that point, the town wanted us to map out future development, not just for the Pan and Fork but for the “Clark’s Market” property as well. Though there were a couple of professionals included in our group, most were just non-professional citizens of the community. This is where the “View Plane” or “Big V” was born. It was done out of some attempt to reconcile other issues, though it was clear that a pedestrian could not/cannot see the flowing river from town or the Clark’s Market property.
Kent: Our Town never just dried up and blew away. It remained a part of the governing process until Mike Scanlon left. Scanlon got some of it incorporated into the Basalt Master Plan.
RFWJ: Since several aspects of Our Town were integrated into Basalt’s Master Plan, it makes it seem from the sidelines that it was at least partially successful.
Kent: You are not missing anything here. The ideas were strong and, as the Master Plan was developed, many of them found their way into the plan, via the necessity of addressing citizen issues from Our Town. After all, Our Town was the definitive work that produced the issues for a redesign of Basalt. This adoption supports the point that the ideas from Our Town are alive and well, just invisible, just below the surface, but still vibrant.
RFWJ: Along those same lines, the RFP for the master plan update process that is now underway clearly stipulates that CTA/Connect One integrate on some level components of Our Town. Again, this seems from the sidelines like Our Town still lives and breathes.
Kent: There are folks who would like to declare Our Town Planning results dead, but that is not the case. The folks that are moving into key positions, such as the Planning Commission Chair Bill Maron, were a critical part of the Our Town process, understood its importance and its power of the ideas. There are others, as well, that are in the administrative system — not the political system — implementing the ideas. A distinction needs to be made between the political/elected system, which is highly dysfunctional, and the administrative system that must carry out improving the well-being and quality of life for the Basalt citizens. Over one half of Basalt citizens participated in Our Town, including kids of all ages. There are great pictures of Mike Scanlon and Susan Philp holding sessions with elementary school kids. Both of them participated very excitedly in the Our Town process. We would hold our planning sessions, with Scanlon and Philp in the Citizen Center. It was a totally transparent process of citizen creations.
RFWJ: There was some sort of petition process in reaction to Our Town, one that sought to overturn Our Town’s conclusions? What was that all about?
Kent: This was a political petition run by the mayor. In situations where members of the political electeds are threatened by a citizen movement, they often organize to discredit those efforts. Over half of the 400 signatures on that petition were from the mayor’s network outside of Basalt.
Chase: Taking a photograph of the Element Hotel with 110 rooms was the lead into the [petition’s] attempt to fear-monger the potential signatories. It was suggesting that “the other” wanted to build such an edifice on the Pan and Fork parcel.
Kent: [Jacque] certainly quashed the implementation [of Our Town], as the citizens had designed the three parcels. She brought in her Aspen network of cronies to try and strong arm the purchase of the CDC parcel for a park, eliminating the designs that the citizens had for that parcel. She gained control of the DAAC to do her work. And you can look at the parcel to see the quality of her work. Our Town did not and has not fizzled out. The Citizen Center did not survive, but the process is still alive and well in the hearts and souls of Basalt folks. The formals like Jacque would like people to think is fizzled, but that is a myth.”
RFWJ: What are your dominant retrospective memories of the Our Town process?
Kent: That Basalt citizens have the energy, integrity and fortitude to design their own town plans if the formal system is smart enough to enable this to start and then get out of the way. We have a saying in my business: “Never, ever start a process with a formal meeting.”
Chase: In the beginning, I thought it was fabulous! The handwriting on the wall came after the first “result” was made public and the council/mayor began to add the additional layers of public input on top, until they/she got the result they were looking for. I suspect the dynamic between the town manager and the mayor was responsible for both developing the process and finally undermining the results. So, in retrospect, it was a total waste of time — a mere ploy to appear to be transparent and inclusive. So, the town manager, who had enormous support in the community, is gone and the CDC property lies fallow. The CDC waits to recover its investment and Old Town Basalt is a mere shadow of what it could have been.
RFWJ: Anything else we’re overlooking?
Kent: If Our Town were not alive and well the CDC and Town Center parcels would be park right now. They have tried for 11 years to get those parcels into a park, to no avail. One reason it has never happened is that there were no citizen designs for the CDC parcel to be a park.
Resistance to the park ideas has been strong and steady. With the mayor’s bunch in council, you would think that this park accomplishment would be done by now. Our Town stands in the way. That is why the formal planning process is going back to the unrelenting power of what took place with citizens during that creative time. The ideas are still alive and well. Once a citizen has put down an idea and owns it, it is there forever. Politicians have a hard time understanding that.
I want to give a shout out to Mike Scanlon, who is a believer in citizen engagement and carried the ideas from Our Town forward in all of his administrative actions. Jacque could not stand the fact that Mike was putting many of the Our Town issues into resolution, so he had to go.
If you want a metaphor for what the political system has produced, just look at the CDC site. It is deplorable, as was the move to violate the citizen mandates from Our Town.
Ugly breeds ugly.