Next major resort town?
Is Rico going to be the next new ritzy resort destination? Not quite ...
Recently, you may have seen headlines in the news proclaiming that the small mountain town of Rico could become Colorado’s next major hot springs resort destination, á la Pagosa Springs or Glenwood Springs.
And, like most of the people in Rico, you may have freaked out a little bit.
“People were outraged when they saw that in the news,” Benn Vernadakis, a Rico town trustee, said. “We were horrified with the prospect of a development like that. Everyone was freaking out.”
Vernadakis is referring to an April 6 article in The Denver Post entitled “Could spot on Dolores River be Colorado’s next hot springs destination?” after an Arizona development company listed 1,200 acres in and around Rico for sale, pitching the property as a place for a new hot springs resort.
Many town officials and residents, however, say a project of that scale is not even possible, given restraints with topography, the lack of infrastructure (like sewer) in town and the biggie: water rights for all the new development. And, that’s not to mention Rico’s own master plan is very clear the town does not want to sell itself out to become a resort destination.
Even the firm brokering the sale, Telluride Properties, doesn’t envision Rico becoming the next Pagosa Springs or Glenwood Springs.
“Rico is a small, beautiful mountain community, and I don’t think the town would ever accommodate a large hot spring resort like Glenwood,” Eric Saunders, a broker with Telluride Properties, said. “Personally, I envision a smaller scale version of it. But that will be up to the town and the buyer.”
Rico, a small community of about 300 people sandwiched between Dolores and Telluride, remains one of the last relatively undeveloped towns in the San Juan Mountains, perched at an elevation of 9,000 feet. But with development pressures on mountain towns all over the West, change is happening.
So let’s take the opportunity here to put the brakes on and dive deeper.
Boiled down history
Dreams of a large-scale development in Rico have been in the works for decades, ever since the decline of mining, which dropped the population from 5,000 in the late 1890s to 300 as of today. And the one potential saving grace has been the geothermal resources under Rico’s surface.
In the 1980s, a group of investors by the name of “Rico Renaissance” started buying up old mining claims – not with plans to dig in the dirt for metals, but instead make way for more than 300 new homes, a riverside lodge, a light industrial park and, yes, a hot springs resort.
The prospect of such a development prompted residents to develop a master plan to help guide the vision of growth, which was completed and adopted in 2004. And right there, on page 2, reads, “the Rico community will preserve its traditional authentic small town character and will not allow tourism to transform the community into a typical Colorado mountain resort area.”
Rico Renaissance’s plans never came to fruition, however, after the Great Recession derailed it in 2007-08. And since then, the property sat mostly idle until it was listed for sale in April, renewed by the interest in mountain living courtesy the COVID pandemic.
“The pandemic shifted everyone’s outlook on the work-life balance,” real estate broker Saunders said. “We think now is a nice time for Rico to take a step in a positive direction.”
‘Possibilities are endless’
Indeed, Telluride Properties came out with a splash, going so far as hiring a PR firm out of Los Angeles to get the property in headlines across the U.S. (resulting in The Denver Post story and other coverage on TV news).
Branded as the “Silver Springs at Rico,” the website offering is sleek and chic – almost the antithesis when one thinks of Rico. Regardless, the listing offers a “one-of-a-kind development opportunity” for the 1,146-acre property, which could be turned into a hotel & resort, a new housing complex, a spa/wellness retreat or any combination of these things – “the possibilities are endless,” Saunders said.
But Saunders said the listing simply puts out a number of development scenarios as ideas. In the past few years, Saunders said Rico Renaissance changed its name to Disposition Properties, whose owners are aging and looking to sell the land to someone with a fresh new take.
“There’s a balance of selling it for what is market price and finding a buyer who is going to be a friend to Rico,” Saunders said.
Oops, we forgot to mention – the asking price is $10 million.
The property consists of a patchwork of various old mining claims, the majority on the east side of town. About 100 acres is located within Rico town limits, with the other 1,000 acres in the surrounding unincorporated Dolores County.
The most ideal scenario, Saunders said, would be for the new owner to swap the outlying lands with the Forest Service. That way, the new property owner could concentrate development close to town and preserve the surrounding mountains. And in return, the owner would receive other Forest Service land in a more developable area.
