Housing, aversion to change, and keeping it real highlight the conversation
By Toni Todd
The One Valley Prosperity Project, which began in 2015, was the Gunnison Valley’s year-and-a-half-long conversation with itself. Those discussions lead to a list of priorities locals believe are crucial for the community to thrive. The OVPP was nudged awake this past Thursday night with a pep rally of sorts at the ICElab at Western State Colorado University (WSCU).
County commissioner Jonathan Houck addressed the gathering of some 50 attendees with a recap of OVPP’s history. He noted skepticism on the part of many during the original discussion process, saying, “People said, ‘Great. Another plan that we’re going to put on a shelf.’”
Thursday’s meeting was, in part, designed to refute that, to share what’s been accomplished so far and to re-open discussion in order to continue moving forward. “We’re finding ways to figure out what we can do together,” Houck said. “Look where we’re sitting. The ICELab, an incubator for entrepreneurship.”
Houck ran down a list of accomplishments that he said have come directly from the OVPP plan. Countywide housing and health assessments have been completed. Additionally, he said, there are more mental health services; Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Program’s Sources of Strength program; a housing project proposed for Highway 135 and Brush Creek; the City of Gunnison’s recent grant award to improve the vitality of downtown; the birth of a new commercial area in Crested Butte South; the completion of a baseline trails report; and more.
“It’s a big group of people accomplishing these things,” Houck said. “We [Gunnison County] just re-did our strategic plan. Sixteen out of 20 things identified during the OVPP process are in that plan. We’re making choices about our future. In a time of doom and gloom, we’re swimming against that tide.”
Houck also touted the Civility Initiative. “We’re able to talk about things that are hard,” he said, suggesting not all communities can say that in these times of polarization and division.
Clark Anderson, executive director of Community Builders, facilitated the gathering. He said the OVPP process made clear some key characteristics of the community. “You guys are very closely connected… this is one of the most amazing places in the world, and yet, there are some real challenges here.” He listed the four priorities that came out of the OVPP discussions:
—Community health and equity
—Sustainable tourism and recreation
Clark announced the OVPP Indicators Project, an online dashboard that will provide data on key indicators, where anyone can track the community’s progress.
Two panels took the stage—the first focused on housing and community health, and the second on economic resiliency and sustainable tourism.
The first panel included former county commissioner and former interim Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority (GVRHA) director Paula Swenson; current GVRHA director Jennifer Kermode; Maryo Gard-Ewell from the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley; Margaret Walker from Gunnison County Public Health; and Jessica Vogan from the Center for Mental Health.
The panel agreed that the issue facing the community with the most impact is lack of housing. “We need to find new boxes to start thinking outside of,” said Kermode. “The free market is not working.” The housing assessment, initiated by former GVRHA director Karl Fulmer, identified a need of roughly 900 housing units in the Gunnison Valley by 2020.
“The Housing Authority alone cannot fix the housing crisis,” Swenson added. She said the average price of a home in Gunnison is $400,000. “But the average wage can only afford $250,000. The farther north you go, the higher it gets. Currently, we are able to subsidize eight to 12 units per year.” This, Swenson said, won’t cut it.
“We need 300 homes [right now] just to catch up,” added Kermode,” and 600 more to keep up to what we’ll need by 2020.”
“At $200,000 per unit, you’re looking at $80 million to build the housing that’s needed by 2020,” said Swenson.
George Sibley, who attended the meeting, suggested priorities are out of whack when it comes to housing. “We want density, but we don’t,” he said. “We have a lawn problem, not a housing problem.” Sibley said he recently converted his garage into a rental unit, and would like to do the same for his upstairs. “But that would make it a triplex, and that’s illegal.”
Kermode suggested it’s time to take a close look at zoning regulations. Swenson added that setback requirements in the towns and in the county should be evaluated, too.
“Is neighborhood opposition ever a factor?” asked Community Builders’ Anderson.
“Never.” joked Swenson.
The Housing Authority, said Kermode, will likely go to the voters this fall with a request to increase either lodging or property taxes to help pay for community housing needs.
Poverty and mental health were also acknowledged as persistent struggles.
“However,” said Walker, “we have a lot of great collaborative efforts going on.”
“There’s a human tendency to let the experts handle it,” added Gard-Ewell. “If we remain siloed, we can’t address these problems.”
Walker said a Community Health Coalition has been formed to bring providers of health care together to address issues more holistically. She noted the addition of Gunnipacks for youth over the summer. Gunnipacks provide meals for kids over the weekend during the school year, with food supplied by the Gunnison Food Pantry.
Vogan said the County Health Assessment identified behavioral health as a pressing need. She addressed the recent suicides that have wracked the community. “We needed to react to this tragedy,” she said. “We now have a community organizer for suicide prevention.”
Gard-Ewell noted individuals who play important support roles in our community, helping some of our most vulnerable residents. Many locals are unaware, she said, that these jobs are not salaried, county positions. She suggested that if we value what these people do for our community, we should pay them a regular salary.
“What does this say? One—we are saying, ‘Let these people take care of our people. Two, these people are writing grants for their own salaries,” said Gard-Ewell, who then suggested an attitude adjustment, a shift in focus from a mindset of charity to one that recognizes potential return on investment. We should put our money where we say our values lie, she said. Those who serve in such crucial support roles, said Gard-Ewell, should be valued for the return on investment they generate.
