Leaders identify regional issues, seek solutions

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More than 80 representatives from Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties identified managing growth, maintaining quality of life and work force recruitment as key issues affecting the economy of Northwest Colorado.

Jim Westkott, senior demographer for the Colorado Depart-ment of Local Affairs, observed the discussion and complimented the group for being forward thinking. But then he chastised them for not seeing the issues right in front of their faces.

"You just don't get it," he said.

He said communities needed to look at the effect an influx of second-home owners -- which he likened to a natural disaster -- would have on the economy and culture of the Yampa Valley.

"You're in for a flood," he said. "I challenge you to stop it, or at least manage it. To do that, you need a clear understanding of your economy."

The group was gathered Thursday for the Yampa Valley Partners' Regional Leadership Summit.

"Yampa Valley Partners exists to forge partnerships and communication," Board President Mike Larson said. "The cornerstone of economic development is good, informed, decisions."

The focus of the day-long workshop was identifying the needs and challenges associated with the people, economy and environment of the Yampa Valley.

"We know that we're changing," Yampa Valley Partners Director Audrey Danner said. "We're growing, and we're changing."

Participants outlined needs and priorities in a series of breakout sessions on each topic after hearing from a panel of experts on each issue.

"I think we have a moral obligation as members of a community, as leaders of a community, to focus on the greater good," Club 20 Director Reeves Brown told the group.

Sustainable communities must have three things, he said, a thriving economy, a healthy environment and a stable culture. Each is as important as the other, he said.

"If a community focuses too much on economy and not enough on maintaining quality of life, eventually the economy suffers," Brown said. "And, the environment can only be as healthy as the economy."

He urged participants to take the lead in creating policy before someone else does it for them and cited land-use issues as a primary example. When locals don't come to the table aware and prepared, then the federal government crafts policy that might not be the best for their area or economy.

Reeves said being economically proactive means engaging participants, pursuing quality of life, taking advantage of change, seeking diversity and daring to ask, "why not?"

Health care, education and affordable living were the three issues the group weighed that most affected the people of the Yampa Valley, and opinions were mixed as to the most important issue.

Among the solutions suggested were programs educating employers, incentives to businesses who provided employee housing, the creation of a communitywide health insurance pool, drafting development standards requiring some percentage of affordable housing and regional cooperation in pursuing a solution.

Economically, the need to diversify so that communities aren't dependent on one industry was discussed often.

"If we want economic diversity, we need to preserve our culture," said Noreen Moore, business resource director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.

Maintaining infrastructure to support growth was cited as an obstacle to diversity as well as preserving culture.

Communication and cooperation between elected officials throughout Northwest Colorado was also a "must."

"We need to make it a priority that we want to keep what made us," former Moffat County commissioner T. Wright Dickinson said.

No participant ranked one environmental factor as more important than another -- putting oil and natural gas development in the same category as preserving water and open space.

"Natural resources are the backbone of the growth and economy of this area," said Moffat County Natural Resource Director Jeff Comstock.

The economies of Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties are all dependant on natural resources, whether it be the wild life that draws hunters, the open spaces the bring hikers, the snow that appeals to skiers or the abundance of coal and natural gas.

It was agreed that there is a need to evaluate natural resource use for the long term and that the public needed to be better educated about the need, use and importance of natural resources, but also about their cost and future.

No conclusions were drawn Thursday, but Danner said the input would be compiled to identify needs and trends and then participants can determine where to go from there.

"What we must do, and we have to continue doing, is meeting and continuing collaborative discussions from the very beginning of the Yampa River to the very end of it," former Craig Mayor Dave DeRose said.

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