Local leaders address pressing issues in the 2023 State of the Community
Community members gathered Wednesday, Feb. 1, at the Pavilion for the 2023 State of the Community where public officials and leaders of local industries offered updates on the triumphs and challenges facing Moffat County.
Hosted by the Craig Chamber of Commerce, the State of the Community focused on many topics already front of mind for residents, including the closure of Craig Station and its corresponding coal mine, wolf introduction and other state and federal mandates expected to affect the county.
State of the Chamber
Kirstie McPherson, a Craig Chamber board member, opened by saying the way chambers function has changed since they were originally created.
The Craig Chamber, which has over 300 members, helps local businesses by creating marketing campaigns, highlighting businesses and providing space for businesses to grow. This coming year the chamber is adding a commercial kitchen, which will be available to small businesses, through a grant-funded project.
“As we’re continuing to move into the next phases of what chambers look like, we’re going to continue doing all of that, but we’re also going to be building regional partnerships that (Craig Chamber Executive Director Jennifer Holloway) has been working so, so hard on,” McPherson said.
McPherson highlighted how Holloway has worked in partnership with nonprofits across the Yampa Valley, as well as state and federal agencies, on river projects and to support recreation in Moffat County. The Coal at Sunset podcast is another example of how Holloway is talking about the local community on a state and national level.
“Our economy, our culture, is changing, and we as a community have to rely on everybody from the entire valley, just like Steamboat has to rely on us,” she said.
State of the City
During his remarks, Craig Mayor Ryan Hess credited city staff for the large amount of grant funding brought in over the past year for projects that could help Craig in the future.
The Yampa River Corridor Project, which will repair the city’s water intake and boost recreation along the Yampa River in Craig, has secured approximately $5 million in grant funding. The city has also received funding to improve and expand public parks and recreational spaces, and to replace outdated clay water pipes in the city’s water infrastructure.
Hess also highlighted some of the work at the Museum of Northwest Colorado since it came under the city, including digitizing decades of archived Craig Empire newspapers to allow for easy online access to local historical records.
“If you go and search the existing Colorado Historical Newspaper website, there’s an article from the turn of the century that talks about Craig being the main hub in business growth,” Hess said. “And in a lot of ways, we’re kind of in that position right now as we transition from coal-fired power plants and coal mines into whatever our new economy will be.”
There are also efforts underway to explore what converting the current power plant to another type of energy production might entail, Hess said. Additionally, ConEdison has leased a large parcel of land from the city to develop a solar farm, and there have been ongoing conversations at the state and federal levels about the possibility of small modular nuclear facilities.
Hess also addressed concerns about the city’s budget and what could happen with the loss of revenue when the power plant closes. However, he said that going into the 2023 budget, the city was 30% over projected revenue, and City Council has been adding to its reserves to prepare for upcoming projects and an unknown future.
State of the County
Speaking about the county, Moffat County Commissioner Tony Bohrer highlighted a number of state and federal initiatives that are expected to affect or are already affecting Moffat County, including the introduction of wolves, water appropriation, environmental impact statements and coal closures.
“These renewable energy projects we’re working on — wind, solar and hydro — we all know it’s coming whether we want it to or not,” Bohrer said.
There are a number of solar projects developing in the area, including a 900-acre solar farm in the Axial Basin known as the ConEdison project, as well as exploration for potential wind power in Moffat County.
“I mentioned last year, and it’s still coming down the pipes, there is a Hayden and Craig pump-hydro project that would be 600 megawatts,” Boher said. “This is something we are pushing and pushing hard for them to come to Moffat County.”
Long term, the pump-hydro project would only add about 35 jobs to the community, but during the build, there could be as many as 400-500 workers needed.
“They are working on land acquisition, soil surveys; this is something they are trying to do,” Bohrer said, adding that Moffat County is one of 11 sites being considered and six will come to fruition. “Moffat County is fighting on a monthly basis, calling them saying, ‘where are we at, what can we do to get you guys here.’”
“As we all know, it’s a fight on gas, it’s a fight on coal, it’s a fight on recreation,” Bohrer said. “So we have been fighting that.”
State of the Industry
Travis Sondrol, plant manager for the Craig station, spoke about Tri-State generation and Colowyo. All three power generation units are scheduled for decommission between 2025 and 2030.
“I’ve been designated to close down a power plant. It’s not a goal, but it’s what I’ve been tasked to do,” Sondrol said. “With the help of my employees, we’re going to make sure we’re reliable, affordable and good stewards of our community.”
Sondrol said that the operation model for the coal-fired plant has changed from its original design with more renewables coming online. The rates of production are variable, and it has created challenges and required staff to “think outside of the box to do what we need to do.”
Jill Hafey, superintendent for the Moffat County School District, shared some of the “good, the bad and the great,” things that are happening in local schools. Hafey said the district has adopted a new framework that helps teachers be more efficient in supporting students and meeting state standards.
Hafey said the new four-day school week has been one of the biggest challenges for the school district, which has also been trying to cope with a high number of vacant positions. As a result, Hafey said, the school district has been creative in structuring schedules to try to cover the same curriculum in a shorter amount of time.
Hafey said the number of staff vacancies is an issue across the nation, as there has been a low number of college graduates going into education. Schools just aren’t competitive employers for speech and language specialists, or bus drivers, when those professionals can get paid triple elsewhere, Hafey said.
Hafey emphasized that the current staff is dedicated, and the district has come up with innovative solutions to try to close the gaps.
Kyle Miller, chief operating officer with Memorial Regional Health, addressed the state of the hospital and local health care post-pandemic. Over the last year, MRH has focused on three strategic areas — people, finance and quality — he said.
“You can’t deliver health care without quality health care professionals,” Miller said, adding that those three priorities overlap and are critical for delivering patient-centered health care.
MRH employee satisfaction rates grew from 69% in 2021 to 87% in 2022, according to the annual staff survey. The staff turnover rate has also decreased from 42% in 2021, which was in line with national turnover rates, to 29% in 2022.
Miller highlighted that MRH has also worked to improve its public perception by installing several quality service standards. In 2021, post-service surveys reported that 63% of patients would be likely to recommend MRH, and that number grew to 72% in 2022.
Over the past year, MRH has worked to improve billing by moving to a single-billing system and brining some positions that handle billing back in-house, giving patients someone they can actually talk with in person.
MRH has also reduced its number of traveling health care workers by half in the past year, which Miller said improves quality of services and hospital finances. According to Miller, MRH started 2022 with about 20 days cash on hand but has since doubled that number.
Catherine Blevins, VP and commercial loan officer with Yampa Valley Bank, spoke about external forces that are impacting day-to-day finances for many Moffat County residents, including high inflation and rising interest rates.
Blevins said that banks have been wrapping up the payroll protection federal business loans, which began during the pandemic. The payroll protection program, along with stimulus money, flooded the economy with cash and had a number of effects, including inflation.
“One of the things we look at as community bankers is to look at what are those factors that are going to impact our local communities and businesses,” Blevins said, adding that the interest rates have doubled in the last year for borrowers.
Scams are another risk that local banks are constantly working to educate residents about, she said, as she offered tips to help prevent people from being separated from their money.
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