Editorial: The Dillon Amphitheater squabble is more about incompetence than religious favoritism

Estimated read time 4 min read

The squabble in Dillon over who gets to use the city’s bucolic amphitheater could get turned down a notch or two if elected officials just exercised a little common sense.

Our public facilities can’t be run on a first-come-first-serve basis for 40 years. When you add in the specter of religious favoritism by a government entity, all of a sudden you’ll have threats of lawsuits on your hands. But religion isn’t the issue here.

Dillon Community Church began using the old town band-shell next to Lake Dillon four decades ago for non-denominational Sunday morning services. Last year the church paid a nominal $1,100 rental fee to use the facility, but now the newly remodeled stage is in higher demand, and the city must do what’s right for the community – open up access, increase fees to generate some revenue and set content-neutral rules.

Taxpayers spent almost $10 million in 2018 to rebuild the modern amphitheater caught in the headlines today. The town took out $5 million in loans for the project. Taxpayers have an interest in seeing the amphitheater generate a financial return on their investment or at the very least collect reasonable fees to help pay for maintenance and long-term upkeep of the facility.

The facility can still be run as a public service that favors churches, charities and schools, and if the demand for use really is greater than the days available (likely limited to late spring, summer and early fall), then the town can run it as a lottery.

We imagine Dillon Community Church expected this day would come. They had a good run at the theater and we hope they can continue to use the facility sometimes, but at the end of the day, it belongs to taxpayers.

This isn’t rocket science.

The City of Denver has robust facility rental, athletic field and court reservation and special occasion park permit processes for parks and venues across the city. It’s all on a first-come first-serve basis, and no preference is given to who rented it the years before. For comparison purposes, the City Park Pavilion costs $1,500 to rent for 9 hours Friday through Sunday and the bandshell is another $440 with alcohol and $260 without.

We are astounded members of the Dillon Town Council were reluctant to act in the best interests of the community, and would instead show “loyalty” to Dillon Community Church.

When the Town Council’s attorney wisely suggested the policy needed to change, officials balked, she resigned and only now are the elected officials reconsidering.

This isn’t an issue that needs to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh whether church and state must be severed. The question is fundamental: Should any single entity get preferential treatment from the government over the best interests of taxpayers and the broader community? The answer is “no,” whether it is a church, a corporation, a charity or a school.

If a facility is open for public use, the fees must be set at a reasonable rate and it can’t be closed to all but one favored group – even if they thought of it first, 40 years ago, and it attracts 300 to 800 people to their event every Sunday during the summers.

Once the facility is opened up for public use by all, as it should have been in 2018, the activists itching for a lawsuit — the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the First Liberty Institute — can stand down.

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