Candidates face off in Minturn forum
The political divide in Minturn’s upcoming election became all the more apparent during Tuesday night’s town council candidate forum.
Minturn’s economic future – and specifically whether building a recreational vehicle park on town-owned property could help the town’s finances – became the focal point of discussion among the seven candidates who are vying for a seat on the town council.
Minturn residents filled the town board room for the two-hour forum, and submitted 45 questions to be asked of the candidates. Time limits prevented forum moderator Dan Smith, a political science instructor at Colorado Mountain College, from asking all of them. Instead, the organizers tried to group the questions into common categories – such as the RV park and the town’s lack of parking for businesses and special events.
Incumbent Mayor Earl Bidez and lifelong Minturn resident Hawkeye Flaherty are vying for the mayoral seat. Flaherty was Minturn’s mayor for four years until losing the seat by two votes to Bidez in 2002.
There are five candidates running for three council seats. The candidates are incumbents Ron Spohrer and Jerry Bumgarner and newcomers Randy Milhoan, George Brodin and Tom Sullivan. Councilman Jim Kleckner is not seeking re-election.
Things have changed recently in Minturn and not all residents have liked it.
“The town is a political mess right now,” said Michael Boyd, likening the current climate among the council to the “four henchman mentality.” He said he plans to vote for Flaherty, Sullivan and Bumgarner, the last of whom frequently serves as the lone dissenter on the council.
Like the candidates he supports, Boyd is concerned that inviting a developer to build an RV park on Minturn’s eastern side would change Minturn’s small-town character. He also supports bringing the issue to a vote.
Flaherty and Sullivan are opposed to the RV park, as well and said they would like an election to determine if the council should build it. Bumgarner said Tuesday that he is neither for nor against the idea, but believes there has never been a solid business plan for the park.
Proponents of the park say it is the only viable plan before the council that would generate more tourist traffic in town and hence, more sales tax revenue. The town’s budget of $1.2 million has gotten the town by so far, but Bidez warned that more revenue is needed to replace Minturn’s aging water system.
Flaherty believes Minturn’s fiscal woes have been overstated.
“Minturn has a knack of surviving,” he said, adding, “The sky is not falling.”
Instead of the RV park, Flaherty said the town needs to do a better job of promoting its businesses to would-be tourists. As for attracting new businesses, Flaherty said better parking and getting a consistent Eagle County bus route through town would help.
If the RV park falls through, Bumgarner – who owns JB’s Barbecue – said business owners should simply do what he’s always done.
“I try to build a better barbecue sandwich,” he said.
While Boyd said he wants the town to change direction, his friend, Ty Gillespie, said he believes the current council has the town’s best interests at heart. He plans to support Bidez, Milhoan, Spohrer and Brodin -who all support the RV park, at least to some extent.
Spohrer said he is open to other, or better, suggestions but added his concern for Minturn’s finances is real. Spohrer also suggested that some of the dissatisfaction with the council may be due to strict enforcement of town ordinances – something that didn’t necessarily exist before.
“People don’t appreciate it when things are spelled out in black and white,” he said.
Sullivan said some of the town’s ordinances make it too difficult for property owners to improve their homes and businesses, which would help Minturn overall.
Sullivan also criticized the current council’s handling of the Eagle Riverbank restoration. Town officials attempted to condemn land along the riverbank to complete the restoration, he said, and wasn’t upfront with property owners about it.
Sullivan, who owns the Minturn Inn, was one of the property owners who would have been affected by the condemnation.
All the candidates agreed allowing Vail Resorts to install a ski lift from Minturn to the mountain would have dire consequences.
Milhoan said a chairlift would change the town into a second-home owner haven. Nearly all of Minturn’s homes are owned by Minturn residents and he’d like to keep it that way, Milhoan said.
“I’d hate to see a base development that looks like Arrowhead,” he said.
Seeking to clarify earlier reports that he was in support of the venture, Sullivan said he opposed the lift but believes it is inevitable and that the town should prepare for it.
When asked how he would heal the political friction that exists in Minturn today, Bumgarner expressed confidence that the town will move on after the election. If people like what he’s doing, they’ll vote for him, he said. If not, they won’t.
“No hard feelings,” he said.
Brodin called for better communication between the council and the public. He suggested that more public meetings and even a community survey might help.
“We need to bring everyone into the current times,” he said.
Brodin said he expects Minturn will have to defend its water rights again soon. The town lost a water rights fight in 1998 with a consortium of organizations, including Vail Resorts and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
“We need to position ourselves economically for that,” he said.
Bidez echoed those concerns by noting that the town’s water system will have to be replaced in the next few years, yet the town is carrying more than $1 million in debt right now.
Growth, particularly more businesses, will help Minturn’s sales tax revenues. But that growth needs to be balanced with the town’s desire to stay the same, Bidez said.
“It’s a very careful balancing act,” he said. “We don’t want to end up boiling water like Red Cliff has to do.”
Candidates and organizers commented on the turnout for Tuesday’s forum. Smith noted that he hosted a similar forum in Eagle recently – a town three times the size of Minturn. However, the turnout for that forum paled in comparison to Minturn’s.
Gillespie said residents realize how important Election Day on April 6 will be.
“This is a really important election for the town,” Gillespie said.
Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.
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