County’s economic development plan nears completion

RBC I In the coming weeks, Rio Blanco County will receive the final Recommended Action Plan from Better City, an economic development firm based in Ogden, Utah.
Over the past year, Rio Blanco County, working collaboratively with the Towns of Meeker and Rangely, Meeker and Rangely chambers of commerce, Colorado Northwestern Community College, small business owners and community members, has undergone a comprehensive economic assessment process with Better City.

The fourth phase, Recommended Action Plan, is the recommended implementation document that builds upon the other three completed phases: Community Assessment, Economic Assessment and Market Analysis. Catalyst project strategies are outlined for the Town of Rangely, Town of Meeker and Rio Blanco County.
Funding for this project was supplied by Rio Blanco County, the towns of Meeker and Rangely, and majority funding coming from the Rural Economic Development Initiative grant fund through the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA).
Phase I report (Community Assessment) identified a number of potential projects and initiatives that have the potential of improving the local economic status quo and creating the upward momentum that will benefit future generations.
The analysis and research conducted during Phase II (Economic Assessment) and Phase III (Market Analysis) provided additional insights that refined the recommendations. Several recommendations within each town emerged as having the greatest potential to act as a catalyst to enable future economic development activities, including the additional opportunities outlined in Phase I. The top priorities will be described in detail below.
Final recommendations should be viewed as the catalytic projects that will change the dynamics of the economic climate to allow the other projects and concepts to move forward. Funding for all projects will be solidified during the implementation phase, which is expected to begin as soon as elected town boards and the county commissioners agree to move forward.
Any questions can be directed to Katelin Cook, the Economic Development Coordinator for Rio Blanco County, by email: katelin.cook@rbc.us.
Rangely
The core of the strategy in Rangely is to stabilize and strengthen existing businesses while creating the opportunity for new businesses to come into town. This will best be accomplished by creation of new quality of life assets and strengthening major employers, such as Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC). Recommended projects include creating student housing and entertainment offerings, expanding the CNCC aviation program, fostering an Aircraft Maintenance Repair and Overhaul operation, expanding outdoor recreation and river access, and building a data center.
CNCC faces an immediate student housing shortage as its current facilities are filled to capacity. New student housing will be needed before, or at least concurrent with school efforts to expand existing programs to to create new ones.
Partnering with the private sector to build, maintain and operate the new housing facility will free up CNCC resources that would have otherwise been expended on housing facilities, for use on programs. Universities and institutions of higher learning across the country have found great success using this partnership approach to build capacity.
Another option would involve CNCC partnering with the private sector in a new housing project, if this were viewed as a profit center of the college. A mixed-use development near the downtown that includes student housing, retail or grocery offerings and entertainment elements such as a bowling alley will set the town on a new trajectory with renewed relevance for the rising generation. Increased student housing will allow CNCC to expand existing programs and co-location with retail and entertainment venues will provide stability due to a captive clientele.
Following the thorough analysis performed in Phases II and III, expansion of the CNCC flight school, particularly with an emphasis on international students, remains one of the most potentially impactful endeavors the community can pursue. Boeing and other major aviation companies are projecting global pilot shortages for at least the next 20 years, clearly demonstrating that the expanded aviation program offers more opportunity than other potential programs. There is a strong precedence of foreign students receiving pilot training within the US, and CNCC will be able to follow the best practices learned from other programs.
As the aviation cluster grows in Rangely, it will be a compelling location for an aircraft Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) facility. Most maintenance procedures take a minimum of several hours and sometimes several days.
During the interim, while the pilot is waiting for work to be completed, the town will have the opportunity to attract additional spending through hospitality and food services, entertainment and recreation.
The retail and entertainment development described previously will be an important element in attracting spending from outside visitors. The aircraft MRO opportunity will likely have the greatest chance of success if it is pursued concurrently with the expanded flight program. The success and notoriety of each program will help to validate the other through the growth of a strong aviation related micro cluster.
Another recommendation for Rangely is to explore the feasibility of a data center. A data center would be an important step in creating a technology and innovation focused micro cluster. A data center could take advantage of the area’s low electricity and relatively low temperatures (especially during the winter months), and broadband access, which warrants targeted look into the feasibility of a center.
It is important to note, however, that a data center will be a challenging proposition initially because any potential operator will likely have to recruit workforce from other regions due to the current mismatch of the skillset required, vs. the skillset of the local workforce. However, Rangely is in a good position to “grow” future data center employees due to the strength of CNCC and the potential of adding new education and training programs focused toward high-tech jobs.
