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‘Over the River’ moves forward

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Steeped with legal woes, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff’s, “Over the River” project took a step closer to becoming a reality earlier this year when the Federal District Court upheld the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to permit his artwork on the Arkansas River between Parkdale and Salida.

The Bulgarian-born artist is widely known as just Christo.

Known for such projects as “Surrounded Islands” in Florida, “Wrapped Reichstag” in Germany and “The Umbrellas” in California and Japan, Christo plans to hang 5.9 miles of silvery panels over the Arkansas River for a two-week period sometime in the future. One thousand panels will be interspersed over eight different sections along the 42-mile stretch between the Fremont-Chaffee county line to Parkdale.

In the early 1990s, Christo and artist Jeanne-Claude, who is now deceased, toured the entire Rocky Mountain states, looking for a site, said OTR spokesman Miles Graham.

“The artists actually traveled nearly 15,000 miles, visiting 89 rivers in seven Rocky Mountain states, searching for a location for ‘Over the River,'” he said. “They ultimately identified the Arkansas River between Salida and Canon City location because it provides a number of key (elements), such as the east/west orientation so the fabric panels capture the variety of contrasting sunlight from morning to evening. They have high river banks that allow steel cables to be suspended across the river and a road running along the river, (which) provides viewing, as well as a railroad that allows access for essential transportation. One of the key elements is to be able to see the works from underneath and that section of the most rafted rivers in the United States.”

If the decision is upheld, there are still a number of steps that need to take place to move forward with the project.

Initially, it began when Christo and Jeanne-Claude went through the preliminary proceedings and hurdles before requesting an Environmental Impact Statement be conducted, as well.

“It was determined an EIS was the best way to go forward,” Graham said. “That EIS process, (which took nearly three years) began in  2009. BLM issued its record of decision, approving the project in November 2011 then the EIS statement was the first ever that analyzed a work of art so it’s very unique in that respect.”

Some of the concerns that the EIS covered included traffic, endangering wildlife and not being able to transport victims in case of emergencies.

The EIS found there would be minor traffic problems during construction because of a limited time frame of construction activities, the study said. During the process, one lane of U.S. HWY 50 would have to be closed on a temporary basis, but it would not consist of more than a 40-foot stretch of the highway and would not last more than three minutes for any vehicle, the EIS said.   Also, the Colorado Department of Transportation would be in charge and it would be similar to the typical one-lane CDOT road repair closure that takes place on US-50 on a regular basis.

The EIS also stated the project would not block wildlife from going to the river for water or food. The project would take place when it would not interfere with breeding and nesting seasons, as well as create buffer zones for eagles and sheep.

During the viewing, Christo also plans to provide emergency response teams and equipment along strategic areas in the canyon in case of emergencies, as well as ambulances and helicopters.

Image Courtesy Over the River Project/Christo

Image Courtesy Over the River Project/Christo

“The artists intentionally altered their design to eliminate fabric panels from river locations that have a high incidence of rescue so that emergency responders can easily access the river. Christo will continue work with local municipalities and emergency responders,” the EIS said. “In fact, the Over the River Environmental Impact Statement will include specific emergency/incident response plans, which will benefit valley residents for years to come.”

According to an economic analysis by the BLM, the OTR project would bring an economic boom to Fremont, Chaffee, Pueblo and El Paso counties. The analysis found that it would create more than $121 million in total economic output within Colorado with 344,000 visitors during the 14-day exhibition period, generate $1.58 million in the state and local taxes, $583,000 tax revenue in Fremont and Chaffee counties, as well as 620 temporary jobs, $25.7 million in personal income and generate $57.2 million in economic output from visitor spending in Fremont, Chaffee, El Paso and Pueblo counties.

After the BLM approved its record of decision, a local group of residents formed the Rags Over The River Inc. and filed an appeal to the record of decision in July 2011. However, the complaint was denied and dismissed by the court. The ruling upheld the decision of State Parks to enter into an agreement to allow the OTR to use the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. At that point, ROAR appealed the decision.

“The first legal challenge was an appeal on the record of decision, which is the ultimate results on the Environmental Impact Statement,” Graham said. “That appeal to the IBLA was filed in December 2011. The Interior Board of Land Appeals issued a decision to reject the challenges to Over the River. The federal case, which was filed in February 2012, was put on hold until the IBLA ruled. That’s the ruling we just saw (Jan. 2).”

With the BLM’s approval of Over the River being reviewed and upheld by both the state and the federal court, the ruling makes “a strong statement about why all prior challenges to the federal permit have now been rejected,” a press release said. “Any appeal would be nothing more than another attempt to delay the project.”

