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OVPP develops plan to tackle social and economic issues

Strategy looks at four areas of concern 

by Olivia Lueckemeyer

Representatives of the One Valley Prosperity Project (OVPP) recently introduced a plan to address four areas of concern hindering the wellbeing of Gunnison Valley’s social and economic landscape. At a meeting on March 8, proposed actions to tackle these issues were presented to the Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners.

According to Community Development Department director Russ Forrest and senior planner Cathie Pagano, public engagement and interest in the project has been substantial. Approximately 1,500 people from up and down-valley have participated, including youth, seniors, immigrants, second-home owners and full-time residents.

“This is an exciting project that has come from an enormous amount of public input and has looked at an enormous amount of data and information,” Forrest said.

To provide economic opportunities and protect community values, Forrest specified four problem areas in need of reform: community health; housing; sustainable tourism and recreation; and economic resiliency.

“We are focused in four technical areas which come from real data and real challenges we are seeing or hearing about directly from the public,” Forrest said.

To address the issue of community health, OVPP referenced poverty statistics. Seventeen percent of the total population and 25 percent of children in the Gunnison Valley live below the poverty line.

Pagano says the OVPP is in the process of developing a directory of health care provider resources. It will also pursue health care shortage designations for dental care, since very few dentists in the valley currently accept Medicaid.

“Most of our folks are having to go to Montrose for dental care and there are some pediatric dental issues, especially around low income,” Pagano said. “We also need to maintain relationships with upcoming physicians in school right now so we can keep funneling people here for our medical needs.”

OVPP is also working with the housing authority on quality and quantity, an action that will be assisted by representatives of the Gunnison Congregational Church.

“We heard from a number of people, particularly in the immigrant community, that housing and rental quality is sub-par. There are issues around insulation and maintenance,” Pagano said.

In the childcare arena, OVPP is working to expand food access to children, especially on weekends and school breaks; plans to expand youth mentor opportunities; and plans to reduce the number of families on the Childcare Assistance Program waitlist by working with the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley to develop tuition assistance.

When addressing the housing crisis, Pagano acknowledged that the issue is complex and actions are ongoing. The lack of affordable housing up and down-valley prompted OVPP to develop measures to relieve the situation.

“We need to find a sustainable money source for affordable housing,” Pagano said. “The Regional Housing Authority is a great place to start, but they can’t take care of everything.”

Commissioner Paula Swenson pointed to the recently constructed Anthracite Place as a model of how future affordable housing projects should be handled.

“The big thing to look at is Anthracite,” Swenson said. “It didn’t break anyone’s bank and everyone contributed. We need to have a strategic plan. Instead of saying we need more money, let’s figure out what the projects are.”

Proposed actions include ensuring a regulatory environment that supports and enables the development of affordable housing by identifying incentives and streamlining processes; identifying specific properties for land banking; and stabilizing the Regional Housing Authority by establishing a permanent revenue fund to support ongoing operations.

Forrest also identified the need to enhance and better manage tourism. Between 1991 and 2015, Highway 135 experienced a 64 percent increase in traffic. However, even though summer tourism is increasing, skier days in recent seasons have declined, so the OVPP is looking at ways to increase winter visitation.

“How can we enhance tourism in the winter?” Forrest asked. “We have plenty of occupancy in Gunnison, and we can start repositioning it as a hub for winter activity.”

Other actions in the sustainable tourism and recreation segment of the strategy include forming a comprehensive plan for both summer and winter trails; creating a website for special events; and managing dispersed camping, particularly in Gothic and Oh Be Joyful.

“Our federal partners have helped with managing dispersed camping, and we need to do a better job of communicating with guests about where they can and can’t camp,” Forrest said.

On the topic of improving economic resiliency, Forrest acknowledged that creating a great sense of place is how a mountain community drives business. Plans to revitalize downtown Gunnison are underway to improve the area.

“This has been a real center point and there are a variety of new projects that leadership within the city is embracing,” Forrest said.

There are also actions underway to improve interface with the valley’s communities by aligning plans and policies to support desired development patterns. Forrest cited Crested Butte South in particular as an area that would be approaching the commissioners for help with development.

“Crested Butte South has a strong strategic goal and they think they need a tune-up of their master plan,” Forrest explained. “They have real developers that are interested in doing something but they are hitting their heads on specific development parameters. So they are going to want to talk to you in the near future about collaboration there.”

Forrest emphasized the need to create infrastructure to attract entrepreneurs and support those who are already in the valley. He cited WSCU’s Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE) House program, as well as university president Greg Salsbury’s plans to develop a more active internship program to achieve these goals.

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