North Avenue to become University Boulevard? Not if a burgeoning group of opponents can stop it. Voters may get final say
The smiles on the faces of Marvin and Linda Cole grew wider as the engines revved louder.
At 73 and 70, respectively, the married couple of more than 50 years didn’t need to talk as the thundering classic cars brought back a flood of memories. They relished the sight of more than 100 people dressed in jeans and T-shirts who came out for a cruise at the Eastgate Shopping Center on a recent weekend.
The scene wasn’t so different from ones the Mesa couple shared in the 1960s.
This is the street where they first held hands and hugged in the back seat of a 1956 Ford. Like all their friends, they cruised North Avenue, crammed into cars to hit the $1 per carload specials at the Chief Drive-In and slurp root beer floats at A&W. It was a chance to see and be seen.
So to them, the thought of changing the street’s name, a 4-mile corridor where some of their best memories reside, is disheartening — even insulting.
“I don’t know why people come into our town and want to do these things,” Marvin Cole said, squeezing Linda’s hand during a cruise in support of keeping North Avenue’s name. “It’s history. If you get rid of it, it’s gone.”
In the nearly six weeks since the Grand Junction City Council voted 5-2 to change the name of North Avenue to University Boulevard, a deep, acrimonious division has formed in the community. On one side is a group of community and business leaders and economic development proponents who say the idea has been years in the making and could be a catalyst for growth and renewal in the dilapidated corridor.
On the other is a mixture of business owners, longtime residents and others who might not otherwise cross paths except for the deep nostalgia they have for the past and the street’s history, their concern that North Avenue proprietors will assume burdensome costs associated with the name change and their belief that citizens should have the final say on the matter.
To that end, they swiftly organized a petition drive to force a vote; the majority of city councilors have indicated they have no intention of reversing their decision. Under the city’s charter, petitioners have until early March to collect the signatures of 2,254 verified, registered city voters to get a question on the ballot. As of the end of last week, North Avenue backers had already collected about 6,000 signatures.
“I think we should have the right to vote on what we want,” Marvin Cole said, echoing a sentiment heard lately. “My tires will never roll down a street named University Boulevard.”
The Aug. 16 meeting at which councilors made the change didn’t hint at the uprising that soon followed. A few people on both sides of the issue testified before council. But as word spread of the vote, which will become effective in March, opponents of the decision rallied.
Organized by radio personality-turned social media marketer Mackenzie Dodge and sisters Trisa Mannion and Nancy Bennett, the group met with a few dozen people on a Saturday morning 10 days after the meeting to begin formulating a petition drive. Since then, group members have used public comment periods at council meetings to urge councilors to reconsider. The sessions are dominated by testimony from North Avenue business owners about the hassle of undergoing an address change. Others speak up, livid at the city for changing the name of a roadway without — in their eyes — sufficient public feedback.
A KeepNorth4Ever Facebook page has attracted more than 3,400 members. Some are journalists and bystanders simply keeping apprised of the issue. The vast majority, though, appear to be passionate defenders of the North Avenue moniker.
Dressed in “Keep North Avenue” T-shirts and baseball caps, volunteers maintain posts at businesses and events collecting signatures for their effort.
“They were furious they didn’t get a say,” said Victoria Wagner, an organizer collecting signatures, also a sister to Bennett and Mannion.
“It overtook my life. It’s been crazy,” she said about the work collecting signatures. “At Winefest people were jumping out of line to sign the petition. It shows you the passion people have ... it shocked me. Maybe there’s a sleeping giant that just got woken up here.”
During last Wednesday night’s council meeting, North Avenue supporters again packed City Hall, lining the back wall after the chairs filled. They nodded their heads, offered standing ovations and rounds of applause, and let out a whistle or two when people testified against the name change. They even applauded those who spoke on other topics.
Ron Arellano was one of those speakers. The North Avenue property owner said he didn’t initially think the name change was a big deal. A switch would not personally cost him much.
But he said he started to think about the thousands of dollars in costs some business owners claim they would incur for altering advertising, websites, letterhead and business cards, among other expenses.
