Local officials identify priorities for future transition funding | CraigDailyPress.com

Local officials identify priorities for future transition funding

With the help of external consultants coming in this year, Craig and Moffat County officials have been working together to identify the highest priority projects to replace the tax base and create jobs as the community transitions away from a coal-based economy.

Tri-State announced in December it would be hiring the Ferguson Group to assist local entities in accessing grant money to help with the community’s transition. Moffat County Commissioner Tony Bohrer said Tri-State’s goal is to have collaborative projects with the city and county be elevated for these initiatives.

Moffat County commissioners, Craig City Council members and key county and city staff members met on Tuesday, Feb. 14, to brainstorm the top five or six collaborative initiatives for the Ferguson Group to advocate for funding.

“As the city and the county, we’re not representing an entity, we’re representing the communities in the city and county and the good of the whole,” Bohrer said. 

As Tri-State’s coal extraction and coal-fired power plant sites are set to close over the next seven years, the tax base in Moffat County is expected to take a loss of about 60% from coal and coal-parallel industries. Replacing the tax base was the No. 1 concern for local officials last week when discussing the community’s top initiatives. 

Local officials specifically identified the top priority as finding a way to repurpose the existing power infrastructure at the Craig Station, whether it’s with hydrogen, hydro or nuclear energy production.

Local officials have varying opinions about which energy production method might be best suited for Moffat County, but ultimately, it could depend on getting support from Tri-State, as well as state and federal legislators. 

Overall, local officials felt that utilizing the existing assets would be a key piece to fulfill energy production needs, maintain high paying jobs and replace the local tax base. 

Craig Mayor Ryan Hess said the goal is not to expand the tax base, but to retain jobs and property tax revenues, so that both residents and local entities have support moving forward. 

“There is nothing that the city is capable of doing that will make up for tax revenue loss,” Hess said. “Especially for the schools and the hospital, if you lose a hospital, EMS or schools, people won’t want to live here.”

Hess also warned that moving forward with the wrong project could damage other local systems. For example, if an alternate energy project were to bring 300 new jobs, the school district and local housing might not be able to accommodate that growth. 

Anticipating job growth 

With an eye on workforce retention, housing is another top priority, and the city is already working to try to address it.

Still, Craig City Manager Peter Brixius said that the existing efforts might only bring relief to the current housing shortage, and several local officials felt that the level of job creation that could come with the proposed energy projects must also come with adequate housing for workers. 

According to Brixius, the city has been working with one developer for about two years to bring a multi-family housing development to Craig. There is a gap in funding for developers to be able to build housing suitable for local wages, but city officials are trying to help close that gap and attract market-rate housing developments. 

“We’re getting to a place where we are not going to be able to attract young people to stay here to work,” City Council member Tom Kleinschnitz said, adding that a recent study reported the average starter-home in Colorado requires an annual household income of $125,000. 

Quality of life 

In another effort to bolster the tax base and local job market, Moffat County officials proposed the idea of constructing a convention center, which could attract year-round events and conferences to Moffat County. 

Ideally, local officials said the proposed event center would have an indoor arena large enough to accommodate rodeo events during the colder months, in addition to large event spaces for conferences and exhibitions.

Roy Tipton, the development services director for the county, has been exploring the idea of a convection center for several years, and Tipton said projects like these typically cost about $15 million to construct, but with the amount of funding available right now, it’s with exploring. 

Tipton also said that there are spikes in use for all of the indoor spaces currently in Craig, so there may be the potential for a convention center to be a multi-use facility for both community members and conferences and events coming from outside of the area. 

City officials wanted more information about the convention center, but agreed about the potential benefits to the community. County officials said similar event centers were built in Montrose and Vernal, Utah, and have been consistently booked with events since they opened. The construction of an events center could also attract investors to build additional lodging and hotels in the area, which currently experiences shortages for visitors. 

Council member Derek Duran was interested in the idea of a convention center, but he also wanted to consider initiatives that improve quality of life for the citizens who are already here. 

The idea of a recreation center was brought up by several officials, though it also came with concerns about long-term operational funding for such a project. Many city and county officials said the thought behind a rec center is that it would give community members an indoor place to recreate in the cold months, and potentially reduce some of the crime and substance use rates among youth and young adults. 

“Maybe it’s both (a convention center and a rec center),” Commissioner Melody Villard said. “Let’s throw out what we want, and let the Ferguson Group — while Tri-State is paying them for it — to go out and find funding for what we need.”

Education, transportation and critical infrastructure 

The school district was not at the table during the combined city and county discussions, but local officials did discuss how to best support local education.

There have been capital improvements identified both through Moffat County School District and Colorado Northwestern Community College that could be prioritized for the Ferguson Group to seek funding. 

“We have to help our local K-12 schools move to a level where education is not a concern for people moving into this community,” Hess said. “People look at education when they are moving into a community. We also have a college campus that can be improved where people could stick around after graduating and stay working in the community.” 

Some officials felt that initiatives to retain the tax base would sufficiently help support local schools, while others felt that working with the Ferguson Group could possibly help leverage funding to address deferred maintenance and infrastructure. The construction of dorms for CNCC’s Craig Campus was also proposed as an initiative for the Ferguson Group.  

The need for improved transportation, whether it be through a regional commuter rail or for improvements to local roadways that would allow for future development, were other priority topics. And many officials wanted to prioritize existing infrastructure projects, such as improvements to the water treatment system that the city is anticipating in the next few years.

“I think we’re in kind of a unique position and a little behind the curve as a coal impacted community where we are getting all of these opportunities for funding and it’s up to us to decide what we most need,” Villard said.

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