Lamar pulling itself up by its bootstraps
By PABLO CARLOS MORA
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
Editor's note: The Pueblo Chieftain is taking a detailed look at life along the Lower Arkansas Valley, both the big communities and the smaller towns that make up Southeastern Colorado.
LAMAR - It’s hard not to feel a little isolated way out in the flatlands of Prowers County.
After all, the nearest town of 100,000-plus people is Pueblo, some 110 miles to the west. At some 8,500 people, the city serves as the regional hub of a far-flung ranching and farming community and is trying hard to serve diverse and even divergent needs.
City Administrator Ron Stock can reel off a list of all the economic development activities the city is pursuing, including a downtown urban renewal district, efforts to recruit new industry, a buy-local campaign and a regional tourism drive plus other promising activities. However, he said he can’t help but feel a little neglected. “For all the help we’ve received from the state, we might as well be a part of Kansas,” Stock said. “We need $5 million in water projects and $5 million for wastewater. I asked for (federal) stimulus money from the state and didn’t get any of it.
“Go across the border to Garden City, Kan. Take a look at the demographics,” he said. “In 1965, Garden City and Lamar were the same size, roughly 8,500 residents.
“Now Garden City has 24,000 residents while we have lost population.”
Stock, trained as a lawyer, bounced around the country from Florida to Aspen and many stops in between before deciding on Lamar.
He said he was drawn to Lamar by its small-town sensibilities.
“I grew up in a small, rural community in Minnesota. Lamar felt comfortable,” he said.
“City Council wanted a change agent. I tend to ruffle feathers,” he said.
A case in point is the debate over the urban renewal district.
“The Prowers County commissioners passed a resolution labeling the creation of such a district ‘socialism’ and criticizing its creation as an admission we have blight,” Stock said. “I was called a liberal, which is worse than a socialist.
“There is a significant group in the community who are afraid change will be for the worse.”
Prowers County Commissioner Gene Millbrand has another take on the exchange over the urban renewal district, which was approved by the Lamar City Council last Monday.
“We are not against economic development, not against an urban renewal district and not against the city,” Millbrand said. “We have numerous intergovernmental agreements in place that accomplish the same things as an urban renewal authority.”
Millbrand said the county had plainly outlined its objections to the district in a letter to the city.
“Take the new Holiday Inn Express (under construction). The county put up tax abatements for the company to locate here,” Millbrand said. “As a property in the county, we can tax it for its worth as a vacant lot, perhaps $100,000. When the hotel is complete, it will be worth $3.5 million, but it will be within the urban renewal district.
“That means tax revenue will accrue to the district, not the county, and we will not collect anything for the incentives.”
The county outlined its objections to the city, including concern over the proposed eminent domain powers the district would be given.
“Of the nine concerns we raised, perhaps four or five were addressed.”
Millbrand said despite the rough patch in city-county relations, both entities are committed to cooperative ventures to improve the region’s economic fortunes.
“Prowers County and the city of Lamar have numerous joint projects such as the seniors center, 911 board and city dump where we have put money on the table,” he said.
And the county is joining with five other counties - Bent, Baca, Otero, Crowley and Kiowa - in the Southeast Colorado Business Retention, Expansion and Attraction effort.
“Historically, smaller communities and counties rely on each other to survive,” Millbrand said.
Ron Stock agrees with that assessment.
He envisions a great city and county playing to their strengths in a time of economic upheaval.
“We are working on what we call the La Colonia (The Colony) project. In 1917-18, 3,000 Hispanic construction workers came into our community to build two factories,” Stock said. “Every resident had to contribute five adobe bricks for the Catholic church they built.
“I am trying to get money to renovate and restore the structure and highlight this part of our culture.”
A restored church might be one element of a multi-structure tourism center, he said.
“Lamar has a sizable Hispanic population. What better place is there to build on our culture? The church might anchor a complex with a restaurant and an art studio featuring traditional pottery,” Stock said. “This would be a great draw.”
The city is busy recruiting traditional industry but meeting considerable challenges, most tied to the nationwide recession:
ÊA Denver manufacturer of fiberglass trailers came to town and hired 12 workers. “Now they are down to one,” he said.
ÊBig R stores is moving its corporate headquarters to Pueblo, costing Lamar “about 30 jobs, fairly significant for a town our size.”
ÊDowntown businesses “are 75-percent renter occupied. What reason does a renter have to improve his property?” Stock asked.
“I am optimistic because there are a growing number of people truth-talking to each other about what they want Lamar to be,” he said. “When enough people are working on a goal, they will be successful.
“We’re cowboys. We always pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”