Silverton high school students grilled eight candidates for three seats on the Town Board of Trustees in a 90-minute forum at Town Hall Thursday evening, March 8, with about 75 people attending the session.
The town election is scheduled for Tuesday, April 3. Ballots were mailed out to the town’s 541 registered voters on Monday, March 12.
Candidates are Kevin Baldwin, Molly Noel Barela, Erica Curnow, Judy Graham, Austin Lashley, Mike Maxfield, Stoney Molina, and Nicole von Gaza-Reavis.
In opening remarks, Kevin Baldwin said he’s lived in Silverton for more than eight years and plans on staying.
“But in the last few years I’ve seen a change in the sense of community in town,” Baldwin said. “I would like to see that sense of community come back. Where we live is very unique. We’re dependent on each other and we need to keep that in mind, even though we may bicker.”
He expressed concern about the town’s finances and the “chain of command at Town Hall.”
Molly Noel Barela said she’s lived in Silverton since 1976.
“This is home,” Barela said. “My childhood was great,” with the freedom to explore the mountains.
“I’m very fiscally responsible,” Barela said. “We need accountability in town government. We need to stop with the turnover we’ve had so much of.”
Erica Wrublik Curnow said she first started visiting Silverton 14 years ago when her dad took part in the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run.
“I started visiting here more routinely and moved here full time in 2016,” Curnow said.
She has a bachelor’s degree in U.S. history and worked as the town’s special events coordinator until her termination a year ago.
She said she wants to be a voice for those in town who feel “dismissed” by the current Town Board.
“Their voice is as important as anyone. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Judy Graham has operated the Wingate Bed and Breakfast for 28 years.
“Silverton is moving forward and I believe I can help in this transition,” Graham said. “I am supportive of town employees and I have noticed increased team work and communication.”
But she said that “employee turnover over the years has been destabilizing and counter-productive.”
She emphasized the need for affordable housing to retain the town’s work force.
“I love different points of view,” Graham said. “I’m always up for a good conversation.”
Austin Lashley has owned the Avalanche Café and Brew Pub for nine years, moving here from Durango.
“I would like to be the voice of business owners to be heard and to see the environment for business owners thrive a little more.”
He said he’d love to see recreational opportunities expand here.
“I haven’t been frequently involved in town politics,” Lashley said.
He said he is “willing to listen to everyone at the table.
“I think the town staff we have is doing a really great job with the cards dealt to them,” Lashley said. “Overall we just need leadership in this town and people willing to represent the voices in Silverton, and not just listen to those who scream the loudest.”
Mike Maxfield was born and raised in Northern New Mexico and came here 30 years ago, working on the county road crew.
He served on the Town Board from 2000 to 2006.
“The town is doing great things right now but we can do greater,” Maxfield said. He lamented that many in town don’t seem to be communicating with each other.
“We don’t talk to each other. We need to start coming together and talking to each other and listening,” Maxfield said. “We’ve got to start talking with each other and not at each other.”
Stoney Molina is a paramedic with the Silverton Ambulance Service. He grew up in Paonia.
“I had no idea how much work was ahead of me,” Molina said. “But I also see lots of opportunity to work for a personal, small-town agency and a lot of opportunity for growth in the town itself.”
Molina said “it’s important to remember that in the end we’re not all going to agree on everything. That doesn’t mean we’re going down a wrong path. Sometimes the worst possible decision is making no decision whatsoever.”
Nicole von Gaza-Reavis moved here just over a year ago with her husband Mark Reavis, town and county planning director.
“We could have moved anywhere we wanted in the United States but this was the best fit for us,” von Gaza-Reavis said. “I could bring a lot to the table with a lot of the issues Silverton is facing.”
She said some employee turnover at Town Hall may be related to uncompetitive wages.
Following the opening statements, Silverton high school students launched into the questions.
QUESTION: One of Silverton’s struggles is the winter economy and providing sustainable, year-round jobs. What do you think should be the town’s role in improving employment opportunities?
Molina said there is no single answer to that question.
He supported more diversification of the tourism-based economy.
“The tourist economy is strong and great. But we need to do things outside of that,” Molina said. And pointing to the meager snowpack this year, he suggested that “we have to find something that is less dependent on snow conditions.”