The panel agreed that the single greatest factor influencing all four areas of the OVPP’s emphasis is housing.
“I can’t help somebody be less depressed if they don’t have a house to live in,” said Vogan.
The second panel included Erica Mueller from Crested Butte Mountain Resort; WSCU’s Julie Feier; commissioner Houck; Gunnison city manager Russ Forrest; executive director of the Tourism Association John Norton; and Sue Wallace, director of the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival and creator of the Mountain Manners.
“We’re loving this place to death,” said Wallace. “It’s impact. How do we embrace our tourism economy and better manage impacts?”
“I’m making Sue’s life miserable,” said Norton. “The TA’s mission is to promote tourism.” This month, he said, we’re on the cover of 5280 and Denver Life magazines. “Can we keep it up? Can we not screw things up?”
Norton said the TA has put significant effort into promoting mountain biking, a sport that offers what he called a “sustainable advantage.” Expert skiing also gives us a sustainable advantage, he said. “The first thing we did when we started to promote mountain biking, we spent $100,000 on signs,” said Norton.
The TA has also created electronic maps to make it easier for people to know where they are, and when they’re at risk of entering private property or areas closed off due to ranching activity. “We’ve had 35,000 downloads of our maps,” Norton said. “We also started TrailQuest,” he said, an effort to spread people out. TrailQuest challenges riders to ride all the trails, not just the most popular. “We’re also funding Sue and CBMBA’s [Crested Butte Mountain Biking Association’s] Conservation Corp.”
We should look at the mountain as a resource,” added CBMR’s Mueller. “We’re designated as a high-density use area by the Forest Service. Let’s use it.”
Skier visits, Mueller said, were up 5.6 percent this winter over last year. Mueller flashed back to 2011. “That was about as low as we could go,” she said. “We’re up 40 percent since then.” CBMR’s goal, she said, is 450,000 to 500,000 skier visits per year. “We realize we’re looking at operations and infrastructure improvements to support that.” Mueller said the recent push to grow the Denver market has paid off; this year, she said, Denver outpaced Dallas.
Forrest said improvements in broadband capacity were one response to the challenge we face in closing the gap between cost of living and income, making it possible for more people to live here who work at higher paying jobs they can do online. “We’ve also formed a downtown leadership committee to create a vision for Main Street [Gunnison].”
“Back to George’s comment about lawns versus density,” said Feier. “It’s hard to get away from wanting more. And that means we’re going to have to accept change.”
“How do we deal with the tension of changing?” asked Anderson.
“Public servants take the most heat,” Feier said. “I think they work their hearts out… But to say it doesn’t matter whether we have a vibrant downtown is false.” From the perspective of WSCU, she said, “We need to either grow or double tuition. There are definitely people who are throwing down roadblocks and we need to reach out to them in a way to turn that around.”
Forrest said it’s important to frame the need for change in the context of values. People, he said, are afraid they’ll lose what we value about this place and this community. “We asked, ‘What’s the impact of maintaining the status quo?’ If we do nothing, the cost of living is going to continue to go up.”
“Life is harder here,” added Mueller. “We have to all do it together.”
“Mountain Manners has recruited 31 volunteers, who will approach guests in a friendly way. We’ll get the word out as advocates,” Wallace said. “We’ll have volunteers on the trails. Nobody reads anymore. We have to be willing to have that conversation with people.”
“We struggle in this community with implementation,” said Houck, “because implementation means change. And change is hard for people.” It’s tough, he said, to keep people actively engaged. “When people do step up, they get beaten down by the process. If we really want to get people involved, we have to stop fighting and look at what we want to improve.”
“I hear, ‘We don’t want to be Aspen or Vail,’” said Anderson. “What do you mean? Do you mean we don’t want to be built up like that, or do you mean you want a community where real people can live?”
“If we stay connected to the land,” responded Houck, “we stay real. The ranchers are the original conservationists. But a biker or a snowmobiler can love this place as much as a rancher. Other communities have said, ‘We’ve got to look like this so people will come.’” The Gunnison Valley, by contrast, he said, looks how it looks and remains a viable, livable community because we’ve made a conscious effort to maintain that connection.
“It’s important that we not only stay connected to the land, but we connect our visitors to the land,” added Mueller.
Sibley countered that sentiment with what he sees as the new reality. “You can be connected to the land if you have a tiny house on a lot, and you can be connected to the land if you have an 8,000-square-foot house you live in less than half the year,” said Sibley. “I see this valley tending to go toward the 8,000-square-foot house.”
He shared a recent experience trying to get a plumber to work on a small bathroom project. Sibley said he called several, only to learn they were busy working up-valley. “They like working on 8,000-square-foot houses as opposed to my bathroom expansion,” he said.
What’s next? “The Community Builders’ Task Force will be meeting in two weeks or so to discuss next steps and actions,” said Gunnison County community and economic development director Cathie Pagano. That task force is made of up representatives from a variety of entities and organizations throughout the county, such as municipal and county elected officials, Gunnison Valley Health, Western, GVRHA, Gunnison Health and Human Services, the TA, and more.