A data center would be an important step in creating a micro cluster focused on the high-tech sector of the economy.
Outdoor recreation, with a particular focus on river recreation near the Camper Park, has the potential to strengthen every other aspect of the economic development strategy as it adds a quality of life asset that will be important in recruiting students, businesses and future employees. Outdoor recreation has been and will continue to be important to current and future residents of the town. As such, Rangely should continue moving forward with its efforts to build capacity and offerings.
Particular focus should be placed on development of the White River, which will need improved access, such as ingress and egress points, to allow the new retail and entertainment development to achieve its full potential. It will also make for a more compelling reason for pilots to choose Rangely as a destination to have maintenance and repair work done on their aircraft if they can enjoy some relaxing time on the river while waiting. In essence, investment on improving outdoor recreation will enhance economic development efforts in every other category.
Meeker
The action plan for Meeker focuses on the need to create an environment attractive to future business owners, their prospective employees and their spouses. As the quality of life offerings within the community increase, businesses will be more likely to locate to the community and will find it much easier to recruit and attract the workforce necessary to carry out their operations.
Quality of life for the rising generation relies heavily upon recreation, and therefore increasing recreational offerings will have a large impact on the attractiveness of a community. Meeker’s plan focuses on strategic downtown redevelopment focused on creating a world class hunting and fishing training facility, hosting outdoor competitions and events, expanding the shooting sports cluster and including a downtown housing project.
The local population is not sufficient to support a catalytic and game-changing project like the one that will be necessary to cast a new vision for the future. However, a large catalytic project is still possible, but will require attracting tourists and outside visitors to frequent the facility in addition to the usage by the local population.
One strategy of attracting tourism is to build on the momentum that already exists regarding hunting and fishing activities. In this regard, the following strategies and recommendations are based on how to build on existing assets to create new opportunities for tourism and economic activity.
The first strategy proposed for Meeker includes building a state of the art outdoor recreation training facility. The central vision for the new venue will be to create a destination that becomes known as “The Place” within the region, and potentially the country, for learning how to hunt and fly-fish. The community is already well known as a destination to engage in these activities, but the educational aspect is an opportunity that has not yet been exploited. The training facility will include training for multiple disciplines including firearms, archery and fly fishing and leverages the community’s unique culture and history, making the town a sought-after destination for competitions, events and conferences. The location is also expected to be a popular destination for individuals and families wanting to enjoy the outdoors together.
What will make the facility unique is its proximity to world-class hunting and fishing opportunities where participants can practice newly acquired or improved skills in a real-world environment. The venue also has the potential to differentiate itself by use of the latest state-of-the-art education and training components. A facility like the one described will be the first of its kind in the United States, and the second in the world with the only other facility currently located in Germany.
The key component will be a proposed 50- or 75-yard indoor video cinema training range composed of a fully enclosed indoor shooting range capable of safely handing up to .50 caliber ammunition. Rather than a traditional range with paper or plastic targets, the video cinema training range would feature a large paper screen at the far end of the range, with high resolution projectors that project actual, or simulated footage of a variety of different hunting scenarios. The participant is able to utilize their own firearm, with their own scope, to practice long-range shots at realistic targets. The real-time feedback is invaluable in a sport where timing and precision separate a successful hunt from an unsuccessful one. The same technology can also be used for archery, where participants can use their own equipment and receive real-time feedback of their shot placement at long range.
Rounding out the facility can be a variety of training rooms including classrooms, 3D archery targets and laser-assisted virtual hunting training rooms. The laser systems are unique in that they can track muzzle movement before, during and after the shot, providing feedback that can help hunters improve their technique and skill.
 It is important to distinguish between the types of laser training systems required for this facility, vs. those that are commonly found in a Cabela’s store or other strictly entertainment venues.
The systems employed by the new facility in Meeker will be high quality systems with a focus on a realistic approach with help from an instructor. The systems envisioned for the facility have been designed and used by professionals in competitive shooting, and have been used by Olympians, and Olympic teams for training. Laser systems can be implemented in any sized room, creating the opportunity for a unique multi-use facility for additional community uses, such as a movie theater.
For example, large movie theater-sized rooms can be designed with a platform/landing at the ideal height and distance for hunting practice, but during other times of the day the room can be used to show movies.
The fly-fishing portion of the building can have instruction rooms where participants can learn to tie flies, how to setup a pole and a practice area for casting. Proximity to the White River will be unique in that someone can come to Meeker with no fly-fishing experience, learn at the facility and test their new skills on a blue ribbon river. More advanced and high-profile anglers can be trained and directed up river to additional fly-fishing areas.