A previous example, Saunders said, was about 12 years ago when the town of Breckenridge bought 567 acres near Rico, which it ultimately traded for 52 acres of Forest Service land near Breckenridge for affordable housing.
According to old news coverage, the Forest Service expressed interest in a land swap back around 2005 with the original Rico Renaissance plan. Scott Owen, spokesman for the Forest Service, said there has been renewed interest from outside parties on the land swap, which would exchange 708 acres of land owned by the developer for 107 acres of Forest Service land, near Telescope Mountain, east of the Dolores River.
“There is not a formal proposal for a land swap at this time,” Owen said. “There may be an informal proposal, but we do not comment or share information about non-formal proposals as a matter of policy.”
Back down to reality
Realistically, a resort the size of Pagosa Springs or Glenwood Springs is not only not possible given the current infrastructure in Rico, but also is not the desire of residents. “I’m not sure how reasonable that proposal is with where our current infrastructure lies,” said Rico Town Manager Chauncey McCarthy.
For one, the new development would need water rights – not an easy get in Colorado’s complicated water law landscape. Rico does not use water from the Dolores River; instead water users must drill wells. McCarthy said with the current situation, there wouldn’t even be enough water to sell taps for 300 new homes (not to mention, you know, the megadrought plaguing the region).
McCarthy added the proposed figure of 300 new homes doesn’t take into consideration limitations with mountain topography – most of the 1,000 acres is located on steep hillsides. And, it should be mentioned, there’s no sewer treatment plant in Rico.
“They’ve done a great job marketing this property, but there are a lot of unknown variables,” McCarthy said. “Nothing is turnkey.”
Down with Disneyland
What’s more, it appears Rico residents are opposed to any such large-scale development. While the master plan says residents are supportive of diversifying the economy and welcoming balanced growth, one of the major goals is to “limit tourism to retain the predominant traditional small town character and avoid a predominant resort character.”
“We really value our sense of community here; it’s the most important thing we have,” Barbara Betts, who has lived in Rico since 1987 and is a former mayor, said. “And we want this to remain a small town with small town values.”
Matt Downer, who has lived in Rico for 20 years, said given the insane real estate spike in mountain towns since the pandemic, it’s no wonder a developer would want to cash in on Rico, just 35 minutes from Telluride. Like most every mountain town across the West, Downer said Rico has changed perceptibly since the pandemic, especially with the influx of remote workers.
“You can’t blame people for wanting to live in a beautiful place, but what obligations does a community have to keep that growth manageable?” Downer asked. “It’s a shock to the system, for sure. It’s a little scary.”
Vernadakis, the trustee who has lived in town since 1995, said the proposal would essentially double the size of Rico, and the town doesn’t have the infrastructure or the public support.
“We’re a bedroom community, and we really like the way it is,” he said. “We have Disneyland right over the hill in the form of Telluride.”
A better way?
Since it was listed in early April, Saunders said the property has generated a lot of interest from potential buyers, some as far as London. Tours of the land will start this summer, and he expects the property to sell by the end of this year.
“Anyone that comes to our door will likely be more sophisticated and understand this development won’t happen overnight,” Saunders said. “They’ll have to work with the town … and work through a lot of those issues.”
Saunders, for his part, has lived in the area for more than three decades and owns property in Rico. He, too, believes at the end of the day, most of the land will be preserved and development will be focused near town.
“That’s the likely outcome, we hope,” he said.
Indeed, one potential buyer that has expressed interest is Montezuma Land Conservancy. Travis Custer, executive director of the conservancy, said they are in the early stages of work with the town of Rico to come up with solutions that would protect open space but also bolster the community (e.g. affordable housing).
“We’re hoping for a conservation outcome,” he said. “This needs to be a community-centered project. A lot of what we’re interested in is how the town of Rico wants to see itself develop.”
For longtime Rico residents, the specter of major development has been a constant ever since the early mining days. But through it all, Rico has been able to retain its sense of community.
“There’s significant challenges to building in and around Rico that other deep pockets have attempted to exploit to no avail,” Downer said. “Time will tell; maybe they can crack the code. But I think it’s a little nerve-racking for a lot of local residents.”