Von Gaza-Reavis suggested snowmaking for the town-owned Kendall Mountain Ski Area.
She said the town hasn’t felt very “vibrant and vital” this winter.
“We need to work on the business district. As we work together, those jobs will come but it does take money.”
Graham said that “whether or not we have a winter with no snow or a summer with fires, I think we’ve got a common theme here. We need economic diversity. The truth is that we need to diversify within tourism and beyond tourism.”
She said the town needs to attract light industry and enhance incentives for small businesses.
“The best way to create year-round jobs is through the private sector.”
Barela said the town’s stagnant population is a significant issue.
“We need humans. We need affordable housing,” Barela said.
She suggested the town should allow homes to be built on single lots instead of the current 2-lot minimum.
“We need to focus on the planning department and expand certain areas that have been zoned very narrowly,” Barela said. “We do tend to focus a lot on tourism but there is so much more we can expand into.”
Lashley said he’s “already seen the winter economy grow quite a bit compared to what it was. Expansion of winter events doesn’t mean just success for one business, it means success for all of us.”
He endorsed improvements and expansion to Kendall Mountain.
“But beyond the winter economy, it means building a year-round economy as well, with more families and more diversity. We can build a lot upon what we already have.”
Curnow said that “just like we do in the summer, we have to look to tourism. Half the battle in winter is getting people here. To get them here, first we pray for snow, then as soon as Kendall Mountain opens we should hang a banner at the entrance to town.”
She said the town needs to be more lit up for Christmas and after the holidays too.
“I also think we can begin creating ice for the rink in November with no excuses, and work on a safety plan for skijoring. Let’s bring that event back with a bang.
“And let’s break some ground at Anvil Mountain (subdivision) and build affordable housing for people to stay here year-round.”
Baldwin said the town has “year-round things to do,” and tourism remains the town’s focus.
“I’m going to throw out an idea. Why aren’t we selling the winter when people are here in summer?”
And he suggested trying to lure recreational vehicle manufacturers to set up showrooms here.
Maxfield said government spends your money.
“They need to get out of the way. They don’t make jobs. I would love to see a business association. Government needs to get out of the way.”
He said the town needs to work on affordable housing.
“We need places for people to live,” Maxfield said. “One of these days we’re going to look like Telluride and god forbid that one.”
QUESTION: Recreation is a big part of Silverton’s economy, and as a community we’ve been talking about how best to use Kendall Mountain. What recreation opportunities do you think the town should develop to draw in visitors and for locals’ enjoyment?
Von Gaza-Reavis pointed out that the town does not have much actual land to work with, but is working with the BLM on more development at Kendall Mountain.
“The recreational opportunities are here. We live in paradise. Kendall would be an obvious focus to look to expand opportunities for the area. It needs to be promoted out of town. In the summer time we should be promoting winter.”
Baldwin said the Kendall Mountain Community Center is a great place to lure more large groups to town.
“And I would like to see it used for more community events,” Baldwin said.
Maxfield recalled “when the mines shut down a bunch of us got together. There was an old warming hut (at Kendall). We got hammers and saws and out of that came that building (the Kendall Mountain Community Center). Then Bill Alsup came along and we got the chairlift. A lot can be done. The only thing that restricts us is finances and ideas.”
Maxfield said he’d like to see a structure for the skating rink that could also serve as a concert venue in the summer.
Curnow said the town has under-utilized its “existing recreational strongholds and facilities” and has been inhospitable to large groups.
She emphasized promotion to bring more visitors here.
“As our assets begin to turn a profit, then we can go to the town with a list” of further improvements.
Graham said the town is already surrounded by world-class mountains.
She supports development of snowmaking, a terrain park, grooming more Nordic trails.
“Many of those things can be done inexpensively. We can attract more visitors with thoughtful expansion and marketing. Silverton has the ingredients to make everyone happy, and everyone’s kids happy.”
Molina suggested Nordic skiing at the softball field and track and he pointed out development of an ice park for climbing is also in the works.
“We should have music festivals in the shoulder seasons when we need to keep our jobs,” Barela said.
“Kendall as a whole is highly under-utilized. It’s a social media issue.”
