RBC I While the region’s path to economic prosperity might not be exactly clear, one thing is: The path must be forged together.
That message was the focus of the Economic Diversification Roundtable on Wednesday at Colorado Northwestern Community College’s Craig campus. Craig-Moffat Economic Development Partnership (CMEDP) hosted the event, which included key players in the economic well being and growth of Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.
Just as important, it also included partners from state- and federal-level agencies that can help make the region’s economic future a strong, bright one.
Jason Walsh, senior policy advisor in the Executive Office of the President, said his visit was as much about providing information about economic growth programs as it was a listening opportunity to hear about Northwest Colorado’s unique challenges.
“I’m impressed by leadership in this community,” Walsh said. “Where these conversations are successful is where they are catalytic.”
Walsh said his visit was one of only a few he and his colleagues are doing throughout the country. Craig’s roundtable marks the fourth of a possible six such events.
Representatives from agencies including the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Agriculture and Labor, Employment and Training Administration as well as many state and local entities participated in three panel discussions throughout the day-long event. The 50 local officials and organization directors learned about the many grant, loan and assistance programs available through the state and federal agencies and how local entities can partner to implement plans for economic growth.
“The outcome of this roundtable is our communities coming together as we work side by side to build our economic future,” said CMEDP Executive Director Audrey Danner. “I was so pleased to see the level of engagement in the room from all levels of stakeholders and the openness to moving forward as a team.
Walsh said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet connected him to CMEDP and the region. In light of the region’s threats to its coal mining industry and primary economic driver, Walsh said he wanted to visit the area to offer some assistance through the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative, part of the President’s POWER+ Plan proposed for fiscal year 2016.
“It’s news to no one in this room that the U.S. is undergoing a pretty dramatic, pretty rapid transition of its energy sector,” Walsh said. “(The POWER+ Plan) is not a silver bullet, but we think it’s a strategic commitment.”
According to The White House’s website, “The POWER+ Plan invests in workers and jobs, addresses important legacy costs in coal country and drives development of coal technology.”
Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan was impressed to see the federal representation in Craig on Wednesday.
“It was good to get a good description of the POWER program. It was good to see some meat on the bones of that word and for me to get a better understanding of what that’s all about,” Corrigan said. “It was also great to see the array of resources that are actually available and be able to put some names and faces to those resources.”
Doug Lynott, program director for the POWER Initiative, explained how the administration’s goals for 2016 could play well into Northwest Colorado’s economic plans.
If Congress approves the POWER Initiative in the 2016 budget, Lynott said Phase II implementation grants will be available for communities such as Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.
Moffat County won a Phase I planning grant through the Economic Development Administration (EDA) last month. Of the $100,000 grant, EDA provided $50,000, Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) awarded $25,000, the county supplied $7,000 and CMEDP, the Craig Chamber of Commerce and Moffat County Tourism Association offered the remainder in in-kind support.
Lynott said that communities who have already done the “heavy lifting” of planning for economic growth in their coal-reliant communities may have a competitive advantage in the Phase II awards.
Jay Oxley, chairman of the CMEDP board of directors, said that with the recent EDA grant award, the passing of key ballot measures earlier last week and the collaborative relationships being solidified locally and regionally, he is optimistic about the future.
On Tuesday, Moffat County voters approved Ballot Measure 5A allowing for an additional lodging tax to generate about $275,000 each year and to form a Local Marketing District. Voters also approved Ballot Measures 1A and 2A, an override of Senate Bill 152, which will permit Craig and Moffat County officials to pursue broadband telecommunications infrastructure, something Rio Blanco County has already done.
“All of these things coming together feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work,” Oxley said. “To have everyone on board—local, state and federal officials—is a huge step in the right direction for the future of our community and our region.”
That new path is not without its challenges, however. The decline of the coal industry and risk of losing high-wage mining jobs pose a real risk to the local economy, said Dave Fleming, former CMEDP board member and Yampa Valley Bank president. Replacing those jobs at a similar wage and benefit package is a primary concern.
“To me, that’s the biggest question we have to figure out,” Fleming said.
Walsh and Lynott agreed, saying that diversifying and stabilizing the regional economy is a process that will take time and creativity as local leaders look to build on the area’s manufacturing, recreational and agricultural assets.
Tom Bugnitz, CEO of Manufacturer’s Edge, said that utilizing the resources and business strengths already available within the community allows companies to “zig” into new markets and offer opportunity for growth.
“When we look at ourselves, we have to look at ourselves differently. We have to think creatively,” Moffat County Commissioner Frank Moe said. “Our whole futures are in our hands. We are going to be the best ‘ziggers’ and ‘zaggers’ this country has ever seen.”
Other regional leaders agreed, recognizing that a collaborative effort to new initiatives will create the strongest approach.
“There are the right people in the room, the people who actually have the ability to make the change,” said Katelin Cook, economic development coordinator for Rio Blanco County. “They all have a clarified vision of where we want to be.”
Leaders also made it clear that this cannot be the job of the leaders who attended Wednesday’s workshop alone.
“Economic development for small communities is all our jobs,” said Kelly Manning, state director of the Colorado Small Business Development Center Network.
And even together, the path isn’t without its challenges.
“The reality is tough but you’re doing the right things,” said Irv Halter, executive director of DOLA. “This is the stuff that strengthens you and puts you on the right path.”