TELLURIDE – The Telluride Town Council agreed Tuesday to consider selling a $4 million land parcel to the Telluride Science Research Center. The sale, if agreed upon by both parties, would sidestep the current legal differences between TSRC and council regarding ownership rights of improvements built on town-owned land.
The council passed no formal resolution during the Tuesday work session, but the apparent agreement to consider sell the land outright, rather than entering into a long-term lease, comes after negotiations between TSRC and the town hit a sticking point in early August.
TSRC, a nonprofit organization that works in the burgeoning field of molecular science research, has long eyed an undeveloped parcel at the corner of East Pacific Avenue and Spruce Street as an ideal location on which to build a world-class research facility. The lot is currently occupied by a community children’s center (that closed in 2011 due to budget constraints), a public skateboard park and a portion of the Telluride Marshals Office.
TSRC originally sought from the town a $10-a-year, 99-year lease for the parcel, with ownership of the facility it would construct on the property. With that lease, TSRC would begin an aggressive $22-million fundraising campaign to pay for construction and maintenance of the research campus, complete with a 200-person auditorium, large classrooms, a community room, a café, and housing for staff and scientists in residence.
But even after council expressed unanimous support and enthusiasm for TSRC’s pursuit of town land in October 2011, negotiations stalled last month, when the town on ownership of any structure built on the lot. Town attorney Kevin Geiger argued in August that the town had arranged a similar deal with the Telluride Fire Protection District by leasing it land for $10 a year for 99 years; Telluride owns the structures built there, but nothing inside them.
On Tuesday, Geiger cited examples of similar land and ownership deals between non-governmental entities and governments outside Telluride, which include an airport, museums and a zoo in Denver, Boulder and Norwood.
Geiger said TSRC ownership of the improvements on the lot could create a precedent that could lead to other nonprofits asking the town for similar deals, a scenario Geiger argued should be prevented, to preserve the town’s shrinking land bank.
TSRC Executive Director Nana Naisbitt countered Geiger’s arguments, saying her research found that nonprofit ownership of structures on town-owned land are not unusual; she listed several examples in Mt. Crested Butte, Aspen and Vail.
“This is a non-starter,” Naisbitt said in August, in rejecting town ownership of the structure, which she reiterated at the Tuesday work session.
Naisbitt, along with TSRC attorney Nicole Pieterse, said that town ownership would hinder the nonprofit’s fundraising capabilities, citing feedback from potential donors who signaled almost no desire to contribute to building a town-owned facility.
Council’s willingness to consider selling TSRC the land presents a new path toward a possible agreement between TSRC and the town, but Naisbitt noted that it would present a formidable financial obstacle for the organization. The $4 million cost of the land would add to TSRC’s fundraising goal of $22 million, a figure TSRC estimates is the cost of constructing the envisioned campus.
“It’s a hugely difficult fundraising effort, because asking donors to contribute to purchase land is intrinsically difficult, and entering re-negotiations for a complicated lease-to-buy option, is, in effect, starting all over again,” said Nasbitt.
Audrey Marnoy, a career philanthropist and one of TSRC’s first non-scientist board members, echoed Nasbitt’s prophecy of fundraising challenges, saying that the TSRC board could not embark on a capital campaign if the town owned the facility.
If built, the research campus would bring economic and cultural benefits to the Telluride community, said Naisbitt. TSRC already generates $5 million annually in economic activity, and would, she said, generate $15 million more each year with a new facility. She quoted Mike Munno, manager of the Camel’s Garden Hotel, referring to the scientists TSRC attracts each year to its conferences in Telluride: “They keep coming. They even out the recession years. They even out the weeks.”
“This year, we attracted 1,200 scientists plus many family members, next year is already looking larger,” said Naisbitt, adding that these scientists and their families occupy hotels, fill restaurants and purchase many other goods and services in Telluride.
Members of council have not questioned the the benefits that could come from a world-class research facility headquartered in the heart of Telluride. The point of dispute for council and TSRC has been over ownership of the facility.
“We have land, we need to do something with it,” councilor Bob Saunders said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s not doing any good by just sitting there. I would be embarrassed if we backed off from how excited we were in October .”
“Precedent is certainly important, but so is diversifying the economy,” said councilor Thom Carnevale.
Carnevale later cautioned that Telluride’s land bank is shrinking, and noted that the town already leverages many of its assets, having borrowed against them to support existing programs and policies.
Councilor Brian Werner took a more blunt approach, saying, “It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.” Werner later questioned Geiger’s stance to let precedence guide the town’s negotiation, saying that the previous agreements the town has with the fire district are fundamentally different because the two entities offer different services to the town.
Councilor Chris Myers supported the outright sale of the land to TSRC, saying that it would provide the organization with clarity, and later introduced the idea that the town could structure a sale with delayed payments, allowing TSRC space and time to adequately fundraise and plan.
Naisbitt, speaking for TSRC and its board, said the organization was willing to pursue the new direction, and council directed town staff to begin drafting purchase agreements for the land while the two organizations maintain dialog and negotiations.