Carbondale Mayor Hassig reflects on 18 years of public service
CARBONDALE – Michael Hassig admits reacting with a “certain degree of incredulity” when people began stopping him on the street in early 2002 asking him to run for mayor.At the time, Hassig was chairman of Carbondale’s Planning and Zoning Commission and had already served in an appointed capacity at that level of local government for 10 years.The big issue of the day, as it had been for several years previous and would be for even more years to come – still continuing today, in fact – was a real estate developer’s plan for a large piece of commercially zoned property situated along Highway 133 leading into the heart of Carbondale.The plan dujour was for a “big box” style shopping center, with an undefined large-format retail anchor store as its centerpiece.Critics referred to the plan as being suited for “anywhere U.S.A.” but not at all in line with Carbondale’s unique characteristics. Those same critics were becoming more vocal, and more organized, as the proposal was making its way through the town’s planning review process.When election season rolled around in 2002, the incumbent mayor at the time, Randy Vanderhurst, was seen as a likely supporter of the proposed Crystal River Marketplace project. That left opponents to find someone more favorable to their way of thinking.Hassig, who had proven to be among the more skeptical P&Z members on the matter, seemed like a logical choice to challenge for the mayor’s seat.”I never really imagined myself running for elected office,” Hassig said in a recent interview, conducted at a back table in one of Carbondale’s popular watering holes, the Pour House – also the venue for the usual post-town council meeting “debriefings.””I ultimately came to the decision to do it after, first, consulting with my family, and many discussions around what seemed to be this unsolicited support I was getting,” he said.
Eight years later, Hassig, 58, is preparing to step down after a total of 18 years serving the public interest in Carbondale.Carbondale’s home rule charter limits the mayor and town council members to no more than two consecutive four-year terms. The April 6 municipal election will pit two current town board members, Ed Cortez and Stacey Patch Bernot, in the race to fill the mayor’s seat.There will be a reception and formal recognition of Hassig’s many years of civic involvement at the April 13 Carbondale Town Council meeting, when the new mayor and trustees will be sworn in.Hassig doesn’t see his long tenure as anything particularly unique, pointing to other long-standing public officials in the Roaring Fork Valley.”At a basic level, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to do this,” he said.Carbondale isn’t necessarily any different than a lot of small towns that are struggling with major growth issues, Hassig observed.But, “What struck me when I first moved to Carbondale, and still does today, is that it’s a place where the actions of individuals matter,” he said.He arrived in Carbondale in the early 1990s, just as the floodgates were opening for a real estate boom that would define the next two decades.”So much of our daily experience is shaped by a sense that events are beyond our control,” Hassig said. “This is a remarkable community because so many people still choose to care, and still believe that acting on one’s passions adds up to something.”It became clear throughout the 1990s that, if there was one critical issue in Carbondale, it was land use and how to deal with it, Hassig said.The attitude that individuals with common goals could work together to affect change defined that debate on issues ranging from the massive River Valley Ranch development in the mid-1990s to the ensuing debates about the Marketplace a few years later.The thinking when the town approved River Valley Ranch and several other residential projects was that commercial development would follow; in fact, it had to in order to help pay for the impacts of effectively doubling the town’s population.After Colorado Rocky Mountain School convinced the town to split its already annexed property along Highway 133 into two separately zoned commercial parcels so it could sell the land off for development, it became ground zero for the new debate.Early on, the plan was for a more dense commercial development without a big box store. That plan was shot down in a series of public presentations even before a formal application was made, and developer Brian Huster soon returned with the big box plan.
