New Basalt manager not fazed by town’s politics, looks forward to challenges
July 18, 2017
PROGRESS ON PROJECTS
Two big public works projects in Basalt are moving toward completion.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel on the pedestrian underpass at Highway 82 and Basalt Avenue.
“The Basalt underpass is approximately 75 percent complete and the project should meet all of its major milestones,” said a recent memo to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board of directors.
“The underpass should be open to pedestrian traffic by July 31,” the memo said, noting there is also surface work associated with the project. “The project should be substantially completed by Oct. 20.”
Meanwhile, the sod that was installed July 6 is settling at the Basalt River Park, but use is prohibited for several more weeks. The town anticipates the surface will be ready for prime time in late August or early September.
Tough politics in Basalt didn't scare new Town Manager Ryan Mahoney away from pursuing the job.
Mahoney, who took the post June 26, said he was well aware while applying for the job and negotiating a contract that the political waters have been turbulent in Basalt for some time.
"Sure, that's why I really had to look into it," he said. "I didn't want to come into the community and say, 'Oh my gosh, what have I done?'"
There have been two hard-fought elections in the past 16 months. Incumbent Mayor Jacque Whitsitt withstood a fierce challenge from former mayor Rick Stevens in the April 2016 election. The town government's proposal to raise property taxes to buy the entire Pan and Fork parcel divided the town in November. The measure lost by a narrow margin. Lingering ill will exists among factions in the community over both elections in a textbook example of small-town politics.
Mahoney said the view from outside is that Basalt has a lot going for it as an emerging destination in the midvalley.
"I think there's a lot more to celebrate and (issues) to call attention to progress," he said.
He pointed to Pitkin County's whitewater park and the town's river park as works in progress that Basalt will benefit from in the future and help draw people. The Arts Campus at Willits also has potential to boost the town, he said. He also wants to more thoroughly explore a pedestrian path along Two Rivers Road west of downtown.
Mahoney has immersed himself in getting to know the people and places of Basalt over the past three weeks. He is currently on two weeks of leave that was negotiated at the time he accepted the position. He is taking a combination of bereavement and vacation time.
When he returns, it will be with his wife and two boys, ages 6 and 9. Mahoney, 41, said it is his family's intent to remain settled in Basalt through the boys' time in school, so he's looking at a minimum of 12 years in the job. He acknowledged it's rare for a town or county manager to last that long since boards are constantly turning over and keeping multiple bosses satisfied is difficult. Basalt is governed by a seven-member council.
"You never know when you're going to kick up a hornet's nest," Mahoney said. Nevertheless, he said he's up for the challenge.
Mahoney said it's going to be important for him and the council to meet and discuss issues in a retreat he plans for August. Basalt's hasn't had a permanent manager since Mike Scanlon left in August. While it was in the hands of capable interim managers, it missed the leadership that comes from a full-time, permanent manager. Without that leadership, he said, he doesn't feel the council has had time to gel after three new members were elected in April.
The retreat will help determine direction on the Pan and Fork issue, he said. The town owns part of the property closest to the Roaring Fork River and is establishing a riverfront park. An additional 2.3 acres closest to Two Rivers Road are privately owned by the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. Part of the town wants to see development there to spark life in downtown. Another faction wants a park to dominate the landscape.
While the issue appears to some to be a hopeless stalemate, Mahoney said a lot has already been accomplished by the relocation of the residents of a former mobile-home park, removal of the residences, installation of infrastructure and river work that reduced the flood threat.
"I think there's a lot of heavy lifting that's been done there," he said.
He also believes there is a lot of common ground in the community and on the council for use of the Pan and Fork site. It's a matter of finding solid footing and following through on a direction.
"Any way you cut it, it needs to be something that benefits the community," Mahoney said.
Big projects aside, his focus is to make sure Basalt town government is providing "great service." That includes making sure streets, sidewalks and parks are well maintained.
"The minute we let them slip, people take notice," Mahoney said.