OURAY – Folks who spend a lot of time thinking about Ouray’s economy find themselves at an interesting crossroads lately, as simultaneous efforts are being made to kickstart the city’s oldest economic engine, and tap into an emerging new one.
But the potential renaissance of the Ouray’s mining industry, and its ability to attract new businesses surfing the flux of the digital age, are fraught with regulatory hurdles.
That was the stuff of discussion at a recent Business Round Table meeting at the Ouray Community Center, titled “Building a Prosperous Ouray.”
“We could be the lion that roared,” said Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett, describing current efforts to cut through the red tape hindering regional efforts to get adequately wired for the digital age. “I think the San Juans are ready for that.”
Padgett is active in Operation Link Up, a grass-roots consortium focused on improving fiberoptic connectivity and redundancy throughout the San Juans, from Durango to Montrose.
Ouray County’s substandard and overpriced broadband capacity is becoming more and more of a hurdle to efforts to revitalize the local economy and coax it into the digital age, Padgett said. She described a scenario where local IT professionals are forced to go to absurd measures to conduct business here.
In Ouray, a web architect and developer does his uploading between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. On Log Hill, an online publisher with no direct broadband access has rigged a custom microwave link between his house and his neighbor’s, half-a-mile away, to tap into Montrose’s wireless service.
“We have these creative engineer types who are really doing everything they can to be here,” Padgett said, “but the average person is going to think, you know what, why don’t I just go to Grand Junction or Durango?”
That’s just what some local IT-related business are currently doing. “We have one guy in Ridgway who gave up and moved to Durango,” Padgett said. “He wanted to relocate all his employees here and just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t reliable enough.”
And forget about attracting larger companies that might be tempted to relocate here because of Ouray County’s scenic beauty and quality of life. One dot-com that Padgett contacted told her, “Come back and talk to us when you have broadband width, and redundancy,” she said.
Ironically, a partial remedy to the problem already exists in the form of dark fiber – fiberoptic infrastructure that has been installed in parts of the county, including along County Road 1 and Highway 550, by telecommunications companies, but through which no light is pulsing. In essence, parts of the county are in the dark only because the telecom boys have their collective hand over the light switch.
Barriers and regulations at the state and federal level – namely, the Governor’s Office of Information Technology and the Federal Communications Commission – prevent a local activist approach to solving the problem, Padgett said.
“The regulations are set up to encourage the monopolies to continue to exist,” she explained. “It’s kind of a rigged system. We could not, under today’s regulations, create a nonprofit business consortium with local government partnership and create our own network because somewhere, that network, that fiber, would have to connect to something that’s owned by Century Link. And if they refuse to let it connect, you can’t even bypass their dark fiber without having some regulatory changes.”
Current lobbying efforts are being levied at the OIT to release more information about which telecom companies claim to serve which parts of the state. The goal is to catch them in a lie, if they say they’re serving an area that is actually still partially in the dark.
“The FCC has said that if someone claims to be serving you, then nobody else, no consortium, can apply for FCC funds” to improve service in rural areas, Padgett said. “Only the entity that’s providing the service can apply for the funds. Century Link could apply for grant funds from the FCC and upgrade our service here, right now, but we can’t help ourselves. This is such a huge and such a frustrating topic.”
Huge and frustrating are two adjectives often applied to the regulatory barriers faced by mining start-ups as well, even as a mining renaissance in the San Juans is conceivably close at hand.
“One of the uniquenesses that we have is mining,” Ouray City Councilman Richard Kersen pointed out. “How do we as a community promote that? There’s so much red tape. We need industry. Why are we stuck here? Why are we not supporting this as a community?”
Padgett responded that efforts are being made at the county level to ease the regulatory burden for small companies such as the one currently attempting to resume mining operations at the historic Revenue-Virginius silver mine near Yankee Boy Basin above Ouray.
“All the regulations we’re talking about are at the state and federal level,” Padgett pointed out, and stem from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Division of Reclamation and Mining Safety, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies.
Ouray County has joined a Colorado Counties initiative to address regulatory barriers faced by small and medium-sized mining companies, Padgett said. “Our commissioners have decided that this is another priority, along with the broadband. We would all like to see less bureaucracy. We would all like to have better outcomes. Industry wants it. Environmentalists want it. Locals want it.”
Padgett put out a call for mining professionals to come forward with their own stories of specific examples of mines in Ouray County that have experienced red tape.
“If we could get specific stories of a company that tried to get a permit and couldn’t, and where those barriers are, we can actually go tear those down. We are trying to find the truth to where they are hung up,” she said. “To learn who regulates what, and look for ways to reduce bureaucracy and have better outcomes.”
The next Business Round Table discussion takes place from 8-9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the Ouray Community Center. It will focus on recruiting compatible businesses to Ouray, and identifying businesses that could support what’s already in place, with the long-term goal of coming up with a list of priorities and identifying next steps.