Report: Plans offered to promote Meeker economy

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MEEKER I Last week, the Rio Blanco County Economic Development Strategy, Phase I- Community Assessment Report for Meeker was released. The report, prepared by Better City, contains a list of assets and liabilities in the town, a SWOT analysis and recommendations for potential improvements to the community.

The community assessment involved Better City staff members meeting with numerous stakeholders including town and county leaders, business owners, residents and what Better City terms “community visionaries.” While only the first of four phases, including an economic assessment, market assessment and final recommendations and strategy, has been released, the county is planning informational community meetings regarding the plan in August.
The Meeker report begins with a listing of three major assets found in the town, which Better City believes need to be leveraged together for any development plans to be successful. These assets include the downtown area, Highways 13 and 64, and the White River. The report notes the value of the historic buildings such as the Meeker Hotel in the downtown area.
The highways are considered assets because they provide an average daily traffic count greater than 6,000. However, Better City believes that the lack of “controlled intersections” and amenities along the road prevent travelers from stopping. They also note that the high speed allowed on the roads prevents foot traffic from easily crossing the highway, thus separating the downtown area from the river.
The last asset listed, the White River, is described as having excellent fishing and floating opportunities, which Better City states could be exploited further. One way they believe this could be accomplished is to connect the three assets both “conceptually and physically.”
The lack of development along the highway is listed as a liability within the town. According to the report, the view from the highway gives the impression of a sleepy rural town without much to offer.
The last liability discussed in the report is the belief that there is a sizable portion of vocal citizens in Meeker who oppose growth and change.
The SWOT analysis prepared by Better City highlights important strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the Meeker community.
Among the listed strengths are a well-defined street grid, historical buildings, surrounding agricultural industry, quality hunting with easy access to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and several hunting manufacturing and service businesses. The report also details the annual Sheepdog Trials and Meeker Airport as beneficial to the town. Finally, high tax revenues, which have given many of the special districts a funding surplus, is listed as a strength.
Better City also describes five key weaknesses found in Meeker. The first is Meeker’s remote location, specifically its distance from I-70 or any other major transportation corridors. Combined with a small population and lack of amenities, Better City describes Meeker as at a disadvantage for attracting businesses.
Dependence on the oil and gas industry is also listed as a weakness. According to the report, this dependence leaves Meeker susceptible to employment and population boom and bust cycles.
Another weakness described is the lack of year-round attractions.
Recent school funding issues encountered by the Meeker School District are listed as a weakness. According to Better City “school-funding gaps or inadequate fiscal management, if not appropriately addressed, can negatively impact school performance, quality of life and the ability to attract and retain businesses and a skilled workforce.”
The last weakness discussed in the report is a severe lack of daycare options for children. Better City found that there were no licensed childcare providers within the community, which they believe will be vital when attracting new potential employers.
Numerous opportunities for economic development and growth were found throughout the town.
The first is the development of amenities and creation of pedestrian corridors from the downtown area to the river. Other opportunities include a retirement community, shooting sports amenities, a meat packing plant and entertainment venues such as a movie theater or bowling alley.
The threats discussed in the report are external and outside the control of local Meeker residents. They include the fluctuations of the oil and gas market, health and population of the White River elk herd and tax restrictions such as TABOR, which Better City claims limit local districts’ ability to raise funds.
From the SWOT analysis, Better City developed eight recommendations for the Meeker community. Each recommendation is accompanied with action steps to accomplish the goal.
The first recommendation is a “strategic redevelopment” focused on “eliminating blight, creating entryways to the town, expanding the downtown and interconnecting the White River with Market Street and Main Street.”
Better City suggests that the redevelopment should occur on the two blocks on either side of Fifth Street between Market and Water streets, and include both entertainment options such as a theater or bowling ally, a grocery store, a high-end restaurant and a childcare center.
It describes the redevelopment as providing improved streetscapes, giving pedestrians and cyclists easier movement, parking, landscaping and lamp lighting. The report envisions the corridor as a gateway to historic Main Street.
The next recommendation involves a redevelopment along the river. Better City suggests the development of a riverfront park and recreation area running from First to 10th streets and include a river trail, gazebos, tables, fishing areas, kayaking and tubing.
The third recommendation makes the claim that “Meeker has the potential to become a recreation mecca on the Western Slope, and possibly for all of Colorado.” This plan includes all of the redevelopments discussed in the earlier recommendations but adds on a revitalization of Ute Park and a hot spring near town.
In an attempt to capitalize on local animal agriculture and the success of a local meat distribution company, the fourth recommendation is to develop a meat processing plant in the community. Better City suggests current operations consider applying for USDA grants and loans to expand their business to include meat processing.
The fifth recommendation is the development of a culinary arts school in Meeker. According to Better City, the riverfront and downtown redevelopment could be leveraged to attract such a program to the area.
The suggestion of a shooting sports cluster expansion makes use of Meeker’s hunting reputation. This plan involves a three-pronged approach: marketing the community to bow manufacturers in an attempt to encourage relocations; the development of “world-class shooting ranges”; and seeking out additional shooting sports businesses that may be persuaded to move to Meeker.
The seventh recommendation described in the report is an innovation center. The theory behind the innovation center is that there currently exists a gap in the process of entrepreneurs reaching their goal of low-to-moderate volume manufacturing.
According to Better City, there are several similar centers on the Western Slope that help entrepreneurs develop prototypes, however, once the prototype is developed there is a need for manufacturing help.
The final recommendation detailed capitalizes on the newly renovated Pioneers Medical Center. Development of an “Age-In-Place Retirement Community” could take place on the land surrounding the hospital.
The cost to the county and towns of Meeker and Rangely for the economic development plans was $75,450. The county received a $57,725 DOLA grant.
The county paid $10,000 and the two towns each contributed $7,725 to the project. The final report is expected to be available this fall.