Jim Stoltzfus, a mechanic at the Tri-State Generation & Transmission Craig power plant, operates a forklift Thursday to move a reactor feed pump that needed repair. The coal-fired plant is one of the community’s largest employers, both in terms of number of people and amount paid in wages and taxes.

Photo by Shawn McHugh

Jim Stoltzfus, a mechanic at the Tri-State Generation & Transmission Craig power plant, operates a forklift Thursday to move a reactor feed pump that needed repair. The coal-fired plant is one of the community’s largest employers, both in terms of number of people and amount paid in wages and taxes.

Economic development plans focus on small businesses

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Laboratory technologist Brenda Hershiser tests water samples in the laboratory at the Tri-State power plant. The water samples she tested came from the Tri-State Nucla Station power plant in southwest Colorado, which relies on the lab in the Craig power plant to perform more advanced analysis than their equipment can facilitate.

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Tri-State Power plant electrician Matthew Dilldine rides a tricycle holding tools through the bottom floors of the station. The tricycles help workers maneuver through the plant’s roughly 600 acres.

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Randy Watson lets sparks fly while welding Thursday at the Tri-State power plant south of Craig. The facility uses locally-produced coal to generate power for many communities across the West.

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Rodney Beason, a mechanic at the power plant, guides a forklift carrying a reactor feed pump to a machine shop Thursday. Beason said workers needed to change out a few seals and bearings to make the pump operational.

The energy industry — because of the number of people it employs, the amount it pays to workers and the tax revenue it generates — has been a large part of what kept Moffat County’s economy relatively healthy and stable during the recession, Darcy Trask said.

It also leaves the county in something of a quandary, she added.

“If those kinds of jobs go away, there isn’t currently enough diversity for us to absorb those folks,” said Trask, director of the Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership.

Although community re­­sources are slim, as money is one thing community organizations and local governments don’t have a lot these days, many officials hope to do what they can to further the local economy in 2010.

The community had a fair amount of struggles in the past year: The county began a long process of spending cuts to offset a decline in property tax revenue; local retailers struggled, as evidenced by slumping sales tax revenue, which in turn affected the city’s budget planning; and a local church began offering free hot meals within a week of a popular local restaurant closing its doors.

Local efforts to help extended mainly to new and existing small businesses, with most officials saying they don’t have the resources to attract new, large industries that could fill the void left by the energy industry, should it decline.

EDP likely will be unable to expand its operations in 2010 much past what it has done previously, Trask said, but she and the board hope to broaden their ability to strengthen Moffat County’s new and small businesses in the new year.

Their goal begins this month when EDP launches the Business Foundation Start Right and Grow Right program.

The four-step curriculum, which Trask described as “how to start a business 101,” will offer monthly classes to those looking to start a business and those who own a new or small business now.

The group then plans to launch a supplement program in September for those who want to move past the lessons taught in the first program.

In addition to formal classes, EDP will partner with Yampa Valley SCORE, a Steamboat Springs-based business development group, and the Small Business Development Center from Breckenridge to offer free, individual counseling sessions to current small-business owners and residents interested in opening a new business in the future.

EDP has determined that it will not have the resources in 2010 to campaign for new, well-paying industries to come to Craig, Trask said.

Instead, the group hopes its efforts to build new local businesses will help diversify the local economy and keep people working.

“This economic downturn may be an opportunity to make some headway in putting in a small amount of diversity in the local economy,” Trask said. “Sometimes, when there aren’t great jobs all over, people get creative. There is an opportunity here that we should recognize.”

Moffat County Commissioner Audrey Danner said she thinks EDP’s approach is the best thing for Moffat County as it exists now.

“Small business is the backbone of America,” she said. “They may not have the same presence as natural resources, but they are just as important to us.”

During the past year, city and county officials have debated whether they should offer tax money as incentives to attract more large industries.

Danner said she is open to discussing that possibility — either through direct incentives from government or funneling money through EDP — but doing so now would be putting the cart before the horse.

“Even if we could attract some company that employs 100 or more people, I don’t think we have the infrastructure in place to do that,” she said. “We don’t have the capacity of skilled work force, housing, any of that to make that viable.”

There also is the complication that the city and county are facing significant budget challenges in the next few years because of declining tax revenues.

At the same time, Danner said certain parts of the local economy are healthy.

The Memorial Hospital is a strong employer, and Colorado Northwestern Community Col­lege is doing “great things” to give residents the skills they need to find gainful employment, she said.

County government is committed to supporting what efforts it can to make sure the economy stays healthy, Danner added.

It funds EDP, the Craig Cham­ber of Commerce, As­­sociated Governments of North­west Colorado and Colorado Counties, among others, to help finance various efforts and stay involved in proposed legislation that could impact local revenues, such as climate change legislation that might affect the area’s energy producers.

Chamber Executive Director Christina Currie said her organization has several plans for 2010 to help member businesses weather the economic downturn.

First, it hopes to enhance its ability to market local companies, then it plans to launch a shop local campaign to not only support locally-owned stores, but also to bolster Craig’s allure to consumers across Northwest Colorado and the border regions of Wyoming and Utah.

“Several years ago, Craig was kind of considered a regional shopping hub,” Currie said. “We had Kmart, which was kind of the only big box discount store around. … Then, everywhere around us kind of got their own version of that, and it became much less unique to here.”

Now, she added, with Kmart and Walmart, Craig can offer a wide selection of that kind of shopping, as well as unique local stores and recreational opportunities that can’t be found elsewhere.

Still, Currie said it is her opinion that should Craig ever want to expand its economy to include a new industry that could pay wages comparable to coal and natural gas jobs, it probably will have to offer government subsidies.

Craig City Councilor Ray Beck agreed, but there’s one obstacle in the way.

“We’ve had that discussion several times over the last several years,” he said. “We can sit down at the table and come up with all sorts of ideas, and that’s fine and well, but it all takes money.”

Beck added that if there was enough political will, he would like to sit down with other government officials and representatives from EDP, the Chamber and Moffat County Tourism Association to discuss how that might be possible.

“I said about a year ago that I think that one of the key things to surviving in the downturn economy would be to provide incentives,” he said, later adding, “I think you should always be seeking growth because if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

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