It was once a bustling truck stop, complete with rows of fuel stations, a popular diner, a convenience store and long-hauler accommodations.
It’s ideal location next to the Colorado port-of-entry meant every semi trailer had to pull into its parking lot, and they usually stopped for services.
But then in 2001, after decades in business, the M&M truck stop at County Road G and U.S. 160 inexplicably closed. And ever since, the large complex has deteriorated, becoming an graffiti-tagged, abandoned eyesore on a main route into Cortez.
Its fate has long been a question on the minds of locals. And at a recent Montezuma county commission meeting its backstory of neglect, environmental cleanup, and tax liens emerged.
Mark Walker, former brownsfield specialist for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, knows about the M&M’s troubles. He wants to help see the 4-acre site cleaned up and redeveloped.
“I am encouraging the county to take a more active role,” Walker said during a presentation this week. “This area relies on tourism, and that is the first thing they see coming into town.”
The deserted truck stop is in a state of limbo, and is missing out on environmental clean-up programs earmarked for damaged and abandoned gas stations.
In 1993, a fuel leak was detected at the M&M, Walker said, but it was never dealt with. Since then, it has become a pollution concern and a candidate for brownsfield funding.
The M&M’s current owner is listed as Abas Energy INC., of Ontario, Calif., according to county treasurer tax records.
Walker said current and former owners failed to follow through with securing state funding that would have covered most of the estimated $300,000 to $500,000 cleanup costs.
“As a consequence for not doing anything, the site is out of compliance, and the state is progressively docking reimbursement costs for cleanup,” Walker said.
In 2011, Abas Energy Inc. stopped paying taxes on the property, according to the Montezuma County Treasures office.
As a result, a tax-lien sale was initiated by the county treasurer Sherry Dyess. Investor Merle Harrison, of Durango, agreed to pay the property taxes on M&M for 2011 and 2012, totaling almost $14,000.
Harrison’s business is acquiring distressed properties to revive and then resell.
But after the sale, he googled which property he was picking up the tax bill and was shocked.
“I thought it was for a different property to the north,” he said. “Not one with half a million dollars in environmental problems that I could be liable for, so it was a stupid mistake.”
After three years of paying the property taxes on a distressed property, holders of tax liens can apply for a treasurer deed and acquire the property with no sale price. More often, the property owner gets back on his feet and pays back his outstanding tax bill. The investor is awarded with 10 percent interest.
Harrison said he doesn’t want ownership and has no choice but to walk away from his mistake, at which point the property again goes to a tax-lien sale. He wanted to offer the county the chance to purchase the tax lien from him.
“Because they are a government agency, they have access to cleanup opportunities that as an individual I do not have,” Harrison said. “Negotiating a deal with me so I can recoup some of my costs would be cheaper than buying it off the market. It’s a good spot for a hotel or restaurant.”
Walker agreed that if the county had title to the property, it would be in a better position to negotiate a state-funded cleanup project that forgives previous penalties. He proposed that the county hire him to research the situation to see if a cleanup project is possible that would have minimal cost to the county.
“The private sector declined to do this,” he said. “My proposal is to have the community step in to bridge the funding gap to improve the economics of redevelopment.”
The commissioner plan to approach the city of Cortez to consider a cost-share on Walker’s proposed study.
The county could end up with the property anyway, explained Treasurer Sherry Dyess.
“If (Harrison) does not pay the current taxes on the property, then it goes back to a tax lien sale,” she said. “If there are no bidders, then the tax lien is struck to the county and they have to go through the same process.”
The county could then eventually acquire a treasurer deed for the property, sell it on the market, or redevelop it for public use.