Mining, infrastructure, and business incentives discussed
When the candidates running for the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners met for a fifth debate at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts on Sunday, October 19, the questions covered a range of topics but the conversation never strayed far from the economy.
Incumbent Democrats Hap Channell and Paula Swenson squared off against their Republican challengers Erich Ferchau and Doug Sparks, staying close to their respective campaign pitches during the Crested Butte News Candidates Forum.
The nearly two-hour event kept the candidates in familiar territory with questions from members of the audience on topics that included mining, residential and commercial development in the valley, county policy, and each candidate’s vision of the future.
After a three-minute opening statement during which each candidate gave a brief biography and their reasons for seeking office, candidates each had two minutes to answer questions that often showed them sharing ideas, and one minute to make rebuttals.
In the first question addressed to all of the candidates, county resident Bert Phillips asked them to summarize, in one word, what the single most important issue facing the Gunnison Valley would be during the upcoming term.
Moderator Denis Hall joked, “That’s a challenge for any politician.”
Channell started the responses by saying “energy efficiency.” Ferchau said the most important issue facing the valley was finding a “balance between core values and economic development.”
District 1 candidates Sparks and Swenson answered “economy” and “community,” respectively.
“I think having a sense of community is one of the things that sets Gunnison County apart from other counties,” Swenson said to explain her word choice.
Sparks expanded his choice of economy into, “…that’s how we keep our middle class here.”
Ferchau said, “I think we share a lot of the same core values: the clean air, the clean water, the outdoor recreation,” adding that he doesn’t think enough is being done to grow the county’s economy.
Channell expanded on “energy efficiency” by pointing out “It has been estimated that about $43 million per year is being leaked out of this valley because of energy payments that you and I make. So I think that is very much an issue of economic development.”
Continuing the focus on the economy, former Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt told the audience of past failed attempts to bolster the economy in the area and asked the republicans how their plans would overcome the barriers of inclement weather, poor access and the high costs of living that have been identified in the past.
Both Ferchau and Sparks answered that they would pursue technology and professional service industries that have a low environmental impact while recruiting people who have similar or complementary values to live in the valley.
Ferchau included software companies and financial services as businesses that would fit his idea of development. “What we need to do is build on our strengths,” he said.
Sparks expanded on the same idea and used his own experience traveling as evidence that a technology company in any country, or Gunnison County, can provide the same service with the proper infrastructure.
Swenson agreed that her opponent had done some good work overseas, but she said, “He has lived in Gunnison County for 15 years and has done zero in terms of economic development.”
After saying that Sparks had changed his mind about the types of business he wanted to recruit to the area, she echoed his argument that infrastructure needed to be the county’s focus in making the area attractive to business.
Channell, who has also supported improving infrastructure as a draw to businesses, took a different approach to the topic of economy, presenting the problem as an ongoing issue that currently has no solution. “I do think that government plays a role in economic development. But what we as a community have to decide is, “What is that role?’” he said.
Channell suggested that Ferchau’s enthusiasm for economic development could be put to better use on one of several community organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, that have the economy as their focus, rather than as a county commissioner.
“[Ferchau] has not broken ground on a commercial development in the Van Tuyl Village, which he has approval for. So what he is proposing to do as a commissioner he has not been able to, or has been unwilling to, do in the private sector,” he said.
Schmidt also asked the candidates for their view of the role mining will play in the valley’s economy. All of the candidates stayed on the safe road when approaching the proposed molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons, known as the Lucky Jack Project.
Ferchau began by saying, “I think that mining is a threat throughout the county.” He pointed out the numerous ore deposits throughout the county and expressed support for the citizens of the valley who were speaking out against the extractive industries.
Sparks took a similar tack but focused his answer on Lucky Jack and presented proximity and compatibility as reasons it would clash with the local economy.
“I don’t see any way that a mine could work with that kind of proximity to one of the centers of tourism in the county. The other reason is compatibility. I don’t think the tourist industry that we’ve created is compatible with local mining as would be demonstrated on Mt. Emmons,” said Sparks.
Channell said, “While all four of us need to be careful about not prejudicing any decisions that we might have to make sitting as county commissioners… I’m a trust the process guy and if the process isn’t right, we need to fix it.”
Swenson identified the county’s Special Project Development Regulations as a way to “to ensure that we have a process that will cover the health, safety and welfare of our community.”
The next several questions came from Mark Schumacher, owner of Three Rivers Resort in Almont. The first was regarding the right to float, specifically on the Taylor River, and all of the commissioners enthusiastically supported boater’s rights to pass through private property on area rivers.
Another question dealt with the linkage fee the county charges on development permits to finance an affordable housing program, asking why there was no coordination between the county and the municipalities to find a way to jointly fund the program.
Channell said some of the projects that could contribute to the program lie outside the county’s authority; he went on to explain that the goal of the linkage fee is to close the gap between the cost of housing and what members of the workforce make.
Swenson followed Channell, pointing out that the county is coordinating with all of the municipalities in the valley to address the affordable housing issue. “It is not just an issue with the county; it is an issue for all of our communities,” she said, adding that the Housing Authority is being restructured to be more inclusive.
Ferchau said he didn’t think the county should be the entity to address the affordable housing issue, since the needs are so varied between the municipalities, which is where the affordable housing should be located.
“It has taken them approximately three years to impose the linkage fee and it is being challenged in court. I think we needed to define the demand in understandable terms… and we also need to develop a plan for affordable housing that people can understand. That is a role the municipalities should take,” Ferchau said.
Sparks bemoaned the fact that the dispute over the linkage fee had to go to court when the commissioners had expressed their desire to come together collaboratively. “I think it would behoove us to look at this to see if there might be another way forward… without having the courts decide,” he said.
In the closing remarks, Swenson asked the audience to understand that although the county commissioners should encourage business growth, it is not their job to try to ensure it through incentives or recruitment. She said the board should be focused on protecting the health and welfare of county residents. “Infrastructure remains very vital and one of the most important jobs of a county commissioner,” she said.
Sparks said he brings an understanding of the 21st century to the table and will work to bring high-tech jobs that are compatible with community values to the county. He pointed to his international experience and his Western Slope roots as a combination that could help take the county into an era of new development. “Why not reach for excellence in everything we do?” asked Sparks.
Ferchau focused on the economy and ways he felt Gunnison County has the advantage over other parts of the state and world in his final remarks. “Let’s declare ourselves the center of excellence for sustainable building practices. Let’s build on our strengths,” he said, adding that he believes the commissioners play a vital role in stimulating the economy.
Channell proposed that the county set aside a portion of the revenue generated from the extraction industries operating in the county to mitigate the financial swings of boom and bust cycles and institute energy efficiency policies that promote the use of alternative energy in the county. He also pledged to follow the will of his constituents toward economic development and outlined his plan for the future of affordable housing.
Prior to the candidates’ debate, representatives from the town of Mt. Crested Butte and the RE1J school board made half-hour presentations on their respective bond issues. Both will seek to raise the mil levy for property owners to cover the costs of capital improvements in their districts.
Mt. Crested Butte town councilman Gary Keiser and mayor William Buck made the first presentation on initiatives 2A and 2B that would go toward providing the town with a reliable revenue stream, a new pedestrian bridge, road repairs and other amenities.
School board president MJ Vosburg and board member Anne Hausler presented the $55 million bond initiative that will increase the size of the overflowing Crested Butte Community School and provide renovations and upgrades to the district buildings.
The next, and final, Board of County Commissioners debate will be held in the Taylor Auditorium on the Western State College campus on Tuesday, October 28 at 7 p.m.