AGNC hosts final eco devo planning meeting

Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC) last week hosted its final strategy/planning meeting for the regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). The meeting covered data about the existing economic situation in the northwest Colorado region and reviewed implementation strategies for economic development and resilience over the next 10-20 years. Attendees included representatives from various local governments, citizen groups, non-profits, and business organizations from the NW region of Colorado which is made up of Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield, Mesa and Routt counties.The strategy’s mission is to “nurture and promote a regional, diverse, resilient, and robust economy; fostering a range of industries, employment and resources resulting in prosperous communities for today and tomorrow’s residents.” The public is invited to review and submit comments on the CEDS at AGNC.org through the month of August.

A “mind map” offers a glimpse into the strategy development process to this point. AGNC Executive Director Bonnie Peterson explained the map summarizes and pulls together weeks worth of conversations and research to develop the strategy. She commented that the process has so far involved economic developers, non-profits, businesses and local community leaders, in an effort to reflect the broad economic goals and existing frameworks of the region. Some categories in the map are: cradle to grave education, career environment, infrastructure, public lands, leadership, average salary, robust economy, happy healthy childhood, and integrated care. Some more detailed sub-categories are: well-paid teachers, encouraging rigorous critical thinking, fully funded and maintained infrastructure including broadband, high quality purposeful jobs in vibrant downtowns with access to capital, clean, and safe & disease free multiple use public lands with plenty of water, to name a few.

Mind map goals were further distilled into four sets of broad goals with specific action items for AGNC economic developments into 2038. 

  • Goal A – “robust and resilient economy” which would be pursued via economic diversification, “creating a business focused climate” maintaining/improving community assets and harnessing strengths of the region like public lands, the growing healthcare industry/workforce, educational institutions and diversity. 
  • Goal B – “vibrant and healthy communities” which is noted as essential for achieving goal A. Action items under goal B include improving access to healthcare and affordable workforce housing, among others. 
  • Goal C – “ready and willing workforce,” to be pursued via special work readiness/career training programs, an emphasis on “future ready” education through STEAM programs (science, tech, engineering, aerospace, and math), a focus on technology job growth and efforts to attract/retain more 18-30-year-olds. 
  • Goal D – “extraordinary infrastructure” by improving broadband access as a major priority, increasing capacity, promoting multiple uses of public lands, upgrading water supply/wastewater treatment systems and others.

ECONOMIC RESILIENCE

AGNC’s economic development strategy also includes a major focus on economic resiliency, defined as “the ability of a community or region to quickly recover from, withstand, and avoid economic shocks.” The CEDS notes some of the major challenges to resiliency as a lack of economic diversification, noting “Migration from fossil fuel energy and reduced ability to

export natural resources like coal have increased the need for new industries

and regional economic diversity.” Housing stock also challenges resiliency, particularly for low and middle income individuals who make up a large portion of the workforce. The plan describes how a lack of affordable housing affects work availability, which affects businesses and by extension the tax base. On a similar note, “workforce development” is listed as necessary for addressing ongoing declines in fossil fuel jobs and wage stagnation.  Other noted challenges for the region are a lack of reliable broadband access, and natural hazards like wildfires, floods, and water shortages, among others.

Despite challenges, AGNC’s analysis of the regional economy also notes existing resources that strengthen economic resiliency and provide potential for growth, including natural resources like oil, gas, coal, and potential new extractive industries for resources like rare earth minerals. Land, water, & habitat are also listed as economic resources that provide opportunities for diversified economic development. AGNC also touts an existing, skilled labor force from the same industries that have seen decline, noting that their workers possess skills that can transfer to other industries. Some of those skills include equipment operation, maintenance and repair, problem solving, system evaluation, and mechanical skills, all of which could be utilized in advanced manufacturing, alternative energy production (solar and wind), and coal-carbon materials manufacturing. Other resources that bolster regional economic resilience include potential partnerships to facilitate infrastructure expansion projects, power station infrastructure that could be utilized for alternative industries including renewable energy, local education institutions like Colorado Mountain College, Colorado Mesa University and Colorado Northwestern Community College, and natural amenities that attract people to the region for fishing, hunting, kayaking, hiking, and other forms of outdoor recreation.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

Overviews of each county provide more in-depth and community-specific economic strengths and weaknesses identified by the CEDS plan.

