Sunday Profile: Retiring Carbondale public works chief can get active now
Larry Ballenger, recently retired after 18 years as Carbondale’s public works director, says he’s not at all fearful that his quirky town is going to lose it’s character anytime soon. And now that he’s not a town employee, he’ll have a thing or two to say about Carbondale’s politics and direction.
A native of the Midwest, Ballenger put down roots in Carbondale after a bit of bouncing around. Before coming to the public works department his MO was typically to spend about five years at a job and move on.
But when he came to Carbondale, he settled in.
He was an avid runner while living in the Midwest. His first move to Colorado took him to the Denver area, where he picked up cycling. And with a competitive nature, he eventually gravitated toward racing professionally.
After competing in numerous junior teams, he was offered a spot on the MetLife cycling team. And that passion played into why he’s stuck around Carbondale.
Ballenger said he ended up staying in Carbondale because of all the recreational opportunities: cycling, hiking, fly fishing on the Crystal River outside his back door.
“The recreational experiences available to everyone here are just phenomenal. The community offers everything, the small-town atmosphere and attitude. I feel Carbondale is going to maintain that small-town attitude.”
He’d also worked in Aspen for an earlier five-year stint as the director of water resources.
“It was a great time in Aspen. This was in the ‘90s when it was evolving from the Aspen of old to the Aspen it is now,” he said.
Ballenger said he’d always dreamed of the mountain man lifestyle, but Aspen’s politics and government “just drove me nuts.”
“Working between Aspen and Pitkin County, Aspen wanted to utilize their water resources to control what went on in Pitkin County around the city of Aspen.”
So he eventually left to work in Tucson, Arizona, for a few years and later got the job in Carbondale.
“I don’t see Carbondale losing its character at all,” said Ballenger, though this has been a point of anxiety that some have voiced during recent elections.
The residents are too involved, vocal and protective of their town to allow that to happen, he said.
When Ballenger first came to the public works department, the phrase “maintaining messy vitality” was being used in Aspen. And while Carbondale has done a good job with that concept, “Aspen lost that years ago,” he said.
“Carbondale has always fought growth and will continue to fight growth.”
The town is looking at the third iteration of what’s going to happen with the City Market proposal after residents rejected two previous development proposals, he said.
Even with the current City Market proposal, “the community is going to continue to have a strong say in what that area evolves into.”
Ballenger is optimistic about the new City Market becoming a regional grocery store and becoming a major addition to the town.
Likewise, the community had strong voices opposed to a Colorado Department of Transportation plan to make a four-lane highway out of the Colorado 133 corridor with a raised median. “That would essentially bisect our town.”
The community was very vocal in giving a flat-out no, and Carbondale successfully petitioned against those plans, he said.
The current discussion on public safety following two assaults on women in town this summer is another example of the community’s intense investment and involvement in their town, said Ballenger, though he doesn’t see Carbondale as unsafe for pedestrians.
“Most of the big changes around town have been community-driven.”
Having watched the evolution of the town council over 18 years, Ballenger said he’s very optimistic about the current Board of Trustees and harps on the great mix of leadership on the board.
That’s especially true, he says, because the ancillary boards and commissions have evolved to provide more and more input. “What started off as small citizen driven groups eventually became bona fide appointed commissions, such as the Bikes, Pedestrians and Trails Commission.”
When Ballenger started with the town, the government was much more mayor-trustee centered, he said. But citizen groups have evolved into Carbondale’s numerous commissions and have taken on more influential roles.
The members of the community are passionate about their town, and they’re willing give up their time to serve on these commissions, he said.
“And now they provide tremendous input to the Board of Trustees, much of which drives our budget today,” he said.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve always been an employee of the town, and as an employee you can’t be too vocal about the politics of town.
“But I’m going to be in the future. I’m gong to be quite vocal about many things that need to occur in Carbondale.”
First on Ballenger’s mind is to advocate for a tax to fund Carbondale’s capital improvements.
In the April election voters soundly rejected such a tax, and Ballenger says that’s because the town didn’t sell it well enough. And as public works director, he couldn’t legally go out and advocate for it himself.
“But there’s a tremendous need for that tax for maintenance and improvements. I will be a vocal advocate of that in the future.”
“We’re never going to have the commercial tax base to support infrastructure development and maintenance. So we’re going to have to tax ourselves to support our infrastructure, which is going to be a tough sell to the community.
“You’re not going to see me ride into the sunset.”
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