But the team’s legal issues are not over yet.

“Now the decision to uphold the approval of  Over the River in state court is being appealed at the Colorado Court of Appeals,” Graham said. “That is the next decision (we’re still waiting to hear).”

If the decision is upheld, there are still a number of steps that need to take place to move forward with the project.

“We’re not speculating on timing right now,” Graham said. “Installation of Over the River requires 27 months to complete and it must commence in some future January. In order to even get there, there’s a lead time for ordering materials and there are still a few permits and filing with BLM and other agencies. Given the perplexity of the scheduling and the final permitting that must begin well in advance of actual construction, we’re not speculating on a timeline at this point. We’re moving forward.”

In the meantime, the Over the River project will be displayed for only two weeks in some future August then removed completely so there will be no sign that it ever existed, Graham said.

“The fabric will be transparent so when you’re floating below it, you can actually look up through the fabric and see the sky and clouds above and it does let sunlight in,” he said. “There’s enough sunlight that it doesn’t deter the sheep or anything.”

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The #WhatNow of #MeToo for the #COLeg

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AP Photo/David Zalubowski

When several lawmakers, lobbyists and staff at the state Legislature came forward this fall to allege they were victims of sexual harassment by lawmakers, two big questions followed: how often does this happen? What can be done to prevent more cases?

Reporters have asked state officials the first question repeatedly, returning to readers with little response from the state. The latter prompted a conversation from leadership, but as for what’s next—how the allegations, formal complaints, and legislature’s response—will impact politics under the gold dome and whether women will feel any safer is to be determined.

So far, top state lawmakers have decided to hire a human resources officer—who would be independent from the legislature—to be a contact person when incidents involving sexual harassment are brought forward. Now, leadership is tasked with handling and investigating such claims.

The group also decided to hire an independent consultant to review the legislature’s sexual harassment policy, and lawmakers, staff, and aides will undergo another round of sexual harassment training this year. Typically, those working at the Legislature are only required to go through training every two years.

Those changes are a good start, said Erin Hottenstein, executive director of Colorado 50/50, an organization that aims to get more women in public office. But the legislature stopped short of changing any current policies. And Colorado 50/50 called for an entire overhaul.

“I’m very pleased that there was a recognition that the policy needs to be improved,” Hottenstein said.

But there weren’t any specific recommendations regarding transparency, which Hottenstein said is significant in looking at what happens next.

Lawmakers and staff said they couldn’t disclose how many sexual harassment claims that leadership in each chamber have received because they were personnel issues.

“I think there’s a way to be transparent and safe,” Hottenstein said. “There should be a high- level summary document that shows on a certain date a sexual harassment complaint was made and who it was against and a date of a deposition and what the result was.”

Hottenstein said transparency becomes crucial in these cases because it leads to accountability and the public’s right to know what actions the people elected to office are taking.

In October, Pueblo Rep. Daneya Esgar broke her silence posting on Facebook that she was no stranger to sexual harassment and experienced it just a week earlier with a colleague she works with regularly as a lawmaker. The post was part of the #MeToo movement after a New York Times expose highlighted the stories of several women who said they’d been sexually harassed or assaulted by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Then, a flood of other allegations were brought to the surface in Colorado politics. Rep. Faith Winter said fellow House member Steve Lebsock had harassed her at a legislative party in 2016. Winter and a lobbyist say they filed formal complaints against Lebsock.

An intern said Sen. Randy Baumgardner harassed her with sexually suggestive comments. The same went for Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, who was accused of telling an intern that if she wanted to get ahead in her career, he could help.

Rep. Paul Rosenthal, who is openly gay, allegedly groped a man and used his seat to try and get a date with another.

But the case between Lebsock and Winter gained the most attention, even prompting Lebsock to take a polygraph test, which the administrator says he passed, to prove his innocence. Lebsock has hinted that the entire incident may be a case of dirty politics, alleging that Winter is the one lying.

When several lawmakers were asked if the case would mean a splintered Democratic party in the House, they were unsure, but optimistic about the session.

Still, there haven’t been any resignations over the allegations, though several, including leadership and editorial boards from across the state, said these legislators should step down from their seat. Some even called for House Speaker Crisanta Duran to step down from her position because she promoted Lebsock to a chairmanship despite knowing there was an incident between him and Winter.

The transparency piece has yet to be addressed by state lawmakers, and it’s unclear whether any policy or legislative changes will address that in the coming months. But for what it’s worth, the women who have broken their silence about sexual harassment in the Legislature are supportive of the changes leadership has discussed.