“I knew full well the pyrotechnic nature of that issue,” Hassig said of the Marketplace debate, which had grown more heated every year leading up to the 2002 election.In fact, the mayoral election between Hassig and Vanderhurst was viewed by many observers at the time as the first referendum on the big box plan.So, needless to say, it ruffled some feathers when the vote was called on the Crystal River Marketplace not long after the election, and Hassig cast a surprise vote in favor of it.His wasn’t the deciding vote; the Marketplace was approved 5-2. But it was symbolic, and a vote he still thinks about.”It ended up mattering in the sense that I thought [the developers] could continue to be moved.”And, I was wrong,” he said. “It’s the only vote in my eight years that I would take back.”A special election was called for in July 2003, and the Marketplace was rejected in a fairly decisive vote, but it created some deep divisions in the community.”From my perspective, the outcome of the referendum was perfect,” Hassig said. “It was a flawed plan, and it was a project that would have never been built.”But, it was also important to point out that it was consistent with the zoning we had in place for that property.”The next step was to try to heal the wounds that had been created, and to set a course for Carbondale’s economic development future.Hassig supported the ensuing Economic Roadmap Group process, which brought together citizen representatives from both sides of the Marketplace debate to come up with a master plan for Carbondale.”The part it played in reconciliation was the genius of it,” he said. “It put to rest once and for all that there was ever going to be a big box in Carbondale.”It also created a new round of political debate about how the town should grow, what preservation of “small town character” meant, and what townsfolk were willing to accept.”The Roadmap recognized the strengths of this place, and encouraged us to build on those strengths,” he said.
Through it all, Hassig said he has tried to be a fair facilitator of the discussion and the civic process, careful not to let his own opinion steer the debate.It’s hard to assess who exactly his detractors have been during his time in office.”There are lots of people in the development community who have always criticized the pace of the development review process,” he said. “Nobody ever said the public review process is efficient.”At the same time, some might view Hassig, an architect and partner in the A4 Architects firm, along with his wife Olivia Emery, as being aligned with developers.”I’m happy to debate the merits of any criticism that might come my way,” he said.”What I find remarkably challenging lately is a personal sense of the unreality of some of these land-use applications,” he added. “To review these projects that we’re seeing now requires what might be termed the willing suspension of disbelief.”All of what we’re seeing now is predicated on the assumption that we will resume some kind of business as usual … I keep hearing, ‘when things get back to normal.'”I no longer believe that,” he said.In many ways, Carbondale’s leaders today may be laying the groundwork for development 20 years from now, rather than anything that will occur in the near-term.”If you look at the town and how it’s grown between 1990 and now, we’ve more than doubled in [population], but with the addition of only 150 acres that [River Valley Ranch developer] Bob Howard bought from [rancher] Bob Perry,” Hassig said.”Not many towns can say that,” he said.The town’s Comprehensive Plan of 2000, which Hassig approved as a member of the P&Z, was an extension of that philosophy.”It succeeded in one very clear way, and it failed in another,” he said. “It made any annexations outside of Carbondale’s periphery stand up to a severe and skeptical review, and to demonstrate clear benefits to the town.”That served to prevent the kind of sprawl that defined many other communities.It’s failure, however, was not taking the next step to spell out the rules more clearly for infill development to occur.In the place of sprawl, there needs to be a provision for parcels already within the town to be developed or redeveloped, he said.”There’s a serious question whether we have the zoning to do that well,” Hassig said.
Hassig said he believes Carbondale has been successful with a forward-thinking vision on a range of initiatives, including the town energy plan and nurturing a nonprofit culture that remains strong in the community.”The character of the town is still recognizable, even with all the changes we’ve seen,” he said.”It’s sitting outside Steve’s Guitars on a summer night, or walking down Main Street on a First Friday in spring, or being at Mountain Fair. All that stuff adds up.”I would never claim that any of that stuff was created by town government. In fact, it’s something we can get in the way of,” he said.That’s why it was important to support projects like the acquisition and conversion of the former elementary school building into the Third Street Center for nonprofit organizations.”It took real perseverance on the part of the town and the trustees to make that happen,” Hassig said. “Absent the town leaders championing that outcome, it wouldn’t have happened.”For that, Hassig thanked his fellow town trustees who have served alongside him over the past eight years.”I find it truly remarkable that all of the people I’ve dealt with on the board are truly motivated by the altruism of serving their community,” he said.”Now, I am looking forward to the opportunity to step back and look at things in a more contemplative way.”… Especially since there’s a lot less architecture to do,” he firstname.lastname@example.org
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