Heritage and agri-tourism keys to Rio Blanco’s future

RBC I Have you noticed? One formerly viable and essential Meeker downtown business has failed and closed. Rumors of others struggling are rampant. Main Street is often sparsely populated with vehicles, and businesses are often nearly devoid of customers.

Only when the annual Meeker Sheepdog Classic is in session are stores, restaurants and lodging venues busy or even full. When the trials end, so too does the tourism activity and, thus, the flow of dollars.
It was reported that in 2013, the trials brought more than $1 million to the local economy from only five days of this internationally renowned activity. A little surge is experienced during the Fall hunting seasons and then the economic “long, dry season” begins, and runs late spring.
Lodging and business owners often report very low revenues inadequate to sustain their overhead costs. If the economy is grim now, just wait. We haven’t seen anything yet. The OHV trails are supposed to help, but merchants report that OHV riders often purchase their fuel, food and supplies in their own communities, travel into our county, ride the trails and return to their out-of-county communities without spending noticeably for local lodging or purchases. Colder seasons diminish OHV participation as well.
The concept of attracting business and industry to the county has not worked. Energy development is waning. Traditional energy production “ boom and bust cycles” with initial economic boosts through infrastructure development (pipelines and processing plants, which were completed several years ago) have not shown indications of future expansion and are no longer likely to offer a sustainable and reliable source of growth and revenue.
Property values are falling and, thus, the 83 percent of county property taxes paid primarily by energy corporations are waning dramatically. Some energy companies are downsizing or pulling out entirely. This loss of revenue affects all government and special districts directly.
Consequently the ability for government organizations to adequately maintain budgets, provide for capital investments and to hire, sustain and pay employee salaries may be directly impacted. This has a domino effect on the local economy as well. A different and proven approach to economic development is essential and must be given highest priority to compensate for this downslide.
Without a dramatic change in the focus of economic development in favor of heritage and agri-tourism, the economic outlook is not good. Adjacent rural communities with active tourism appeal are thriving and growing. But Meeker, Rangely and this county are not.
Heritage and agri-tourism is one of the very largest economic engines sustaining some rural Colorado communities. Delta County and the North Fork Valley are cited as one of the top models in which these enterprises are succeeding and sustaining the economy.
Kelli Hepler represents the Colorado Office of Tourism, the heritage and agri-tourism movement and also Delta County’s North Fork Valley, the Colorado Creative Industries Creative District. Hepler was in Meeker in January, serving as the keynote speaker for the Citizens Forum on Economic Development meeting, and she shared the methods and efforts that are fostering year-around economic development. See the full story at: industry.colorado .com/overview/hag-committee
Rio Blanco County, Meeker and Rangely have a treasure trove of historic venues and many historic residences and buildings dating back to the founding of each community.
In 2013, staff with History Colorado conducted field survey work and determined the potential for a National Register Historic District that includes many of Meeker’s notable civic, commercial and residential buildings.
Similarly, agricultural venues are of great interest to tourists for hands-on experiences. Colorado Tourism has teamed with History Colorado and the Colorado Department of Agriculture to promote combined and highly successful programs for domestic and international tourists, having a special interest in the lure of the Old West. Yet these Rio Blanco County communities are among the unintended “best kept secrets of Northwestern Colorado.”
International tourism by visitors from Asia and Europe with disposable income offers substantial potential sources of revenue. History Colorado publications suggest that heritage and agri-tourism visitors spend substantially more than ordinary tourists at such venues.
Tourism brings more than $4 billion to the Colorado economy. Comparing internet marketing strategies of other successful rural communities with those of this county shows that there is a vast difference in quality. Far more needs to be done to inventory and effectively market all the RBC resources and attractions through a multi-faceted international tourism internet marketing strategy.
Impending broadband improvements within the county will greatly enhance these efforts.
Before heritage and agri-tourism were implemented, Hepler described Delta County as a “pass through on the way to (other venues)” rather than a destination. Now, Delta County is a destination that tourists know about and patronize, even if they are ultimately en route to other destinations in Colorado.
Rio Blanco County can evolve into a similar modality with appropriate marketing and support. See North Valley and History Colorado websites: www.deltacounty independent.com/new/news-main/north-fork-times/920-agritourism-in-north-fork-is-blooming; www.historycolorado. org/ sites/default/files/files/OAHP/ Programs/Links_Worksheet.pdf;and www.historycolorado.org/sites/default/files/files/OAHP/crforms_edumat/pdfs/1620_TechnicalReport.pdf
To be a destination that is attractive to tourism, enhancement of communities’ local offerings—in terms of recreational activities, food, art, museums, historic venues and reenactments, artifacts and more—are essential.
The state Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) sponsors the “Main Street” program to assist in upgrading and restoring historic and other notable downtown buildings. The Sonoran Institute helps design and upgrade appealing downtown venues. History Colorado competitive grants will fund architectural evaluations and recommendations for such efforts.
Colorado Preservation works with History Colorado to fund similar enhancements.
Creation of a National Register Historic District would designate multiple properties in a single effort, making those properties eligible for lucrative financial incentives including grants and tax credits. Additionally, National Register designation will heighten awareness and understanding of the unique heritage and character of our community—offering the opportunity to educate and attract heritage-minded travelers.
Many Colorado communities with this designation enjoy worldwide promotion, publicity and, thus, active and sustainable tourism year around. Among these are Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Georgetown, Leadville, Durango, et al. See: www.colorado.com/articles/see-free-colorado-historic-districts
A second Citizens Forum on Economic Development meeting will be scheduled in the near future to discuss these concepts and to bring in experts from various state and other economic development organizations to facilitate discussions and approaches to supporting community-based coalitions for enhancing economic development.
To be effective, citizen participation by youth, adults and seniors is essential. Many opportunities abound for the good of all through a united effort.
To obtain more information on the Citizens Forum for Economic Development, please email amick@colorado.edu.