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Pull up a chair

Community holds frank conversations on county's future

Collin Smith

— Darcy Trask got what she wanted Friday morning: Concerned residents, government officials and business owners talking frankly.

When she called the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade and asked the organization to schedule a visit to Craig, she wanted a group of informed and experienced professionals to answer questions and facilitate meaningful discussion.

Those questions included how to diversify local industry, how to improve the local work force and how government can or should be a factor in economic development.

“I think we got to a point where we were able to address some concerns that have been around for some time,” Trask said.

EDP also came away with two possible plans for action.

One: The group could seek funding from Moffat County Social Services, which has about $242,420 that must be spent before June 30, 2009, or it will be lost to long-term state reserves.

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Federal law requires the money be spent for selective purposes, one of which is job preparation. Trask said EDP possibly could use the money to visit Moffat County School District students and help prepare them for life after high school.

Two: EDP can find some way to solve the riddle of whether the average resident wants community growth, and if so, what kind of growth. The findings could help EDP – and government officials – when they make future decisions, Trask said.

The Office of Economic Development team brought together for Moffat County included state officials and regional economic development organization leaders. They held three open-forum discussions Thursday and Friday at the Holiday Inn of Craig.

Each meeting focused on one question outlined by EDP.

Industry diversification

Residents said they fear for the future because of the local economy’s dependence on the energy industry.

It’s a volatile industry, they said, and betting the community’s prosperity on one industry is risky.

Others were not so convinced an energy bust would come soon.

“There’s at least enough coal under the ground in Moffat County to sustain another generation of coal miners, at least,” said Terry Carwile, a Craig city councilor who recently retired from Trapper Mine.

The reason Moffat County has not seen the kind of oil and gas explosion as Rio Blanco County, Utah and Wyoming is a matter of geology, Carwile said. It’s expensive to look for resources here, but the resources aren’t going anywhere, and they should draw interest eventually.

However, the local coal mines and power plant aren’t always the best friends of local businesses, Scott Cook said.

Cook, who is the EDP board president and owner of Cook Chevrolet, acknowledged that much of his customer base living in Moffat County is here because of those energy operations, but he can’t find a decent employee because the mines and power plant hire most of the good ones.

“The hardest thing about running a business in Craig is competing with the mines and the power plant on wages, benefits and hours,” Cook said. “It’s a two-edged sword.”

Work force

Mike and Mardi Anson, who own and operate Anson Excavating & Pipe, said their employees will ask for an advance on their paychecks and then call in sick for three days after they get it.

It was one of several examples of poor employees given by business owners present Friday morning.

Many at the meeting said it is too hard to find someone with basic skills, much less any kind of specific training for the job he or she applied for. Those at the meeting wondered why the schools didn’t seem to prepare local youths for adulthood.

School District Superintendent Pete Bergmann did not shy from questions.

“No excuses,” Bergmann added. “We are trying to meet those needs.”

In some cases, he said, the School District succeeds.

Students who show a desire to advance and do well, and have an involved family, seem to succeed, Bergmann said. These also happen to generally be the students who leave Craig for college or other places.

The unmotivated and uneducated are generally left, Bergmann said.

However, Bergmann stressed that teachers and school administrators are not content with the present situation.

“We’re trying to put together programs to increase our academic rigor,” he said.

At the same, work ethic is not learned at school, Bergmann said.

Others, including those critical of the School District, agreed. They also added businesses could take more responsibility and work with the School District to foster education and training opportunities.

Government’s role

Mike Anson and Jay Oxley are two local business owners who wanted to build a residential subdivision on the west side of Craig. Right now, the project is at a standstill, Anson said.

“Where we want to put this thing, we were told we have to build a mile-long road out of our dime,” he said. “It’s all on the developer.”

Christina Currie, Craig Chamber of Commerce executive director, also said the city and county need to invest in infrastructure to ease the burden on developers.

Members from the state’s team agreed there would be no other way for Moffat County to remain competitive in attracting businesses.

Deana Sheriff, executive director for Delta Area Development, and Ann Driggers, president of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said government assists their organizations.

In Grand Junction, the government pays for the road up front and developers pay for the portion of the road they use, Driggers said.

In Delta, the government leverages development projects to seek Colorado Department of Local Affairs grants, Sheriff said. The USDA also can help secure and provide loans.

Diggers and Sheriff were adamant that businesses are required to pay their own way. Incentives are more than free money, they said.

A final report from the state team is expected in two to three weeks, including recommendations for how to address each issue.

A final report

EDP officials plan to tackle the questions raised one at a time, starting with bringing together a working group of local organizations to apply for Social Services funds. Trask said she would assemble the meeting within the next two weeks.