A fresh look at economic development in the County

From the bottom up

Stand around the Crested Butte post office on Elk Avenue for a day, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that the Gunnison Valley is a community of ideas. We all know the best way to care for our community and energize the Gunnison Valley economy. More flights into the airport. Better partnership between the ski resort and town. Greater focus on marketing for the college.




But what isn’t always clear? The best way to make those solutions real. A recent economic development summit, spearheaded by county commissioner Paula Swenson as part of Governor Hickenlooper’s “Bottom Up” economic development initiative, is giving voice to those ideas with the goal of sparking real and positive change in the valley.
Forty-five countywide representatives from local businesses, Western State College, the municipalities and the public, met in Gunnison on March 23 to begin to answer a familiar and often challenging question: What would a Gunnison County economic development plan look like?
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Swenson said. “But Governor Hickenlooper’s Bottom Up initiative was the impetus to start doing it.”
Swenson, who was invited to represent Gunnison County at a regional meeting last year, created a sample plan to spark discussion among the group. She hopes to have a final plan ready for the governor by the May 11 deadline.
“We had great participation from the core group. We were able to have a candid conversation,” Swenson said. “There were a couple of times where people weren’t very much in agreement. But we’re moving things along and covering a lot of ground with a lot of good discussion. I’m hoping that after a second meeting we will have a good plan to start rolling out [to the community and share with the governor].”
As part of the governor’s Bottom Up initiative, Gov. Hickenlooper has requested that each of the 65 counties in Colorado identify five strategies to stimulate local economic development. Those priorities, according to Gunnison Chamber of Commerce executive director Tammy Scott, will be rolled into a regional economic plan which in turn become part of a statewide economic development plan.
“Right after his inaugural speech, the governor declared that in the first 90 days of his term, he wanted to achieve economic development throughout the state,” Scott said. “He held regional meetings with every county in the state, asking for information from all of them.”
The goal for Gunnison County, according to Scott, is to come up with an economic plan that everyone can feel comfortable working with.
“That’s really our goal—to obtain views that everyone can agree upon for the next five years. More general goals, not as specific as we need to be to make economic development happen but general enough to be approved by the governor and get support.”
It is a tall order for such a quick timeline. Paul Gray, executive director of Region 10, a league for economic assistance and planning, helped facilitate the meeting.
“One of the shortcomings most everyone acknowledges with the Governors’ bottom up economic development process was that it has a very, very short timeframe. Most every county in the state was unprepared for this. A lot of the ideas being brought forth are opinions and ideas that may or may not be based on the facts,” Gray said.
But according to Gray, Gunnison County has an advantage, thanks to a 2009 economic assessment of the county by Paul Holden, director of the Enterprise Research Institute.
“Having Holden’s study gave Gunnison County the benefit of analysis and facts by someone who’s an expert,” Gray said.
At last week’s summit, that meant participants could dive right in, tossing around five or six solid ideas to boost the local economy.
“For example,” Swenson said. “Making infrastructure stronger and better, like telecommunications.  Even though we have broadband, ours is getting slower and slower because we don’t have the infrastructure in place.”
Or, as highlighted by airline negotiations with the Gunnison Valley Regional Transportation Authority and Crested Butte Mountain Resort, how the valley stabilizes and secures air transportation.
“Can we do it on a more regional level?” Swenson said. “Partner with Montrose to bring transportation into the community?”
The great thing, according to Swenson, is that “nobody is saying we will do this or we won’t do that.” It’s a collaborative discussion that she hopes could lead to reestablishing an economic development committee or creating a position to move these ideas forward.
The lack of a countywide partnership has in part been highlighted by a countywide economic survey currently being conducted as part of the Bottom Up initiative. So far, nearly half of respondents have indicated that they are unaware of existing partnerships between businesses and governments to improve the economy.
The survey itself is distinct from the summit, but Eric McPhail, director of CSU Cooperative Extension, will share the results with the summit at its next meeting in April.
“The survey is ten questions. What do you see as the strengths of your community? What do you see as the opportunities?” McPhail said. “The governor hopes to see what communities are feeling, and that’s every man, woman, child, dog—whoever. They want to hear from everybody, not just leaders of the community.
“What it’s saying so far is we’re really focused on tourism,” McPhail continued. “We see that as probably our biggest strength. The biggest weakness that sticks out is access and proximity to markets. Probably our biggest economic threat or limitation is going be the volatility of our business cycle, the boom and bust. And so far, everybody sees economic opportunities as tourism—that was huge—and our attractive community and the quality of life in Gunnison County.”
In addition to participating in the survey by April 7, the public will also have the opportunity to give input into the Gunnison County plan through Town Council meetings and county commissioners meetings.
“Our goal is to have each municipality adopt this plan so we can carry it forward as a county,” Scott said. “If we can have a finalized plan after April, [the opportunity to give input] would be at the very next schedule meetings so we can make the May 11 deadline for the governor.”
It’s an ambitious schedule, and an ambitious goal. But commissioner Swenson is optimistic.
“I might be little Pollyannaish, but I believe we can move forward.”
To participate in the economic survey, go to http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/462074/County-Economic-Development-Self-Assessment-Survey.

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