TAPP forges new Rady and RMBL collaboration

Looking to redirect money it isn’t using

By Katherine Nettles

The Gunnison Valley’s Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) is ready to start funding a new joint venture with Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) and the Rady School of Engineering at Western Colorado University (WCU). TAPP brought its proposal to Gunnison County commissioners in a work session Tuesday to discuss the possibilities and answer questions; commissioners showed support and appreciated the update, but agreed that it is TAPP’s previously allocated funds to manage, and therefore TAPP’s freedom to alter how those funds are dispersed.  

TAPP’s proposal is to take $600,000 from its proposed 2024 budget that no longer serves its intended purpose and reallocate that funding into four other places deemed more strategically beneficial. One of those places is a new collaboration between RMBL and the Rady engineering program to support RMBL’s atmospheric science research while providing more of a STEM-based (science/technology/engineering/math) job market for the Gunnison Valley and WCU graduates as an overall economic driver. TAPP has proposed reallocating $200,000 to this new venture in 2024.

This money will, in part, fund two RMBL scientists working toward federal grants and Rady post-graduates in efforts to secure annual funding for scientific work amounting to between $5-10 million. Then $100,000 will fund two Rady post-grads and Rady staff working on identified engineering projects coming out of the collaboration. 

TAPP has gone big on support for the Rady school and Blister Labs over the past three years, funding Blister’s summer research internship program with Western, Rady faculty involvement with Blister Labs, outdoor industry collaborations with both entities and gear testing and development as well.  

Jenifer Blacklock, director of the Western-CU Boulder partnership program and Rady program director, RMBL executive director Ian Billick and TAPP executive director John Norton attended the work session and described how a RMBL/Rady collaboration could grow the Gunnison Valley as a national center for environmental science, bring millions of dollars to the valley, fund new scientific initiatives and provide Gunnison Valley STEM career opportunities.

TAPP also shared some economic data indicating that RMBL’s scientific profile has already brought millions of dollars into the valley, that over the last 20 years RMBL’s payroll has grown from less than $100,000 to more than $2 million and that there is an increasing need for technological advances in their research. 

“RMBL’s increasing focus on emerging technologies, including sensors, drones, planes, satellites, and big data creates opportunities to expand the valley’s scientific profile, adding atmospheric and hydrological sciences which greatly increase the pool of funds available to support local science,” TAPP’s proposal to the county stated. “Rady’s programs in mechanical and aerospace engineering, as well as computational sciences perfectly complement this initiative. Furthermore, the collaboration provides a unique differentiator for the program to support student recruitment.”

Blacklock said she had been working closely with Billick for some time, brainstorming ideas for collaboration. “We have two powerhouses in the valley, so how can we work together?” she said. “We started talking about different projects and ideas, and with our computer science program we’ve been trying to figure out our differentiation from both CU Boulder and Western.” 

Blacklock said it began to gel in a recent workshop with RMBL scientists and Rady faculty as they came up with several projects. “We’re starting three of them this semester, and then we’ll continue with some over the summer through our research program,” she said. 

Blacklock said the Rady school still has myriad different projects ranging from work with the Crested Butte Adaptive Sports Center to Blister Labs. “But now we’ll have RMBL which is so exciting for us in having that name and Ian’s [Billick] connections.” She said some of the post-grads are working with TAPP’s ICELab business growth program, Rady and RMBL on drone technology. 

“The thing I’ve been struck by is how complementary the Rady program is with RMBL,” said Billick. “Technology moves pretty fast, and science is following that.” 

He said there was opportunity to work with three or four elements of the Rady program that are critical to where field science is going. “From RMBL’s perspective, the Rady program offers mechanical engineering which is building or deploying devices out of here. And in the space program, we actually work a lot with satellites. Satellites are a big opportunity for measuring things in very large scales. And then it’s not just a matter of gathering information; it’s a matter of translating that into knowledge and wisdom, which is computation sciences,” he said.

Billick said the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on science in the U.S. “Then environmental science, because of what’s going on with climate change, with disease, our spending in environmental science is going to kind of pop. So we think that this synergy positions the valley for having an impact not just with job creation but in the world.”

TAPP surplus options

The $600,000 surplus in question comes from TAPP’s 2024 budget as presented to county commissioners (acting as the local marketing district board) last fall. At the time, $600,000 was envisioned for the spending needs of collaborative outdoor gear testing between Blister Labs and Rady, with the funding divided evenly between the two entities.

In a memo to commissioners, TAPP representatives wrote that the initial budget allocation had been revised downward “in part because Rady received a $100,000 grant to cover some of the costs of gear testing. Also, we have been unable to secure funding from either Moosejaw/Dick’s or REI to continue our [ICELab] national accelerator. At the same time, we have identified a collaboration between RMBL and Rady as a significant opportunity to support high-paying STEM jobs by propelling the Gunnison Valley forward as a national center of environmental science,” stated the memo.

Commissioner Liz Smith wanted to be sure the county would not continually be funding it from the LMD for its operations beyond the start-up phase. Norton assured her that the plan was not to ask for ongoing funding commitments and noted that some funding is in the works, including a $1 million federal earmark and contracts with the U.S. Forest Service to apply remote sensing tools to environmental decision-making. Blacklock said that they had just applied for a $3 million grant to the National Science Foundation to support postbaccalaureate students working in collaborations between Rady and RMBL. 

“We’re just going to continue applying for grants. Ian and his team, it’s been really impressive what they’ve been able to put together; I have experience and our team has experience with grant writing,” said Blacklock.

“If this is successful, it’s not going to be because we can get $100,000 to $200,000. It’s going to be from much larger checks and a bigger scale,” said Billick. 

Commissioner Jonathan Houck asked if this work was at all connected to other university-based atmospheric research such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which generate major funding and interest. Billick said it was absolutely connected. “RMBL’s strategy is essentially to create a data-rich environment that attracts scientists and scientific opportunities,” he said, and the relationship to data rich environments like the Gunnison Valley and universities would give a competitive edge.

Commissioners also discussed the issue of housing challenges if the new venture attracts more residents. “I think our community feels that tension around economic development and growth,” said commissioner Laura Puckett Daniels. She said it wasn’t bad, but just a consideration. Billick discussed RMBL’s plans to develop some housing with the Village at Mt. Crested Butte project, which is entering the final plan review phase and would bring 27,000 square feet of housing space to the North Valley. He also said it could be a good economic counterbalance to the ups and downs of tourism cycles. 

The other three categories for reallocating TAPP funds would be: $150,000 to Rady to finish a gear testing endeavor; $50,000 to Blister Labs to publicize Rady’s progress with gear testing and its results; and $50,000 to continue a national business accelerator program through TAPP’s ICELab. A remaining $150,000 would remain unallocated for the time being.

TAPP also requested that unallocated $150,000 be left with TAPP, as there could be more opportunities for generating publicity, demands via the ICELab’s national accelerator program or other opportunities that arise that would benefit from being nimble. Puckett Daniels had other ideas for allocating some of that money toward Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee projects as well. Houck noted that there would not be a formal decision, so much as an appreciated update and conversation. 

“We’re not making a formal decision. We’ve allocated the funds to TAPP for the year. This is an adjustment within the work plan; this is part of our agreed-upon way of doing business,” said Houck. “It is our decision, but it’s also TAPP’s decision.”

The other commissioners agreed that they appreciated hearing from TAPP, but that they ultimately had the agency to change their work plan as they see fit. TAPP will proceed with its proposal to fund the venture. 

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