Open house for economic development answers some questions, raises others

MEEKER | More than 50 people filled the community room at Mountain Valley Bank last Wednesday for an open house-style public forum designed to give residents an opportunity to gather information and ask questions of the groups and individuals leading the economic development charge. Rio Blanco County Economic Development Director Katelin Cook opened the meeting with some statistics.
– RBC has the seventh highest unemployment rate in the state
– We have a 62 percent workforce participation rate for eligible workers, which drives up social services costs
– Our largest age group is 45-64 years old, meaning when those people retire, there isn’t a substantial pool of younger people to pick up those jobs. Cook went on to explain that the plan for economic development is “not one shiny project,” but a compilation of more than 40 projects that are in the works. Of those, five categories were represented at the open house: business retention (Meeker Chamber), broadband (Blake Mobley), Urban Renewal Authority (Meeker Mayor Regas Halandras and Kelby Bosshardt of Better City), business attraction (Katelin Cook) and the Center for Outdoor Adventure (Better City CEO Adam Hughes and Josh Dustin of Better City). Each group had an opportunity to address its top questions. Meeker Chamber President Diana Jones said they are working hard for existing businesses with the Shop Local, TGIF, Meeker Bucks and Small Business Saturday programs, and said the Town is helping by providing grants to local businesses. Trudi Burri, tourism coordinator for the Chamber, said their focus is on promoting OHVs, public fishing opportunities, the Flat Tops Scenic Byway, and new events like the sled dog races that will be coming to Meeker this winter. Speaking for attracting new businesses, Katelin Cook said the focus is on outdoor recreation gear manufacturers, preferably small to mid-size organizations that want to relocate or open a satellite office here. County IT director Blake Mobley said the number one question he gets asked is “When will I get broadband?” followed by “Why are businesses not getting connected first?” Mobley said the broadband project is on schedule and new “drops” are being added all the time. When a home or business will be able to connect to the fiber network depends largely on location and how the network is being created. Businesses will begin to come online in May or June of 2017. “This is an unprecedented pace,” Mobley said. Rio Blanco County’s fiber optic broadband project is only the second one of its kind in the state. The City of Longmont is also working on a similar program to provide fiber technology to every residence and business. RBC’s project is more complex than Longmont’s, as it incorporates a wireless aspect as well, but is expected to be finished first. Halandras spoke to the development of an Urban Renewal Authority (URA) and the subsequent formation of Tax Increment Financing districts. “I believe an Urban Renewal Authority is something we should have done a long time ago,” he said. “Thirty years ago we had a lot more going on than we do now.” The URA, Halandras explained, would attract businesses and create cost-effective tools for growth. “TIF is the mechanism the URA uses to make funding available,” he said. Asked about “blight” designations, by which URAs determine areas for TIF and what areas within the town might be considered blighted areas in need of renewal, Halandras said there are specific criteria established by legislation to determine whether an area is blighted, and the URA would be subject to those criteria. “We do have areas (of blight),” he said. By far the most questions were asked of Better City CEO Adam Hughes. Better City is the consulting firm contracted by the county and the two towns two years ago to come up with ideas for economic development, and has since been contracted to continue the implementation of the plans they created. Initial suggestions from Better City included a meat packing plant, a power plant, a culinary arts school, and the redevelopment of parts of town along Market and Water streets that would provide entertainment options, another grocery store, a high-end restaurant and/or a childcare center. In addition, Better City suggested the development of a riverfront park and recreation area and the attraction of a shooting sports cluster expansion to include manufacturing and the Outdoor Adventure Center. The final recommendation was to build an “age-in-place” retirement community, possibly on the land where the original Pioneers Hospital once stood. According to Hughes, the town and county directed Better City to pursue plans to implement the Outdoor Adventure Center, the shooting sports cluster and the housing options as opposed to the other suggestions they made. The towns and county can, of course, revisit those ideas at any time. Hughes said his most frequently asked question is whether or not the Outdoor Adventure Center is a financially feasible plan. “We talked to a number of industry participants,” Hughes said. On their recommendation Better City expanded the addressable market from just an indoor shooting and archery range to include a broader scope of outdoor adventure and recreation activities. “Archery is growing exponentially,” Hughes said. “We ran lots of numbers on that,” he said. “This is not a speculative bid. The operator will assume the risk of non-performance.” According to Hughes, there are no contracts in place and no offers made, but they are in discussion with “a reputable operator.” That operator would put forth $1.8 million as “skin in the game” toward the implementation of the Center. The remaining $8.2 million would be serviced through a blend of public sector, grant funds and private donations, Hughes said. As to possible locations for the center, Hughes said all options remain open, and that the site decision would eventually be determined by the operator and the town.