The new downtown facility will be complementary to the Meeker Sportsman’s Club, and the outdoor shooting facility located several miles outside of town. The outdoor facility will continue to have a role, particularly because it houses a 700-yard shooting range. The range is one of the longest in the region, and provides an experience that cannot be replicated with an indoor facility. In that regard, the two facilities will meet the needs of different groups.
With the completion of the downtown project described above, the town will have a unique asset that will contribute to the appeal of Meeker as a compelling destination for outdoor sports competitions, festivals, rendezvous, and conferences. These should be planned and scheduled strategically to generate tourism during times of the year that are historically slow. It is expected that the new events and competitions will be carried out in such a way as to remain consistent with the unique culture and heritage of the community.
The center will create a unique story and a venue that will be crucial in attracting additional primary jobs within the shooting sports cluster. The large catalytic project will provide opportunities for adjacent development and may include a restaurant/pub, outdoor focused retail, and rental equipment shops that offer fishing or recreation gear that can be used on the White River.
Hunting and fishing within Colorado is a billion dollar industry that has shown stable trends over recent years. With more than 13 million hunters in the country and more than 33 million anglers, Meeker has a large audience to which it can market its unique offerings.
As momentum builds, the town will be in a position to recruit additional outdoor-focused businesses and manufacturers. As the community becomes well known for outdoor sports training and recreation, companies within the sector will take notice and may gain a strategic advantage by locating to Meeker. A natural place to begin will be with the archery industry, which already has a foothold in the area due to the town’s successful bow-string manufacturers. The recruitment of manufacturing companies, and associated management positions will create additional job opportunities that will not require extensive workforce training programs
The final element of downtown redevelopment is building a multi-family housing development. Employers have reported that new employees have had difficulty finding adequate housing options within Meeker. The community will benefit if the workforce is able to locate in Meeker as there will be an increase in the number of individuals living within town that have stable and high-paying jobs.
The downtown redevelopment plan will require a Herculean effort with the support of multiple public agencies, private investors and the full support of the town.
Rio Blanco County
The proposed Wolf Creek water reservoir project being examined through a multi-jurisdictional effort has the potential to create a significant economic impact for Rio Blanco County. While the location of the future reservoir is still subject to approvals, it is anticipated that the Wolf Creek Reservoir will be located at a site that is approximately 20 miles east of the Town of Rangely, adjacent to U.S. Highway 64.
The footprint of the reservoir being recommended is a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir with a surface area of at least 1,500 acres. The reservoir would be the largest in the region and is anticipated to be open to all types of water recreation, including motorized sports that are becoming increasingly restricted throughout the state.
 The proposed reservoir has received multi-jurisdictional support from water conservation groups, environmental groups and recreation enthusiasts. Merits of the environmental impacts are significant and can be seen in the White River Storage Feasibility Study that was commissioned by the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District. Estimated economic impacts outlined in the feasibility study indicate positive economic contributions for the county as a whole.
The economic impact of the Wolf Creek Reservoir was estimated using extensive modeling based on visitation data from other reservoirs in the region. Based on estimated demand and average visitor expenditures,, it is anticipated that the Wolf Creek Reservoir will attract 125,000 to 160,000 visitor days on an annual basis, with direct expenditures within Rio Blanco County in the range of $6.1 million to $7.8 million. The increased visitor traffic and subsequent expenditures will be very beneficial to existing small businesses within the county, and will provide opportunities for new job creation.
Additionally, the presence of a new reservoir will be complimentary to the strategies that are being recommended for each town. For example, the reservoir will be within a 20-minute drive of the new student housing project, and the recreational components of the reservoir will contribute to the attractiveness of CNCC for recruitment purposes. The recreation offerings at the new reservoir will also be complimentary to the river recreation improvements that are recommended near Camper Park. Additionally, visitors who want to spend several nights at the reservoir, but don’t want to camp, will likely stay in Rangely hotels.
Meeker will also benefit because the reservoir will be another activity that hunting and fishing enthusiasts can enjoy during a trip to Meeker. Additionally, the majority of the reservoir’s future visitors will likely drive through Meeker on their way to the reservoir.
With the exception of Vernal, nearly all of the larger cities within the region have the most direct and easiest route to the reservoir via Meeker, especially when pulling a boat or trailer. The greatest economic impact will likely occur along the route most travelled as visitors stock up on food and fuel on their way to or away from the reservoir.
The reservoir will be a major undertaking and will require the financial participation of local and state governments to gain the traction necessary to progress.