30 June 2010: Henderson Gap

Wake up and deal with the Henderson Gap

“To provide effective, efficient services while fostering sustainable economic growth to enhance our mountain lifestyle.”

— Clear Creek County mission statement
Quiz time: The Henderson Gap is located between a) Guanella and Loveland passes; b) Berthoud Pass and James Peak; c) Oh My Gawd Road and St. Mary’s once-known-as Glacier; d) none.

The correct answer, of course, is D because the Henderson Gap is not a geographical site but an economic concept: the revenue shortfall the county and schools will face once the Henderson Mine shuts down.

Henderson provides 70 percent of the current tax base, which leaves the rest of us, personal and commercial, with less than a third of the obligation. For the tax base to continue at its current level, multiply your property taxes by 3.33.

That would be the additional amount of your 2030 tax share, assuming you’re not dead, in which case nothing matters except maybe explaining past indiscretions. So, it’s not about merely doubling, but more than tripling your current tax obligation (3.33 x 30 = 99.9).

The caveat is that with the Henderson Mine’s 2010 valuation being at a record high, it has, according to Commissioner Kevin O’Malley, allowed the county to schedule long neglected maintenance and capital improvement projects, funding infrastructure projects unaffordable under normal circumstances.

“If we knew that our total valuation would stay at the 2010 level going forward,” says O’Malley, “the county would not need to maintain our current mill levy.”

But alas and alack, with market fluctuations and molybdenum being a finite resource, we — taxpaying citizens — will be picking up the tab.

The polarizing brouhaha over the Eclipse project brings this into focus. In January 2008, I wrote in context of countywide growth and development, “Eclipse is Michael Coors’ $1.65 million trip to the theater, and one day he’ll outgrow it, insisting next on the keys to the car, dude.” He might have outgrown it, but then it is his money; and even if he were anxious to be parted from it, why should we be so foolish not to aid and abet him?

In hindsight, I admit to being overly harsh with him and even confessed in the next sentence “to stereotyping when I think of development.” Mea culpa, Eclipse supporters.

With Ronald Reagan came a resurgence of an old philosophy of life in America not seen since the Gilded Age: It’s about me. That maxim has a corollary: NIMBY — Not In My Backyard.

There were arguments about the safety of Fall River Road, which will remain unsafe without the project, but let’s be honest: the reason folks living on Fall River Road — let the letter writing commence — fought the initiative: they don’t want the traffic volume.

And that is part of a countywide, from Floyd Hill to Georgetown, attitude about development. When one is well-heeled or at least comfortable and will be out of here, either through moving or dying before the piper needs to be paid, it’s easy to sleep with visions of sugar plums dancing in the head.

The Eclipse project might’ve made it or might’ve failed, and we’ll likely never know; but one thing is for sure: It is another signal Clear Creek, like the iconic Red Ram, the place to be in Georgetown for generations, is not open for business. The difference: the Red Ram would love to have a taker.

At a stop in Idaho Springs last week, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper talked about his early days as a brewpub entrepreneur in what is now called LoDo during the mid 1980s. To encourage more business, he took the counterintuitive step of posting ads for competitors in his micro brewery.

“Our competition,” he points out, “was not other restaurants and bars, but the TV. We had to get people out of their homes first.”

Imagine that.

To be fair, for the rest of us to close the Henderson Gap and maintain the current level of services, O’Malley says, “A more reasonable, realistic and sustained tax base would require a vote to double our property taxes, perhaps slightly more.” All those in favor, wave your hands.

At the national level, there has been tremendous uproar about the debt we are leaving to future generations and understandably so. The same is happening in Clear Creek. Fat, sated and blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead, we take Henderson for granted, just like many did about their incomes when they leveraged themselves into greater debt prior to the Great Recession.

It’s one thing to drive into the future, like preservationists, with eyes glued on the rearview mirror, but quite another with eyes glued shut, missing the warning sign that reads, “Beyond the cliff dead ahead lies the Henderson Gap,” a real place after all.

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