“I’m encouraged to see the direction leadership is taking when it comes to developing new and independent methods of dealing with complaints of sexual harassment at the Capitol,” said Esgar, who still hasn’t named the colleague she said grabbed her thigh at a legislative event earlier this year. “I’m hopeful that new ideas are still being formulated and considered, when it comes to ways to change the culture itself.”

The lawmaker added that a new session will certainly mean new ideas will come to light, “it’s our responsibility to lead the state in changing cultures to help make work environments safe and productive for all employees on every level.”

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20 cities primed on the Amazon wishlist to be its next HQ

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NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon’s second home could be in an already tech-heavy city, such as Boston, New York or Austin, Texas. Or it could be in the Midwest, say, Indianapolis or Columbus, Ohio. Or the company could go outside the U.S. altogether and set up shop in Toronto.

Those six locations, as well as 14 others, made it onto Amazon’s not-so-short shortlist Thursday of places under consideration for the online retailing giant’s second headquarters.

The 20 picks, narrowed down from 238 proposals, are concentrated mostly in the East and the Midwest and include several of the biggest metro areas in the country, such as Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles, the only West Coast city on the list.

The Seattle-based company set off fierce competition last fall when it announced that it was looking for a second home, promising 50,000 jobs and construction spending of more than $5 billion. Many cities drew up elaborate presentations that included rich financial incentives.

The list of finalists highlights a key challenge facing the U.S. economy: Jobs and economic growth are increasingly concentrated in a few large metro areas, mostly on the East and West Coasts and a few places in between, such as Texas.

Nearly all the cities on Amazon’s list already have growing economies, low unemployment and highly educated populations.

“Amazon has picked a bunch of winners,” said Richard Florida, an economic development expert and professor at the University of Toronto who helped develop that city’s bid. “It really reflects winner-take-all urbanism.”

Among those that didn’t make the cut were Detroit, a disappointment for those excited about progress since the city came out of bankruptcy, and Memphis, Tennessee, where the mayor said the city gave it its “best shot.” San Diego also failed to advance.

“Getting from 238 to 20 was very tough,” said Holly Sullivan, who oversees Amazon’s public policy. “All the proposals showed tremendous enthusiasm and creativity.”

Amazon said it will make a final selection sometime this year.

Besides Austin, another Texas city made the cut: Dallas. In the South, Miami and Atlanta are being considered.

Officials in cities that made the shortlist took the opportunity to further tout their locations, with Philadelphia’s mayor noting “all that Philadelphia has to offer” and officials in and around Pittsburgh citing the region’s “world-class talent pool” and other advantages.

Other contenders among the 20 include Denver; Montgomery County, Maryland; Nashville, Tennessee; Newark, New Jersey; Northern Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

“It’s a long list for a shortlist,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at job site Indeed.

He said Amazon may use the list to pit the locations against each other and get better tax breaks or other incentives. Two metro areas, New York and Washington, have more than one location on the list, increasing the competition there, he said.

“It’s hard to say whether all these places are in play or Amazon wanted to encourage continued competition,” Kolko said.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether locations would be able to change their proposals or offer better incentives, but said in a statement that it will “work with each of the candidate locations to dive deeper into their proposals.”

State and local governments played up the amenities they think make their locations the best choice. Some pulled off stunts to stand out, such as New York, which lit the Empire State Building in Amazon orange.

Some gimmicks didn’t work: Tucson, Arizona, which sent a 21-foot cactus to Seattle, did not make the list. Neither did Birmingham, Alabama, which installed giant replicas of Amazon’s Dash buttons.

The company had stipulated that it wanted to be near a metropolitan area with more than 1 million people, and nearly all of those on the shortlist have a metro population of at least double that.

Amazon also wanted to be able to attract top technical talent; be within 45 minutes of an international airport; have direct access to mass transit; and be able to expand the headquarters to as much as 8 million square feet in the next decade.

But Amazon also made it very clear it wanted tax breaks, grants and any other incentives.

Boston’s offer includes $75 million for affordable housing for Amazon employees and others. Before leaving office Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie approved a measure to allow New Jersey to offer up to $5 billion to Amazon. Newark is also proposing $2 billion in tax breaks.

But many of the state and local governments competing for the headquarters have refused to disclose the financial incentives they offered. Of the 20 finalists, 13, including New York, Chicago and Miami, declined requests from The Associated Press to release their applications. Toronto’s mayor said Thursday that the city offered no financial incentives to woo Amazon.

Several said they don’t want their competitors to know what they’re offering, a stance that open-government advocates criticized.

