Al Harper is adding another idea to the decades-old conversation about building a conference, arts and cultural center in Durango.
The owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad envisions converting the Durango School District 9-R Administration building, the old high school at 201 E. 12th St., to serve as the central fixture for an arts and convention center.
Harper said he explored many of the sites mentioned during the past several years for a conference center, including the existing Albertsons grocery store, the fire station/River City Hall on Camino del Rio, the train parking lot on the corner of College Drive and Camino del Rio, and locations along East Second Avenue and on the Fort Lewis College campus.
“Nothing seemed to work. I was walking up and down East Second Avenue, and it’s crowded, but then the 9-R building just kept popping up,” Harper said.
He began pacing off the plot, and he went in for a tour of the building, returned for a second tour and has become convinced the site would work.
He has enlisted the aid of retired architect Michael Bell, who has done work for 9-R on the Administration Building and for the railroad, to begin looking at how to protect and remodel the old school and create additions to serve as an arts and conference center.
“For a genesis of an idea, it meets the needs of 9-R and the city’s lack of a convention center and the needs at that end of town. There’s a win-win there,” Bell said.
Harper’s draft, which examines how the center would be managed, financed and offers a timeline of goals to be met, estimates the complex would cost about $42 million to build.
Harper proposes increasing the lodgers tax, exploring other taxing mechanisms, applying for grants and securing private donations to finance the project.
9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger said he has spoken with Harper about his idea. Over the years, the school district has had numerous conversations with other entities about possibly repurposing and remodeling the Administration Building, he said.
Long term, the school district has explored selling the Administration Building, moving offices to Escalante Middle School and building a new school in Three Springs.
Snowberger said the school district has provided Harper with floor plans of the Administration Building so he can further examine his idea.
“A lot of people have graduated from this building, and they have a fondness for it,” Snowberger said. “They want it to remain a public building, and this is an idea for an iconic building with community interest that could work. We are willing to work with Mr. Harper if this is the right move.”
Harper has expressed doubt an arts and convention center could be built on a parking lot west of McDonald’s, a parcel now used as a parking lot by the railroad. The parking lot, which is two-thirds owned by Harper and one-third by the city, is the preferred spot for development of an arts and convention center by a group that has been meeting for more than a year to refine its concept.
“I’m all for building an arts and cultural center,” he said. “It just can’t come as a detriment to the railroad.”
At one point, Harper proposed a plan for that same site. In 2009, he came up with plans for Railroad Square. The $84 million project would have included a 220-room hotel, a 22,000-square-foot conference center and 30,000 square feet of retail and office space. Harper invested $3 million into the project and received approval from the Colorado Department of Transportation and a conditional-user permit from the city of Durango. But ultimately, lack of financing put the project on hold. At that time, Harper said the economy was too poor to pull off such a grand plan.
Harper’s new proposal would include a 10,000-square-foot grand hall that could seat 600 people or accommodate 450 people for a sit-down meal, a new lobby that would allow people to move from the old high school to the grand hall and to another renovated building that currently houses Big Picture High School.
Harper, who is circulating a 17-page draft of his concept, envisions a 200-space parking garage to the west of the 9-R Administration Building in an existing parking lot and stretching north.
“I’m not proposing anything. This could be changed in any number of ways. This is just Al picking numbers out of the air,” he said. “This is all conceptual. I’m just saying, ‘Let’s think about it.’”
Bell said he believes the center Harper envisions can be accommodated, or “pretty close to it,” on the site.
“It’s very conceptual right now,” Bell said. “A lot of work has to be done. Right now, we’re trying to conceptualize the whole picture as Al envisions it.”
Bell estimated he would begin sketching concepts for Harper’s proposal in a couple of months.
“I think Al would like to move out of the discussion phase to the conceptual design phase,” he said.
Harper said building a conference center on the school district site would preserve and repurpose a historic building with a new public purpose that could serve as an anchor point and a gateway to north Main Avenue.
“I did some work on this, and I wanted to talk to people I’m familiar with and ask: ‘Am I nuts or is this a good idea?’ I kept hearing, ‘No, it’s a good idea.’”
Frank Lockwood, executive director of Durango Area Tourism Office, said he was impressed with the amount of work Harper had done to explore his concept and said he is committed to use whatever resources DATO has to determine if it is feasible.
“I’m ecstatic that Al’s on our side,” he said. “Let’s develop a conference, art and cultural center in town. I’m for building a conference center here; I don’t care where it is.”
Lockwood said the market to host business meetings and conferences is about $118 billion a year, a segment of the travel market Durango lacks the resources to serve.
“Business travelers are more consistent than leisure travelers,” he said. “They have everything scheduled and reserved, and they don’t cancel. And, typically, they spend more because they are on the company’s dime.”
Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District, said all ideas for an arts and convention center are worth exploring at this point. After all, one of the founding principals for the formation of BID 20 years ago was to explore options to develop a conference center.
“This is a slightly different look at how to get a facility we’ve been looking at for 20 years. Obviously, this is a difficult problem; otherwise, we’d have one by now,” he said.
The tough leisure tourism year stemming from the lack of snowfall in winter and the subsequent 416 Fire and mudslides show the town needs to diversify its tourism economy to provide a more stable stream of income, Walsworth said.