Lashley agreed that “Kendall is one of the most under-utilized resources we have in town. We have to expand what we have.”
He pointed out that he “mapped out 18 holes of Frisbee golf there a few years ago.”
And he also suggested more music events.
QUESTION: As high school students, we’ll be graduating and leaving Silverton for school in the next couple of years. What would you do as a Town Board member to make Silverton a town I would want to come back and live in after college?
Graham says she supports efforts to develop affordable housing and business startups, with an emphasis on information technologies.
“Our students I believe will want to come back and raise their families here. They know how great the preschool and Silverton public schools are,” Graham said.
She said the town needs to develop more culturally, with more art, music and theatre.
“I know how imaginative you are,” Graham told the students. “When you come back you will create opportunity for the next generation.”
“I pretty much am this question,” Barela said.
Growing up in Silverton she was eager to get away.
“And then the only thing I could think about was coming back. There is that sense of community, home, belonging. It’s up to you. Why do you want to come back? What can you do? And you’ll need a place to live.”
Molina advised students to “go out, travel, experience the world and learn what everyone else is doing. And you will eventually realize the shortcomings and needs this town has. You’re going to want to come back, eventually. But expecting people to come back right after college isn’t exactly realistic. It’s good to get out there and have a life, too.”
Curnow said it’s important for students to find their own paths.
“I love Silverton and I chose Silverton. My job as a mom and as an adult is to get those kiddos on their own path and not put them on autopilot to just come right back and live the life I chose. Maybe they’ll return. I know my kids will visit here the rest of their lives. But they’ve got to chart their own paths.”
Baldwin said the question “is almost backwards, in my mind. If you come back here, terrific. It’s like a magnet. People leave but they try to come back. When you come back, come back prepared.”
Von Gaza-Reavis said “I hope when you guys leave you have a great experience and if you want to come back, come back. You’ll come back and you’ll bring skill, knowledge, what you want to do and realize the value of what you have to offer. One things this town falls short on is valuing what we have to offer.”
“One thing we can do before you leave is to give you good community values,” Lashley said. “As a town board member one thing we can do for you is keep the same values we have today that make it a great place to have a family. And we’re working on affordable housing. If you come back and earn it, there’s always a place for you and you guys know that.”
“What can the Town Board do for you?” Maxfield askd. They can hold it together until you get back. Go out and get a great education, learn, see the big cities. When you get out of college come back and relay those stories. Do the greatest things you can possibly do when you leave here. Take this town with you. Remember the stuff you learned here — and all of you learned a lot. Come back, bring your ideas and make us even better.”
Two questions from the audience were then fielded by the candidates.
QUESTION: Are you OHV-friendly and do you believe it is a critical part of our local economy?
In the April 2014 election, town voters approved designated routes for ATVs and other unlicensed off-road vehicles.
Barela left little doubt how she felt about it.
“Yes, I am OHV friendly,” she said, pointing to the economic boost it’s given the town. “You can just go back in the (sales tax) history and see it. Was it the only part? No. But that is a driving force of our economy now. They’re here. They come with their money. It’s low-hanging fruit.”
But Barela lauded the town’s trail-visioning process, “to make sure we keep a diverse outdoor recreation base — winter and summer.”
Curnow said she too supports allowing OHVs in town.
“I think it’s indisputable that it impacts the economy positively for Silverton.”
Maxfield said “my job depends on “OHVs. I have a love-hate relationship with them. I have to go up the road and they tear it up. I’m ATV friendly most days. Some days they’re in my way.”
Baldwin noted that “I was one of those who put the issue on the ballot the first time.”
But he said the ATV routes need to be modified, noting that his automotive repair shop is in the business district “and people cannot get to my shop since I am not on the route.”
He cited an example of a visitor slapped with a $75 fine for parking near the post office.
“It’s important for our economy. Tax revenue has grown steadily the last three years.”
Molina said he too is OHV friendly.
“It’s really difficult to make an argument that it is not highly influential in our economic development.”
But he said it’s a big responsibility to make the backcountry accessible “and at the same time make it safe, not just for the riders. Lots of people use those trails.”
Von Gaza-Reavis said she is “absolutely in favor of OHVs. I’d like to own one myself. The OHV people in town paid my bills. I spent time with them when they would get pushed out of the mountains due to storms.”