MOFFAT

Moffat County’s strengths are described as “public lands, quality water and sewer service with excess capacity, an excellent hospital, and an excellent community college.” The plan notes that public lands specifically support economic activity through mineral extraction and tourism. Weaknesses include limited access to mental health services, high rates of poverty, significant total job & wage losses, and a negative self-perception. Access to broadband is also listed as a key limiting element for the county to retain and attract younger families.

RIO BLANCO

Due to Rio Blanco County having one of the highest percentages of public lands in the region, the report notes that “a significant portion of the economy is driven by federal, state, and local government.” This connection to government via public lands is listed as a strength due to “coordination and collaboration” and “a sense of responsiveness of these entities.” However the overview also notes that RBC faces challenges from being dependent on public lands as a significant portion of the economy, including “suffering the booms and busts of oil and gas and coal development.” Effects of these challenges include housing shortages during booms and housing crashes during busts. Lack of daycare is also specifically noted as an issue in RBC.

The strategy overview also applauds what it describes as “significant efforts to diversify the economy,” noting the completion of its broadband network as something that has “put the county on the map as a 1 GIG county.” RBC comes out ahead on the issue of broadband in particular, which is listed as something the regional plan focuses on heavily for all other counties in the AGNC. Broadband is considered a key driver for attracting new businesses, and addressing various housing-related issues with “location neutral”  job opportunities.

Other investments noted in RBC include the new courthouse, annex facility, updated fairgrounds, new hospital, upgraded airports and investments in “downtown redevelopment.” 

GARFIELD

Despite being listed as “overly dependent” on extractive industries for its tax base, Garfield County is considered to have a strong economy in the region thanks to economic and cultural diversity. Strengths include a variety of recreational options, three community colleges, strong K-12 programs and libraries in each community. Renewable energy partnerships and a strong agricultural base are also listed as positives. Challenges or downsides to Garfield include high construction, housing & healthcare costs. Additional pressure on housing costs is influenced by a strong tourism base that has incentivized the conversion of housing stock to vacation rental properties. Also noted is Garfield County’s large wealth disparities, including some of the highest unemployment in the region in the City of Rifle.

ROUTT

Like other counties, Routt’s strengths and weaknesses are closely related. AGNC’s overview describes it as a “shining exception of economic prosperity” known for world class ski areas and other recreational assets, and investments in multi-modal transportation and other critical infrastructure. Despite these positives, high living costs force “average employees” to live outside of the county. Noted high costs include those for healthcare, childcare and housing, which is described as “virtually unaffordable” for average workers. This housing dynamic is in part influenced by a rise in second homeownership in Routt.

MESA

As the largest population hub in the AGNC, Mesa County has the most diverse economy, strengthened by the presence of Mesa University. Two large hospitals and Mindsprings are also positive unique to the county, along with thriving agriculture, a regional airport, and many economic partnerships to assist and facilitate new and existing businesses. Mesa County however has high poverty rates, employment skill gaps, and one of the highest suicide rates in the country. A lack of affordable housing is also listed as a challenge to the county. Economic developments underway include efforts to rebrand as a “lifestyle hub,” as a way of attracting new businesses focused on outdoors, recreation and entertainment.

ONGOING IMPLEMENTATION

 AGNC’s presentation described the mission and vision for implementing strategy in various ways, all of which fall under more broad goals like “pursuing agreements between municipal and county governments” that will “protect the character of the region being represented,” in negotiations at the state and federal level. Specific examples include administration of “economic development district activities” like Opportunity Zones, Assistance to Coal Communities, public works and more. You can read more about and submit your own comments on the Comprehensive Regional Economic Development Strategy at Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado’s website – AGNC.org. The CEDS plan is available for public comment through August.


By LUCAS TURNER | lucas@ht1885.com