Amazon plans to remain in its sprawling Seattle headquarters, and the second home base will be “a full equal” to it, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said.

The extra space will give the rapidly growing company room to spread out. It had nearly 542,000 employees at the end of September, a 77 percent jump from the year before. Some of that growth came from Amazon’s nearly $14 billion acquisition last year of the Whole Foods grocery chain and its 89,000 employees.

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Associated Press writers Josh Cornfield in Philadelphia, Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report. Rugaber contributed from Washington.

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Tourism still booms in Cuba but Trump’s tougher stance hurting private entrepreneurs

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HAVANA (AP) — On a sweltering early summer afternoon in Miami’s Little Havana, President Donald Trump told a cheering Cuban-American crowd that he was rolling back some of Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba in order to starve the island’s military-run economy of U.S. tourism dollars and ratchet up pressure for regime change.

That doesn’t appear to be happening. Travel to Cuba is booming from dozens of countries, including the U.S. And the tourism dollars from big-spending Americans seem to be heading into Cuba’s state sector and away from private business, according to Cuban state figures, experts and private business people themselves.

The government figures show that 2017 was a record year for tourism, with 4.7 million visitors pumping more than $3 billion into the island’s otherwise struggling economy. The number of American travelers rose to 619,000, more than six times the pre-Obama level. But amid the boom — an 18 percent increase over 2016 — owners of private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts are reporting a sharp drop-off.

“There was an explosion of tourists in the months after President Obama’s detente announcement. They were everywhere!” said Rodolfo Morales, a retired government worker who rents two rooms in his home for about $30 a night. “Since then, it’s fallen off.”

The ultimate destination of American tourism spending in Cuba seems an obscure data point, but it’s highly relevant to a decades-old goal of American foreign policy — encouraging change in Cuba’s single-party, centrally planned system. For more than 50 years, Washington sought to strangle nearly all trade with the island in hopes of spurring economic collapse. Obama changed that policy to one of promoting engagement as a way of strengthening a Cuban private sector that could grow into a middle class empowered to demand reform.

Cuba’s tourism boom began shortly after Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December 2014 that their countries would re-establish diplomatic relations and move toward normalization. U.S. cruise ships began docking in the Bay of Havana and U.S. airlines started regular flights to cities across the island. Overall tourism last year was up 56 percent over Cuba’s roughly 3 million visitors in 2014.

While the U.S. prohibits tourism to Cuba, Americans can travel here for specially designated purposes like religious activity or the vaguely defined category of “people-to-people” cultural interaction.

Obama allowed individuals to participate in “people-to-people” activities outside official tour groups. Hundreds of thousands of Americans responded by designing their own Cuban vacations without fear of government penalties. Since Cuba largely steers tour groups to government-run facilities, Americans traveling on their own became a vital market for the island’s private entrepreneurs, hotly desired for their free spending, heavy tipping and a desire to see a “real” Cuba beyond all-inclusive beach resorts and quick stops on tour buses. The surge helped travel-related businesses maintain their role as by far the most successful players in Cuba’s small but growing private sector.

Trump’s new policy re-imposed the required for “people-to-people” travel to take place only in tour groups, which depend largely on Cuban government transportation and guides.

As a result, many private business people are seeing so many fewer Americans that it feels like their numbers are dropping, even though the statistics say otherwise.

“Tourism has grown in Cuba, with the exception of American tourism,” said Nelson Lopez, a private tour guide. “But I’m sure that sometime soon they’ll be back.”

While Trump’s new rules didn’t take effect until November, their announcement in June led to an almost immediate slackening in business from individual Americans, many Cuban entrepreneurs say. The situation was worsened by Hurricane Irma striking Cuba’s northern coast in September and by a Cuban government freeze on new licenses for businesses including restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Cuban officials say the freeze was needed to control tax evasion, purchase of stolen state goods and other illegality in the private sector, but it’s had the effect of further restricting private-sector activity in the wake of Trump’s policy change.

Cuban state tourism officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump’s policy changes did not touch flights or cruise ships. Jose Luis Perello, a tourism expert at the University of Havana, said more than 541,000 cruise ship passengers visited Cuba in 2017, compared with 184,000 the previous year. Even as entrepreneurs see fewer American clients, many of those cruise passengers are coming from the United States, he said.

Yunaika Estanque, who runs a three-room bed-and-breakfast overlooking the Bay of Havana, says she has been able to weather a sharp drop in American guests because a British tour agency still sends her clients, but things still aren’t good.

“Without a doubt our best year was 2016, before the Trump presidency,” she said. “I’ve been talking with other bed-and-breakfast owners and they’re in bad shape.”

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