She said a lot of OHV operators seemed to be embarrassed “about the hoopla.”
Graham said that it’s been “a challenging issue and it has been difficult for this town. I think for right now we’ve made certain decisions, and it’s water under the bridge.”
But she said she remains concerned about diversifying the recreation-based economy.
“We want to welcome everyone who have all kinds of ways of being in the mountains. We’re accustomed to a one-dimensional economy with mining and now tourism. I think we need to get away from that.”
Lashley said he is not only OHV friendly, he owns several himself.
“I think we have a long way to go with encouraging responsibility and safety. While I am OHV friendly, I think we can do a lot to improve it.”
QUESTION: What is your gift or unique strength you will bring to the Town Board if elected?
Maxfield said that “30 years of living in this town has given me a lot of experience. I’ve seen a lot of great times here, folks, and a lot of hard times. I’ve been in emergency services the full 30 years. It’s been enjoyable and remarkable. One of my strengths is living in this town. This town is my strength.”
Graham said she has served on a lot of boards and “I have a good feel how boards work with organizations. She served as the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce board president and has been “very involved in Silverton ever since then. I probably know most of you. I think I am a good problem solver and I think I would be able to be helpful on the Town Board.”
Curnow said she likes to work.
“I know how to fund-raise and make money and turn things into profitable assets. I have connections in Washington and I understand the appropriate function of the government. Those would be my strengths.”
“What I bring to the Town Board is my knowledge of government,” von Gaza-Reavis said. “I am married to a public servant. That’s really how I learned to be a public servant. Everyone needs to be heard. I’m a problem solver.”
Lashley said he grew up in the area and has a lot of experience in government already. His father served on the Durango City Council. And as a student council member at Durango High he used to attend school board, city council and PTA meetings.
“I have a fairly unique approach to the way I study issues and the way I listen to a lot of the underlining tones,” Lashley said.
“I like to jabber,” said Baldwin. “I will talk and you’re welcome to come by my shop and talk to me. I have worked in government for 28 years. It is taxpayer money and it is not theirs.”
“I’m a doer,” Barela said. “I see a problem, I get it fixed. When I changed my jewelry store to a brewery I did a tremendous amount of research.”
Barela pointed out she is president of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce and treasurer of the OHV club.
“The main thing is I don’t play party-line politics. This is about a community, not about if you are a D, or an R or an I.”
Molina said he has a lot of patience.
“I like hearing what people have to say and I like hearing their stories and hearing what their goals are and how they can best help the community. But sometimes patience is not necessary and action is, and I think I am good at identifying those things.”
The eight candidates for the three open Town Board seats then gave closing remarks, starting with Austin Lashley.
“If you guys elect me to the Town Board I promise to be here for this town in a critical time its history.”
Lashley said that he’s willing to listen, to act and think about the future.
“I’m here for that.”
Von Gaza-Reavis said she is “dedicated to putting the time in that this position requires. I will be available to talk to anyone. I would like people to understand the budget, the enterprise fund. I will be there any time to answer questions.”
Curnow expressed thanks to those who signed her petition to get on the ballot.
“I’m honored to be here tonight. I would be honored to answer questions any time. Stop by the house. It would truly just be an honor to represent you on the board.”
Baldwin said he intends to die in Silverton.
“I really enjoy this place. I feel I have something to offer and I want to see this town succeed. Right now, we’re floundering a bit.”
Baldwin said the town needs to grow and “start making dreams come true again.”
Molina said it was encouraging to see the large attendance.
“Community involvement is a major thing. If there are really big issues, we can’t do it behind closed doors. It’s not always about change. A lot of times it’s about compromise, and listening to each other as neighbors and friends.”
“I think we are more alike than we are different,” Graham said. “And I want to thank you all for showing up tonight. This has been a great meeting, I think.”
Maxfield thanked the Silverton high school students for moderating the forum.
“You’re the future of Silverton and San Juan County. My time is coming to an end in the next few years. Step up here and make us all proud.”
Maxfield said “it’s not rocket science. We need water in, sewer out. We need finances taken care of. It takes all of you. We have got to come together and have a conversation.”