OURAY COUNTY – Two distinct initiatives for stimulating economic development competed for attention at the Ouray Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday at the Event Center in Ridgway.
The first idea, laid out by commissioner Lynn Padgett, emerged from a Jan. 14 meeting in Fruita with newly sworn-in Governor John Hickenlooper. The second idea came from representatives of MC4FF, Montrose Citizens For Funding Our Future, who asked the commissioners to consider joining with five other counties to become a Regional Tourism Authority.
Padgett attended the governor’s meeting with representatives of local government and business. The governor wanted to elicit “bottom-up” plans from 22 Western Slope communities on what they need to grow their economies. Padgett, who has become passionate about grass-roots business opportunities, told the BOCC that she came away believing the county should lead “a series of conversations on how we want to see our economy thrive.”
The conversations would have to be “quick,” she said, because “the governor’s office says they need plans by mid-May. There’s a place at the table for us. We can play a part in a statewide strategy, but we have to be there by mid-May.”
Padgett envisioned local gatherings that would include Ridgway and Ouray city governments, the boards of both chambers of commerce, other business leaders, the schools and an invited representative from the state Office of Economic Development. She proposed meetings “every other Monday in February and March beginning Feb. 14. “Oops,” she said, catching herself, “there’s a conflict already; the first one’s Valentine’s Day.”
Counties aren’t necessarily responsible for economic development, Padgett said. “But they can facilitate.”
On the other hand, counties would be very much involved in securing state sales tax dollars for tourism-related development, if MC4FF has its way.
Immediately following Padgett’s plea for “ground-up” meetings to contribute to a statewide economic development plan, Dave Laursen and Richard Harding made a pitch for a parallel and, if possible, even more rushed plan. MC4FF Director Laursen asked for Ouray County’s participation in the creation of a six-county Regional Tourism Authority. (The other counties would be San Miguel, Montrose, Delta, Hinsdale and Gunnison.) Laursen wanted one BOCC member from each county to convene a temporary task force to draft a hurry-up application to the state by March 21. (So far Montrose and Hinsdale have appointed commissioners to the task force.)
“I said I liked having deadlines,” Albritton commented, referring to Padgett’s request for a plan by early May. “But this makes that timetable seem leisurely.”
Lauren was undaunted, saying the rush was necessary, as the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, acting on provisions of the state’s Regional Tourism Act of 2009, would in October 2011 be selecting two RTAs from applications throughout Colorado. Once designated, RTAs would be eligible to receive rebates of state sales tax monies in excess of a “baseline” that has yet to be calculated. Projects proposed for funding could be just about anything, Laursen said, from land acquisition to trails to plowing Kebler Pass in the winter “to get skiers down to Crested Butte from Carbondale. There is the potential of up to $50 million per year in sales taxes rebates for RTAs,” he said. Though he admitted, “We don’t know if the legislature will continue to fund it in the future.” And, ominously, “There is a billion dollars that has to be cut from the budget.”
“Is there any benefit to waiting to see what will come out of this?” Padgett asked. “Rather than be the guinea pigs?”
“Only that you could be a positive guinea pig,” Laursen replied. “The state doesn’t know how they’re going to sort all this out. Nobody knows. We have a chance to interpret the guidelines ourselves, to shape this. If we get an application in by March 21.”
Commission Chair Albritton asked, “What is it you are asking of us today?”
Laursen replied, “One, are you interested in participating? And, two, to appoint one of you three to participate in the task force.”
Albritton said, “I’d like to participate, but I think we need to read the bill itself. I’d like to put this on our next agenda. Which will be next week.” She said the board would have a decision on the task force appointment then.
“Sorry to keep being the devil’s advocate,” Padgett added, “but we have to be somewhat skeptical,” given the time commitment and the financial risk (however minimal) required.
Harding, who has been leading a group called GREAT (Gunnison River Economic Attraction Team) since 2005, summed up for his team. “We have no dog in this fight. None of us has drawn a dime for this work. We’re doing it because we have 2,000 unemployed in Montrose County, 232 homeless children. We just want to nip this in the bud. Thank you very much.”
Afterward, Padgett confided to her fellow commissioners that, “I’d like it to not feel like such a sales pitch.” While Tourism Act monies could, in theory, help realize projects like regional bike trails and Ridgway’s Streetscapes Plan, projects that would benefit visitors and residents alike, Padgett admitted she felt “a little bit nervous” about RTA funding, which “depends on apparently unreliable sales tax refunds and bonds that we would have to take out. But let’s do be part of the discussion,” she said. I’m down with that.”
“I’ve already put it on the agenda,” said County Manager Connie Hunt.