Mesa County commissioners contemplate defunding riverfront trail

Sharon Sullivan
Strive (formerly Mesa Developmental Services) staged a fund-raiser walk on the Riverfront Trail.
Submitted photo | Free Press

Mesa County Commissioners held a budget appeal meeting Wednesday to hear testimony from community members opposed to the county’s preliminary decision to cut funding for the Riverfront Commission. The county commissioners will finalize the budget Dec. 9.

For many years, both the county and Grand Junction have shared the cost — each contributing $17,000 — to support a part-time staff person and other costs associated with the quarter-century vision of redeveloping and reclaiming Mesa County’s riverfront property.

Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said she and fellow commissioner John Justman had elected to pull funding from the Riverfront Commission as other departments’ budgets have been cut, and she was unclear as to the duties of the Riverfront Commission’s coordinator Michelle Rohrbach.

During an earlier phone interview with the Free Press, Commissioner Steve Acquafresca disagreed with his colleagues’ proposal to cut funding for the Riverfront Commission.

“A part-time administrator has worked well,” Acquafresca said. “She organizes documents, sets meetings, organizes fundraisers, events.”

Her assistance with special occasions brings in money to the Riverfront Project, such as the recent Tour of the Moon cycling event that donated $10,000 to the Riverfront Commission.

An administrator has been in place through numerous county boards for 25-26 years, and to eliminate that position would greatly hamper the Riverfront Commission’s mission of improving the river corridor, Acquafresca added.

“The Grand Valley is reclaiming the Colorado River corridor. It’s a great community project. I’ve never heard opposition to it until this fall. Through good and bad economies, we’ve kept our nose to the grindstone,” the commissioner said.

“When it’s complete, it will be a one-of-a-kind riverfront trail in the nation.”

Pugliese said she is not against the trail, but she considers it a nonessential project during the current economic climate. She suggested the Riverfront Commission’s administrative duties could be handled by volunteers.

Riverfront Commission co-chair Brad Taylor said “anyone with a volunteer advisory board (like the Riverfront Commission) needs some staff assistance. Rohrbach also writes or assists with grant writing and has helped raise $328,000 in other funding,” Taylor added.

Former Grand Junction City Councilman Paul Nelson, who’s a former chair and Colorado Riverfront Foundation member, said the Riverfront Commission was created in times like these. Citizens were tired of hearing the moniker “Grand Junkyard.”

The Riverfront Project spearheaded the cleanup of what was once a toxic waste junkyard along the river.

As far as eliciting volunteers to do the administrative work, Nelson replied, “We use volunteers for every special event that we have. We have a huge volunteer base already.”

Grand Junction resident Ron Wilson called the Riverfront Trail “a jewel, on our valley floor.”

He said every parent he knows, including himself taught their kids to ride a bike on the riverfront trails.

“To give locals a place to recreate that doesn’t cost anything — that’s tremendous. It was all an industrial area reclaimed for public recreation.

“What that project gives back to this valley is enormous; it’s incalculable.”

Tom Burrows, also of Grand Junction, expressed a different opinion. He was at the courthouse Wednesday to convey his opposition to the county funding of the Riverfront Commission.

“I’m trying to get them canceled for other reasons. I want their budget to be zero,” Burrows said.

Burrows went on to say that the problem he has with “these people” is that they want to maximize the number of people on bikes, and that most don’t know how to ride safely. He repeatedly called them “incompetent.”

Another bystander, Mike Lentz said, “We have to assess what the Riverfront Trail brings to our community at this moment from a financial perspective. My position is we fund the Riverfront Trail if we can show significant economic impacts.”

At the end of the public hearing, Pugliese acknowledged the support for the riverfront and said that she now has more information than she’d had previously.

After the meeting, Commissioner John Justman wouldn’t say whether he was persuaded by the testimony to retain the county’s customary contribution toward the Riverfront’s administrative duties.

“I’m not going to say definitely yes, or definitely no,” Justman said.

On another Riverfront issue discussed at a county commissioner meeting Monday, Pugliese voted against the county awarding a contract to develop a “gap” of four miles of Riverfront Trail that would link already completed portions between Fruita and Grand Junction. She said she couldn’t justify funding the Riverfront Commission while cutting county budgets elsewhere.

“It’s not a community priority in my mind,” she said.

On that issue, Justman sided with Acquafresca in approving the contract to connect the completed trail portions.

If Mesa County had declined to fund 12 percent of the project, it would have been forced to return $2.9 million in Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) funding that had been secured for the project.

Returning the grant money would have made future GOCO grant acquisitions nearly impossible, said Acquafresca.

“GOCO has provided tens of millions of money over the years,” he said.

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