At $8,000 for 100 businesses, for example, the cost would run $800,000, Arellano said. That price tag is much steeper than the city paying $35,000 to $45,000 to put the issue to a vote.
“My concern is the way that you folks made this change,” he told councilors, saying the issue should have been better advertised. “... I believe that you should have known something like this would be controversial and even divisive.”
Arellano, along with others who have left voicemails and emails for councilors, pleaded with councilors to reconsider or rescind their decision. When Arellano finished speaking, most of the people in the packed auditorium stood and cheered.
CHANGE VS. NOSTALGIA
The debate over the name change has taken on an us-versus-them tone, with North Avenue supporters casting themselves as “natives” or near-natives of the Grand Valley while casting — accurately in some cases, inaccurately in others — those in favor of University Boulevard as non-natives or newcomers.
North Avenue name supporter Teresa Black, a military veteran and a former director of Grand Junction’s homeless shelter, hit on the divide between the groups during a roughly nine-minute video on the KeepNorth4Ever Facebook page. The video was only partially played at Wednesday’s council meeting because of the city’s five-minute limit on public comments.
Black says she’s not small-minded, backward-thinking or against progress — the labels some people have applied to North Avenue name supporters.
“...If the professionals that we hire and elect to run our city cannot affect the revitalization of an area without changing the street name, then every single one of you is failing miserably at your respective appointments,” she says on camera. “...Not one of you considered the feelings of the people who have lived here their entire lives. Why would you? The majority of you didn’t grow up here. You didn’t meet your current spouses on North Avenue. You didn’t hang out there every Friday and Saturday night. You didn’t show off your first car, it’s not where you got pulled over the first time for speeding, it’s not where you snuck your first puff of a cigarette. It means nothing to you. It’s just one of the many streets in the town you moved to later in your adult life.”
Whether that’s true or not, a final push for a name change occurred as a result of a meeting last spring of CMU20000, said Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber created the group to promote the university as an economic driver and to employ 5,000 residents to lure 5,000 more students to the campus. In large type, the website displays the university’s economic impact on the Grand Valley: nearly $448 million last year.
Most of the roughly 200 people who showed for the meeting were elected officials, economic development backers and business investors, Schwenke said. The overriding suggestions for advancing the university’s presence included changing North Avenue to University Boulevard and placing other signage around the city advertising the university. Banners promoting CMU now appear on some lamp poles, including some on North Avenue.
The idea to change the street’s name originated with resident Levi Lucero, emboldened after Mesa State College became Colorado Mesa University in 2011. A prominent longtime businessman, volunteer and city backer, the talkative, spry octogenarian set off alone five years ago on a petition drive, asking North Avenue business owners if they approved of a street name change.
While North Avenue backers said they have been called names, some city leaders said they, too, have been vilified. The dust-up prompted the chamber to activate a profanity filter on its Facebook page.
Schwenke said she’s been called names on the chamber’s voicemails. Anonymous callers implied she has no morals, that she’s selfish and that she’s getting rich off a name change, she said.
Forty businesses along North Avenue are chamber members, and none to date have pulled their membership because of the street name change, Schwenke claimed. In contrast, she ticked off a few business owners who are in support of the name change but don’t vocalize it to avoid possible retribution.
“The negative response has been so strong and so aggressive they may be relatively quiet about it because they don’t want to lose business,” Schwenke said.
She said people cling to the North Avenue name because they cruised the street in their youth, but the route wasn’t cool because of its name. The idea to change the name is a good faith effort to help the ailing corridor return to those glory days, she said.
“They were cruising North because it was a cool commercial corridor,” Schwenke said. “That’s what we want to get back to.”
Local economic development backers and local leaders tend to wear dresses and suits during their day jobs. They spend time trying to lure businesses to town and attend an array of meetings. They offer presentations to elected boards and appear at service club luncheons. They stand for interviews for local television stations, present ideas at editorial board meetings at this newspaper and speak about local issues on local radio programs. They’re working on bringing tenants and businesses to some of the Grand Valley’s underutilized, vacant land. They take a slice of the valley to trade shows and events, trying to promote the area’s vistas and unsung opportunities.
