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Old Rocket Drive-In site waits for liftoff

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Traffic backs up at U.S. Highway 550/160 and Dominguez Drive and at the intersection of Escalante and Dominguez drives. A plan for potential development of land between Walmart and Home Depot includes extending Escalante Drive, which would relieve congestion at this intersection.

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

Between Walmart and Home Depot and convenient to the busiest stretch of highway in Southwest Colorado are 63.5 acres of scrubland conspicuous for the lack of commercial development.

In a year when Durango’s sales tax has grown by 6 percent, it is like a fallow field at harvest time.

Developers “would love to put a Target there, but they have so much to make happen (first). It’s almost insurmountable,” said Greg Hoch, director of community development for the city of Durango.

Development has been delayed by a tangle of intertwining issues:

Improvements for traffic flow and access must precede new construction.

A landowner has been reluctant to give up his property to allow for an extension of Escalante Drive.

There has been a game of wait-and-see with investors reluctant to be the first to pay for the needed infrastructure improvements.

“You have a certain segment who think, ‘If I wait long enough, I won’t have to pay for (infrastructure improvements), somebody else will,’ and we’re trying to avoid that,” City Attorney David Smith said during a recent City Council study session.

Ten years after the Rocket Drive-In theater closed on the site, a plan has emerged that could revitalize an area now occupied mostly by mobile homes and a few shops, such as Native Roots nursery.

To assure initial investors that they eventually would get some reimbursement, the city would require affected property owners to contribute to a fund for the buy-out of Fred Ward’s land and/or the extension of Escalante Drive as a condition for future annexation into the city.

While some property owners won’t want annexation, the plan seems more viable than forming a special taxing district to pay for the infrastructure improvements, which have been estimated at $3 million, including $731,000 to buy out Ward, who said he wouldn’t be given cash but another property elsewhere.

The city has been asked to come up with an equitable formula for contributing to the fund. The closing date for Ward’s property had been Sept. 30, but the date has been pushed to the end of October, said Larry Gardner, a Keller-Williams Realtor who is representing principal developers and initial investors, such as Rocket Durango LLC, which owns the former drive-in property, and San Juan Durango, which owns a trailer park on the property.

Ward, who owns the land vital to making the deal work, professed ignorance about the details.

“I’m the last one to know anything. Everybody is keeping quiet from me. They’re trying to keep me in the dark,” Ward said. “If there’s a billion-dollar development, they don’t want me to know.”

Ward, 73, has not wanted to sell because “it’s a good spot.”

“You have great access. The traffic is phenomenal,” he said. “I really didn’t want to give it up, but the whole point was for them to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They’re finally getting off their hands and doing something about it.”

Ward’s home and business, Ward’s Automotive, is at the T intersection of Baker Lane and Escalante Drive.

Extending Escalante Drive to Home Depot would take pressure of the bottleneck at the Walmart intersection of Dominguez Drive and U.S. Highway 550/160, where there is only one left-turn lane into Walmart from the highway when coming from the south.

It’s also the most direct path to Escalante Middle School from the highway.

“Every parent now taking their children to Escalante Middle School has to go in and out of the Walmart light,” Hoch said. “Opening (Escalante) will have everybody going along Escalante rather than Dominguez.”

Extending Escalante also is considered a cheaper alternative to adding another turn lane on a busy highway.

Unlike the Dominguez Drive intersection at Walmart, the River Road intersection has two left-turn lanes going into Home Depot from the south.

While there is a frontage road, the Colorado Department of Transportation might need this space for an eventual expansion of the highway, Hoch said.

City officials seem excited about the plan’s potential. They said Durango would not be on the hook for paying for the infrastructure improvement.

“It’s going to be a tremendous benefit to these properties,” Smith said. “It’s also going to be a tremendous benefit to the city.”

Charlie Albert, principal of San Juan Durango, said he had thought about building a new hotel on the site until Durango got a new Homewood Suites and a Holiday Inn.

Albert still thinks it will be awhile for development to take place. Those who live in mobile homes on the site should not worry about moving right now.

“I think we’re still four to five years away,” he said.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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