Proponents of a community recreation center in Grand Junction hope voters will look south to Durango, and it's easy to see why.

Twenty years ago, Durango voters approved a half-cent hike in local sales tax to build and operate the more than 71,000-square-foot Durango Community Recreation Center and construct the city's critical Animas River Trail.

That community investment is still paying off, Durango city leaders say.

"(The proposed center) provides an opportunity for Grand Junction to allow the community to have a place where they can recreate and gather, and promote health and wellness," said Cathy Metz, parks and recreation director for the city of Durango. "That's certainly what it's done in Durango."

Since the 1999 vote, Durango residents have voted two more times to fund parks and recreation through their sales tax. In 2005, they approved a quarter-cent sales tax for open space preservation and development of parks and trails. In 2015, voters reauthorized the 1999 tax and broadened the scope of it, allowing the money to be used to build other parks and trails facilities.

"People in Durango have been very supportive of parks and recreation and my sense is Grand Junction is similar to other communities in Colorado that do support it," Metz said.

There are differences between the two projects, perhaps most notably location and proximity to downtown. Durango's center is within walking or biking distance of their downtown core, while the proposed Grand Junction facility would be located a few miles outside of downtown.

Grand Junction voters, it also should be noted, have been reluctant to raise taxes in the past. The ask this time is for a 0.39 percent increase in city sales tax to fund construction of a 98,000-square-foot community center at Matchett Park, develop the park and sports space around it, and rehab the aging facilities at the Orchard Mesa pool.

"Raising taxes is super hard, and I do understand that," Metz said. "One of the things that we have realized is that it really is an economic benefit, because people want to move to Grand Junction because they have the amenities that are important to them.

"Rec centers and nice parks and facilities absolutely can make an impact on people's choices about where they want to relocate their businesses or have their family live."

IMPACT ON BUSINESS

Concerns that a publicly funded recreation center will hurt related fitness businesses are common in the local discourse surrounding the proposal.

Grand Junction is home to a number of large fitness facilities, as well as a burgeoning number of more specialized gyms, with trendy offerings like the CrossFit weight training program, Pilates, or ballet-based barre classes.

Metz said similar concerns from gyms that "they were going to be put out of business or they wouldn't be able to compete with the city's lower fees" surfaced in 1999 in Durango, as they often do when communities consider funding large community or recreation centers.

"What we found is that exactly the opposite happened," Metz said.

She says there are more private fitness facilities in Durango now than in 1999, as gyms opened up to offer a more specialized or "adult-oriented" fitness experience.

Metz also said the Durango center's personal trainer program — independent contractors with their own insurance can train clients at the center, and they split the revenue with the city — is such a success that many of the trainers got so popular they started their own businesses.

"There is a good amount of choice, and I think Grand Junction would probably see the same," Metz said.

Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, wasn't in his current position with the chamber in 1999, but he echoed Metz' sentiments nonetheless.

"I do know there was concern from the independent facilities when this measure passed," Llewellyn said in an email. "However, the gyms that were open then are still open today. They reinvented, strived for customer service and seemed to have been able to compete."

However, Brook Ray, co-owner of Fruita Health Club, says there's reason for Grand Junction fitness businesses to be wary.

Her business lost 500 of its then 700 members when Fruita voters approved their rec center, which opened in 2011.

"We just recovered last year what we had lost," Ray said.

She said passion for her business kept the health club afloat, as did a renewed focus on the members who stayed, who she says are "like family." The club also cut staff costs, cut classes, and relocated to their current space at 743 U.S. Highway 6 when their former building sold, a move that had the added benefit of saving some money.

But, without question, it has been a difficult road to recovery.

"A rec center done right is a huge benefit to the community," Ray said. "But when you start adding in things that compete with businesses, that brings a different element. We can't compete with tax dollars."

MONEY BEGETS MONEY

Durango's public investment in parks and rec has had the added benefit of spurring additional funding for outdoor recreation. With a dedicated funding source in place, the city has been able to take advantage of grant and project programs with state agencies like the Colorado Department of Transportation, Great Outdoors Colorado, and the Department of Local Affairs.

"You're able to leverage the money that you've brought in through the dedicated tax with all of these grant opportunities," Metz said. "It makes a big difference that you can commit to more robust projects because of that dedicated funding."

Since 2002, Durango has invested more than $64.5 million in parks and recreation amenities, of which $16 million was contributed by grants and donations.

According to Metz, Durango Parks and Recreation provides programs and services to more than 475,000 people every year. She calls that "astounding" for a city of only 18,500 residents.

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