Grand Junction Mayor Rick Taggart fits in this group. He cites a street name change as just one way that can help boost the area.
He said he’s also been the target of criticism, the worst of which occurred with a caller labeling him a Nazi and a white supremacist on his voicemail, he said during a Sept. 6 council meeting.
Duncan McArthur and Phyllis Norris were the two councilors who voted against a street name change. Norris said she didn’t think a change represented the will of most people and didn’t think the switch would pass voter approval. McArthur thought the route’s name should retain its historical significance and, besides, the university fronted a tiny fraction of the corridor.
Taggart expressed his frustration to Dodge, one of the North Avenue group organizers, about being targeted and accused of being in the university’s back pocket. He said his involvement with CMU as an adjunct professor, where he said he essentially earns minimum wage, does not make him beholden to the university.
“I wanted to give back to students what was given to me,” he said.
Taggart called for civil discord and said councilors are willing to honor the petition process, if that means taking the question to a vote.
Dodge explained at the Sept. 6 meeting that some initial negative comments stemmed from another, similar Facebook page of which she was not a part.
“You control your people as much as you can, I’ll control my people as much as I can,” Dodge said then.
AN ORIGINAL IDEA
No one put Lucero up to the task of polling North Avenue businesses about his idea. The plucky 85-year-old, who keeps and distributes a printed creed for living well and respecting others, devised a way to honor the university. He’d do it himself.
“I’m not really worried if it goes on the ballot, I just wanted to save the city some money,” Lucero said from his home near the university last week. “I want to help my community. They’ve done so much for me.”
Levi and his wife, Bernice, also share roots in North Avenue history, owning and operating El Escondido restaurant near the street in the 1970s before the business succumbed to the 1980s oil shale bust.
The couple raised four children in Grand Junction, and Lucero boasts numerous accomplishments.
They include his two decades as a top-selling real estate agent, years of volunteer city service and his role in starting the Grand Junction Housing Authority.
Lucero was so elated at the name change from Mesa State College to Colorado Mesa University, he embarked on a plan to gauge business owners’ reception to changing the route to University Boulevard.
In 2013, Lucero walked the corridor, meeting “eyeball to eyeball” with either business owners or managers on duty to conduct his survey. He determined 76 percent of 630 businesses were in support of a name change.
He redid the survey after the City Council asked to see more support, and Lucero returned with a poll showing a 79 percent approval rating among 702 businesses.
“I see this as part of the answer to capitalize on the university and to draw businesses there,” Lucero said, explaining his motivation. “I have nothing to gain. I had the time to do it. It was the right thing to do.”
KEY CITY CORRIDOR
While North Avenue has seen some upgrades in recent years, including a revitalization of the streetscape between First Street and 23rd Street, the corridor would benefit from more improvements, a point on which both sides agree.
A North Avenue facade grant program with some matching funds from the city has helped business owners refresh storefronts. Others have updated their businesses on their own.
While its heyday has passed, the route is still an important revenue generator for the city. It accounts for 11 percent of all the sales tax collected, the third-highest amount of all commercial areas in the city. North Avenue businesses collected $4.5 million in sales-tax revenue in 2016.
That’s down from nearly $4.7 million in revenue the year before.
In comparison, the Mesa Mall area generated $8.9 million and the U.S. Highway 6&50 area generated $9.4 million in 2016.
So what about CMU, which didn’t take the lead in championing the name change but nevertheless is the entity for which the street is to be renamed? University President Tim Foster said he’s received criticism, although he described the university as “agnostic” on the idea.
“I think you have some folks who are very well-meaning and love the university and love North Avenue,” he said. “It has aged a bit and they wanted to support that. It didn’t seem like a big deal to us.”
The debate has trickled down to the student population, he said.
They now have “the impression that the community doesn’t embrace the university,” Foster said. “I think that’s unfortunate.”