Jeanette Darnauer: Guest Opinion
Aspen, CO Colorado
My husband and I have lived in Aspen since 1976. I’ve been actively involved in the community the entire time – fighting for causes and participating with the city and numerous not-for-profits.
As a news reporter for the first half of my career, I covered City Hall and investigated many controversial issues, but never did I find a situation like exists at Cozy Point Ranch, which the city owns.
A lot of you in the community know me as a fair and balanced person of integrity. I am persistent in my quest for information and pursuit of what’s right, but I do not judge quickly. I believe people generally try to do what’s best. So it came as a shock to me as we started looking into issues at Cozy Point Ranch that the city could be involved in anything less than honorable.
Late last summer, Melissa Wight and Judy Nelson, partners in Red Barn LLC, hired me to handle their communication strategies and public outreach efforts. We were surprised to learn that the current lease at Cozy Point was about to be renewed in October for another 10 years with an additional 10-year extension – without a public bidding process.
Cozy Point Ranch is a multimillion-dollar, publicly owned equestrian and agricultural facility … yet, the city staff had no plans to open up the process to other bidders or thoroughly look into what had been going on the past 10 years. They had no plans to change the lease so the citizens could benefit financially or through community programs. The city’s parks department planned to give the operator another 20 years without a public process!
Out of sight. Out of mind. That’s how this asset was treated.
It wasn’t until Red Barn started asking why on so many health, safety, environmental, agricultural and financial issues that the city woke up and agreed to issue an RFP (request for proposals), which is the process we’re in now.
Eight months after that original lease was supposed to be renewed, the parks department has decided to incorporate some of our ideas into the new lease, which they have recommended be awarded to the same, existing operator who failed to correct the problems, provide better service or pay rent in the first place! But I digress.
Our discovery of the October plans and the lack of oversight was the first clue that something seemed awry.
We learned that many horses had gotten colic at Cozy Point (most common cause: moldy hay). There had been injuries from the dangerous arena footing and dangerous fencing. Boarders and trainers had been kicked out for complaining about these problems. That’s because they had to sign a gag clause in their agreements, which took away their freedom of speech and forbid them from going to the city or the media with concerns.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we were provided with some of the existing operator’s financial records and reports. They showed that the operator has never paid rent to the city because he receives a rent credit for the work he does on capital improvements, which he bills back to the city at a big markup. He even gets a rent credit on maintenance items like sweeping the barn! We found that the city, not the operator, pays electric bills. And there’s never been an audit in 10 years!
We kept researching, discovering something new with each layer of the onion we peeled – like the Roaring Fork Stream Health Initiative, listing “unsustainable ranching” practices at Cozy Point.
Cozy Point Ranch has been run disproportionately for the benefit of Monroe Summers and not to the benefit of the city and the community.
We went through the RFP process hoping it would be fair. It wasn’t. We found an inherent bias in the task force’s evaluation process.
We guaranteed $100,000 a year in rent. We know that the operation generates that kind of revenue. We arrived at our estimated annual profit by counting the horses monthly and multiplying that number by the fees posted on the Cozy Point website. It’s simple. The task force doubted our numbers, yet they never called us for clarification, as the RFP states.
They failed to call our references, which would have verified the integrity, financial commitments and authenticity of the partners and the whole team. Our team’s income statement was created by our financial consultant, the former finance director for the city of Aspen.
The city is required to select the proposal which is in “the best interest of the city of Aspen.” If you care about protecting the public’s interest, and creating a sustainable agricultural and equestrian facility with numerous free programs that benefit everyone except one man, attend the Aspen City Council meeting tonight at 5.
Why would someone who claims he never made money on the lease want it? If no money is made, how could the public expect to receive services or rent this time?
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