Business owners also divided on downtown justice center

phrbcjusticecenterrenderingRBC I Downtown business owners, like others in the community, are mixed in their views about a proposed justice center.
Rio Blanco County is interested in using the site of the Meeker Elementary School, which will be vacated at the end of the school year, for a new justice center. The current county courthouse is located across the street from the school, which is why commissioners like the school site.
But some neighborhood residents don’t like the idea of a justice center in the town square area, even though the current jail is already located downtown in the upper level of the courthouse. Some residents have advocated turning the school site into an open space for public use, if the building can’t be renovated.
While opinions vary about the proposed justice center, one point all sides agree on is the elementary school location is prime downtown real estate.
Wendy Gutierrez, owner of Wendll’s Wondrous Things and Cuppa Joe, two downtown businesses located across the street from the courthouse, is concerned if the county built a justice center on the outskirts of town, as some have proposed, it would divert business traffic away from downtown.
“It’s a serious concern of mine,” Gutierrez said. “You lose your downtown, you lose your town. The businesses that are in the downtown area, and in Meeker as a whole, struggle to survive in a town of 2,000 people. You pull out something as significant as the courts, and all of the people who are involved in the court system, and that’s huge.
“The reality is there is already a jail in downtown that’s been there,” Gutierrez said. “When they call it a justice center, it’s not just the inmates. It’s not just about seeing people in orange jumpsuits. We need to think of people in suits, and people in suits from other towns who are helping our economy.”
The county and Colorado Northwestern Community College, which has also expressed an interest in the old elementary school, will make presentations about their proposals for the school site to the town board at 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at Town Hall in Meeker.
“Everybody will have a chance to be heard,” Town Administrator Sharon Day said of the public discussions.
As far as CNCC’s interest in the school, President John Boyd said, “If the town or someone fixes up the building and wants to lease us space, we’d be happy to talk. But we’re not in a position to take on a building and do something with it. We certainly hope to expand some in Meeker … but our facilities right now are adequate with what we’re doing right now. The other side of it is, there’s a reason it wasn’t good enough for the school, then why are they talking about renovating it and keeping it?”
After the school district vacates the elementary building, the property will revert back to the town, which has been leasing it to the school district for a $1 a year. A new grade school building on the east side of town will be completed next spring.
Business owner Gutierrez said when the old grade school building is vacated, the impact on downtown will be noticeable.
“I would think that if (the county) had proposed the justice center a year after the elementary school moved, that the argument might be a little bit easier on the sales pitch, because you’re going to be able to feel it. It’s going to be palpable. You’re going to notice the loss.”
As far as having an open space on the school site, Gutierrez is opposed to the idea.
“Open space does not beget more foot traffic. It’s just green grass. We have a lot of that already,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t see that that would generate near the sales tax revenue that having a justice center there would do.”
Mary K. Krueger, who owns the Hugus Building, where Gutierrez’s businesses are located, said, if the justice center was built away from the town square, the impact would be negligible on downtown.
“If a justice center was built anywhere in or around Meeker, I think the effect on downtown businesses would be the same,” Krueger said. “The edge of town or out a bit could keep the same amount of business in Meeker, just as well as a location in the center of town. It’s not unreasonable to drive 10 blocks to eat lunch.”
Krueger doesn’t like the idea of a justice center being located at the elementary school site.
“Selecting the former elementary school for a justice center is a poor idea,” Krueger said. “To argue that building a justice center downtown would be good for business is the wrong reason for building it there. Maybe the more important question related to downtown businesses would be about the future use of the courthouse space available after the jail and associated offices are moved (to the justice center).”
Krueger said she was opposed to giving a justice center a place of prominence in the center of Meeker’s downtown district.
“My underlying opposition to having a justice center in the center of town comes from the honor given to that location,” Krueger said. “In Europe, churches were the most important buildings to people and they were located in the center of town. Later, we saw banks in the center of town. … Is a justice center the most important thing Meeker has to offer? I would hope our town square could be a happy, uplifting, pleasant and positive place. The beauty is there if we don’t mess it up.”
Residents in the area of the elementary school have organized, calling themselves the Committee for the Preservation of Downtown Meeker, said Jan Oldland, who lives across from the grade school. The group is circulating petitions opposing the location of the old elementary school for a justice center, which will be presented to the town board, Oldland said.
Avis Loshbaugh, owner of Avis’ Village Floral, would like to see a justice center be built somewhere other than in the downtown district.
“I don’t like the thought of having a justice center there,” Loshbaugh said. “I envision there being a wire fence all the way around it and a big jail. Maybe that’s not what it is, but I don’t want something like that downtown. I know it won’t help my business. The only businesses I can see that maybe it would help would be the restaurants, possibly.”
Business and property owner Melinda Parker would also like to see an alternative to a justice center for the school site.
“To see a justice center there, I don’t want that,” Parker said. “But I also don’t want to see us move the courthouse. It’s good for downtown, to have the courthouse there. I can’t see why they have to go so elaborate (on plans for a new justice center). I don’t understand where they think we have this kind of money, and this will cost a lot of money. Taxes keep going up, and I can’t keep raising the rent. We can’t afford all of this. We’re not a Craig … we’re little.”