Town and TSRC Go Back to the Drawing Board, Both Hoping to Secure Deal
TELLURIDE – Negotiations between the Town of Telluride and the Telluride Science Research Center, TSRC, have hit a sticking point. In late May, TSRC received general approval from the Telluride Town Council to enter into a public/private partnership with the TSRC to secure a lease agreement for the construction of a world-class science center in the heart of town.
However, at a recent work session with the council at Rebekah Hall on August 6, negotiations over ownership rights to the proposed structure halted. Council and TSRC both say, however, that they are hopeful they can collaborate and reach an agreement.
TSRC hopes the town will lease the parcel currently occupied by YouthLink, a community children’s center that closed in June 2011 due to budget restraints but that still functions as a public skateboard park, and a portion of the Marshal’s Office, for a steeply discounted cost and lengthy lease of $10 per year on a 99-year lease. With that lot, TSRC would begin an aggressive fundraising campaign to pay for construction and maintenance of the research campus.
Blueprints for the building include a 200-person auditorium, large classrooms, a community room, café and housing for staff and scientists in residence.
If built, the envisioned $20-million 30,000-35,000 square-foot structure would be the world’s first non-governmental, non-academic molecular science facility. TSRC, a nonprofit organization that opened in Telluride in 1984, does not have a headquarters that accommodates the innovative research, and discussions that are necessary to make TSRC a leader in this increasingly vital field.
At the work session, TSRC Executive Director Nana Naisbitt, accompanied by TSRC’s attorney Nicole Pieterse, said that the town would not incur any costs associated with constructing or maintaining the structure.
The town, however, wishes to strike an agreement similar to what it has with the Telluride Fire Protection District. In 1997, the town leased TFPD the public land on which its Telluride Fire Station (and district offices) sit for $10 a year on a 99-year lease. The town owns the structure but none of the assets or equipment inside the building. Mayor Stu Fraser has suggested entering into a similar deal with TSRC.
But Naisbitt and Pieterse view town ownership of the structure as a threat to fundraising capabilities. “Our fundraising experts tell us that town ownership of the structure is a nonstarter. People who donate to these sorts of endeavors do so for emotional as well as intellectual reasons,” Naisbitt said.
“They want to give to a nonprofit, not a municipal-owned building,” Naisbitt added.
The town, however, hopes to own the TSRC structure for fiscal and legal reasons. For one, Town officials fear a hypothetical disaster: if TSRC were suddenly no longer able to operate, the research center’s debts would fall on the town’s already strained balance sheet.
Naisbitt and Pieterse, an attorney with real estate, land use and business law experience, said that TSRC could tailor the lease agreement to prevent a transfer of liabilities to Telluride taxpayers. Fraser and town attorney Kevin Geiger said they preferred to stick with precedent of the town owning the structure. “By doing this, there are no concerns on our part,” said Fraser.
Assuming the ownership issue is solved, TSRC also requested multiple waivers, which include water and sewer fees, taxes and mitigation costs. Town officials calculate that if each variance was sought and accepted by the town, the waiver fees could exceed $4 million.
Town Manager Greg Clifton was reluctant to estimate the amount of money requested by TSRC in variances, saying, “It is truly hard to quantify at this time.”
While the Council only briefly discussed TSRC’s waiver requests at its August 6 meeting, Building Director Michelle Haynes told The Watch that the waiver request was unusual. “This scope of waivers has never been requested to my knowledge.
“If TSRC is not paying the fees associated with development, then yes, the town of Telluride would absorb these costs,” Haynes added.
While the requested waiver fees account for a small fraction of the Telluride’s budget, the town is still operating under the Town Recession Plan, an arrangement of austere fiscal policies implemented in the last quarter of 2008, in an effort to reduce spending and weather the effects of the 2008 recession.
Both parties remain optimistic the problems can be resolved, and TSRC and the town will continue discussing the lease agreement. Naisbitt is hopeful the negotiations will proceed and the research campus will be built on the YouthLink parcel on the corner between South Willow Street and East Pacific Avenue. “We’ve been in discussions with the town for years and everyone understands the benefits this research center could have for the town,” said Naisbitt.
Mayor Fraser agrees, “We want to see this happen. Everyone does. It’s a wonderful thing for the economy and the town, so we really believe that it’s a good thing. There’s no doubt about this.”
The earliest TSRC and council could discuss the lease is September 17, as TSRC representatives cannot appear at the next council meeting on August 27 due to scheduling conflicts.
Michael Martelon, president and CEO of the Telluride Tourism Board, outlined the direct and total impact of economic benefits the proposed research center offers Telluride. Martelon pointed out that TSRC has already been an economic engine for Telluride, saying that in 2012, TSRC has provided Telluride with approximately $4.5 million in total economic impact by attracting 1,200 scientists, half of which bring family members with them to Telluride.
These scientists, he said, often visit during the off-season, occupying accommodations, filling restaurants and purchasing from local retailers. Martelon’s data suggest that a dedicated TSRC headquarters would increase these numbers, keeping shopkeepers busy and help fill town coffers.
In addition to increased economic activity, Martelon said another intangible benefit to a dedicated TSRC headquarters would be an increase in intellectual capital from the world-renowned scientists that would gather in Telluride. “[TSRC’s] cultural and intellectual significance should not be underestimated,” Martelon said.
Sadams@watchnewspapers.com or tweet @samuelcoyeadams