Capital projects, COVID-19 response reimbursement making progress

“Bringing close to $40 million of new money into the valley”

By Katherine Nettles

At a time when business within the Gunnison Valley has taken a huge downturn, Gunnison County officials have succeeded in securing significant funds from various federal and state mechanisms, and officials hope this will boost the local economy for the near future and for years to come.

During a commissioners meeting on Tuesday, county manager Matthew Birnie described how three capital projects—the Gunnison library, the Gunnison/Crested Butte Airport and the Lot 22 affordable housing project—are moving forward at little or low interest costs and how the county is working to pare down other expenses. Commissioners reviewed their own efforts and findings at state and regional levels as well.

Birnie said he has asked all departments to identify 10 percent savings. Income from marijuana and tobacco sales taxes may be reallocated away from human services for prevention services to instead fund the COVID-19 response, so he predicted additional funds would be needed to compensate. Governor Jared Polis just issued an executive order that allows Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) grants to be used to cover personnel and operating costs there, providing some relief.

Gunnison County will finance the library project in Gunnison in part by redirecting funds it has historically given the library district for its operations. That has generally been about $1 million per year, and Birnie said, “It will actually be a savings to the county of a couple thousand dollars,” to the general fund. The county will finance the remainder of the library project costs by incurring debt. Birnie said the county has good credit and will be able to borrow at an interest rate of around 2.75 percent.

“The market has been volatile but is stabilizing in that regard,” he said. The county will borrow somewhere between $8 million and $9.5 million total, depending on grants the district is pursuing and a few possible changes.

Design development on the GUC terminal improvement project is under way. With the $18 million in federal funding awarded to the airport recently, Birnie said “Even with business being low for a number of years, airport operations will be stable.”

Birnie also signed a final development agreement with the Paintbrush (Lot 22) developer this week to move forward to the construction phase now that site preparation is almost done. The county is contributing $200,000 to the project, in addition to the 5.2 acres of land, which it purchased as a larger,  8.5 acre parcel in 2003 for $490,000. It will be a $15 million to $17 million project, mostly funded privately by developer Gary Gates.

“I am not aware of a workforce housing project in the history of the valley resulting in such a large public policy benefit with such a nominal public investment.  We would like to thank Gary Gates and Gatesco for their incredible commitment to addressing the workforce housing issue in Gunnison County, we value this partnership greatly,” he wrote in a statement to the Crested Butte News.

He said along with being able to accelerate all three major capital projects, some of which weren’t slated to start until next year, the county is bringing close to $40 million “of new money into the valley to be used on these construction projects without creating long-term risks financially to the county. We’re excited about all those things that are a positive going on during this very challenging period,” he concluded.

Birnie said all the projects would involve as much local participation as possible from the construction industry. The library project should use 70 percent, the Paintbrush agreement requires at least 50 percent, and the airport may be less than 50 percent, he added.

Commissioner John Messner thanked Birnie for his “forward thinking” in putting together these projects in a difficult situation, saying, “The value that these bring and the economic impact, keeping folks in the valley employed and bringing outside money in is significant.”

Messner has been lobbying hard at the state level for funding allocations of the $2.2 billion federal CARES Act funds. Governor Polis initially administered a portion of that money to the largest five counties in the state to disperse among their municipalities and special districts. On Monday night the governor determined by executive order that the remaining $1.7 billion is considered custodial funds; state legislators agreed to allocate $275 million of those funds to reimburse the remaining 59 counties, such as Gunnison County, and municipalities and special districts within them, as well. “After weeks of negotiating,” said Messner, it is an improvement in outlook.

“It’s less than we had hoped for, but I still think it’s a big step forward because the initial stance by the state was $50 million,” he said.

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