OURAY COUNTY – As part of Governor Hickenlooper’s Bottom-Up Economic Development strategy, Ouray County hosted a “visioning” exercise Monday night at the 4-H Events Center in Ridgway.
Some 50 interested residents, business owners, elected officials and staff gathered to brainstorm about the county’s strengths and weaknesses, goals and hindrances, when it comes to future economic development.
Commissioner Lynn Padgett facilitated the meeting, which asked participants to choose one of eight themed tables to sit at and discuss a series of questions. The tables ranged from “Real Estate and Housing Needs” to “Job Creation and Business Development” to “Infrastructure Challenges and Solutions” to “Schools and Non-profits” to “Tourism and Marketing” to “Agriculture, Mining and Green Industry Development.”
The ideas that came out of each table will be collected and further refined by an ad hoc volunteer task force that will meet on the next two Monday evenings, March 21 and 28, leading to an eventual presentation to the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade by April 15.
The objective, as laid out by the governor and restated by Padgett, is for each county in the state to identify up to five economic development goals and strategies, utilizing information from public meetings, online surveys and existing town and county plans. These county proposals will then be “rolled up and incorporated into 14 regional plans that together will assist in developing an overall statewide economic development plan.”
It’s an ambitious idea, and vague, and rushed for time, Padgett admitted. But a worthwhile effort nonetheless. Let’s start the conversation, she urged.
At press time the results of the table visioning sessions had not been formalized and distributed. But there were already some interesting ideas thrown out by each table on Monday night.
Each table chose a note taker and spokesperson. Ridgway mayor Pat Willits spoke for the “Infrastructure Challenges and Solutions” table, and got a laugh right off the bat by saying, “We did a lot better at the challenges than the solutions.”
At the top of the list for this table (and several others) was broadband, the need for Ouray County to upgrade its telecommunications infrastructure. It is the key, Willits’ group agreed, to drawing new business to the area. And it’s a regional issue, Willits emphasized. Montrose, San Juan, San Miguel and Ouray counties all need diverse, redundant, upgradable fiber optic links.
Other infrastructure needs according to this table included transportation, bringing air service costs down; improving public transit between our communities; maintaining roads; building new trails (Willits mentioned the economic “shot-in-the-arm” to Fruita from its mountain biking trails – could it happen here?); attracting more road biking enthusiasts like those with Ride the Rockies. Road biking is becoming hugely popular, Willits said, but we are hampered here by a lack of highway shoulders. “A couple more feet of shoulder, please, CDOT!” Willits exhorted.
Water will always be an issue, Willits said. The Town of Ridgway and City of Ouray are looking at increased storage as a way to head off shortages in case of a call by senior water rights downstream. The balance of agricultural water use and municipal needs will remain an important component of the water picture, Willits said.
Finally, power. “We need to look at our building codes to encourage and allow for solar,” Willits’ group concluded.
Dee Williams of Ouray, long-time owner of the V&S Variety and current member of the Community Development Committee, spoke for the table on “Recreational Attributes and Amenities.” Her group discussed jeeping and OHV use on the passes. She too mentioned mountain bike trails and attracting road riders. Her group suggested the need for pet-friendly camping, for a covered ice rink with ice making, for improved protection of our dark night skies, and money for Top of the Pines, the county-owned recreation and education site on Miller Mesa.
The “Real Estate and Housing” table noted the problem with affordable housing in the county. There is nothing really below $200,000 they said. And the poor jobs situation is preventing people from buying and even renting in the area.
The “Job Creation and Business Development” table opened with a pithy aphorism (echoing Ridgway businessman Ed Folga): “The top business struggle for local business is staying in business.” They suggested a lack of business diversity: there are too few industries in the county beyond tourism and construction. They bemoaned a lack of access to capital and a lack of ongoing training for new job skills. They proposed trying to attract “high-technology service industries” and green industries. How about an R&D cluster, or “business incubator,” that would attract younger workers and their families? And, the big one, they said: broadband. We need broadband.
The “Non-profits and Schools” table took up non-profits first. The problems for non-profits, they said, were lack of volunteers and limited depth of funds. How can we get visitors to contribute as well as locals? they asked.
As for schools, they can contribute to economic development. We have great schools in Ridgway and Ouray. People look at schools when considering a move. We should advertise our schools to people who would move here for the excellent education.
Jennifer Mandaville of the Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce spoke for her table, the one on “Tourism, Events and Marketing.” Perhaps we should organize countywide fam [familiarization] tours for the press, she said. Let’s lobby the Colorado film commission for more tax incentives for feature film and commercial filmmaking in the county.
Tablemate Ed Folga (Willow Creek Floral in Ridgway) proposed a “rebranding” of Ouray County. Something more than just Switzerland of America, he said. How about: “Have you missed Colorado because you haven’t visited Ouray County?”
Ridgway town councilman John Clark spoke for perhaps the most diverse and, on the surface at least, most irreconcilable table, “Agriculture, Mining and Green Industry.” His group advocated acknowledging the historic role of agriculture and mining in the county. “We wouldn’t have the high-country roads that lead to all this wonderful recreation if it weren’t for the mining history,” Clark said. They also felt that responsible mining of ores like silver that are crucial to high-tech industries should be encouraged.
Clark said that, despite the setback to the proposed solar farm in the north county, we “should explore an alternative energy economy. Perhaps look into distributed solar power.”
His group perceived a need to promote alternative health care services in the county. And to support agriculture and health by encouraging locally grown and consumed foods.
Finally, his group wanted to “pursue economic diversity while maintaining the natural beauty of the county.”
It was a long list representing a lot of good thinking, Commissioner Padgett said, summarizing some of the high points: marketing; keeping our water; broadband, broadband, broadband.
Anyone wishing to join the Task Force over the next two Mondays to refine and distill this work is encouraged to contact her at 970/258-0836.