Economic Summit action on horizon

Community leaders are ready to help turn words into reality

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Approaching the end of a busy summer season, local community leaders are gearing up to take the promised action steps proposed at June's Economic Summit 2000.

"The (Economic Development Council) has agreed that our role is to help people follow up," EDC member Towney Anderson said. "But we shouldn't be the group taking everything on. We're just going to facilitate turning ideas into action."

In pursuit of one of the summit's greatest goals to put an end to talk and start acting the EDC plans to start holding summit conveners to their individual goals. Given the high degree of interrelatedness among the community's most pressing issues, identified at the summit, turning ideas into action is going to take a comprehensive, well-planned series of steps.

"As of now, we don't have a whole lot to report," Chamber Executive Vice President Sandy Evans-Hall said.

Evans-Hall will coordinate a meeting this Friday between Economic Summit attendees, as well as some members of the Economic Development Council, to begin hammering "action steps" into stone.

However, some of the ideas that came out of the summit already are being pursued.

An excise tax, proposed by the Regional Affordable Living Foundation, is on its way to the November ballot. The tax on new construction would provide a long-term funding source for affordable housing in Routt County.

Proponents of providing better child care in Routt County, who originally partnered up with RALF at the summit, have decided to pursue their own course of action.

According to First Impression's Renee Donahue, an excise tax for affordable housing may not be the only excise tax on the menu.

"Right now, parents in working families are paying an average of $28 a day for child care," she said. "But we've estimated that the actual cost is about $40 a day. We're looking at funding the difference. Our dream plan estimates a need for about $1.3 million a year."

The Yampa Valley Community Foundation has been approached with a detailed financial break-down of this million-dollar dream plan.

Donahue said that plans are only in the research stages at this point, and that options are being considered for next year, rather than this November.

"We're considering, among other things, a head tax, a sales tax, an excise tax, and what some other states are doing to fund child care," she said.

Vitally connected to both affordable housing and child-care issues are local employers' concerns regarding the labor market. A "living wage" group met at the summit in June, and also has taken preliminary action steps based on a human resources meeting held on Aug. 3.

The Economic Summit's break-out session group on employment issues came to several conclusions. A few of those were that employment issues are tied to affordable housing, that retaining quality employees has become a big problem in Routt County, and that the "job fair" program sponsored by the chamber is no longer adequate.

At a meeting last week, coordinated by the city's Director of Human Resources John Thrasher, local employers and representatives from the Small Business Development Center and the high school Careers program identified some further goals for the community.

The local employee base, it was determined, is largely made up of 18- to 30-year-olds who are living here to have fun, and end up working lots of jobs and are still unable to save. They suddenly realize it takes more than a couple jobs to "make it here."

Meeting attendants questioned how many of these employees really want to work year around and be committed to serious jobs.

Keeping shared employees employed during shoulder seasons is a complicated, important issue, especially in terms of providing continuous benefits from one employer to the next. An outside vendor that could allow employers to access an employee-friendly benefit package is going to be further pursued.

Creating a central database with employee characteristics and availability could provide a good link between employees and employers, attendants decided, but the question that remains is who would maintain such a system.

Another of the hotly-debated topics at this year's summit involved the county's lack of economic diversity, especially in terms of advanced technological infrastructure.

The break-out session was led by SpringSips' Stephanie Reineke, who has been doing her homework since the summit.

"We're getting ready to bring in an incredible amount of bandwidths into the valley," Reineke said.

That means more transit in and out of the Yampa Valley and more Internet access for everyone.

"We've been working on contracts and work provisions to bring in as much as we can, and it looks like it will be reality here shortly," she said.

One development that came straight out of that particular summit discussion is a joint effort between Colorado Mountain College and the Economic Development Council. The two organizations want to use the new Small Business Development Center at CMC to create an enterprise center where venture capitalists or a pool of investors can help finance new, struggling companies. The intended goal of the effort is to heighten the success rate for new businesses, which would potentially encourage economic diversity in the valley, Evans-Hall said.

Taking infrastructure and technology to the next level does not mean leaving Routt County's agricultural heritage in the dust.

Proponents of regional agriculture already have scheduled a meeting to discuss agricultural policy issues.

"We're going to look at what policy issues, on a state and local level, are making agriculture difficult in Routt County," Colorado State University Extension Agent CJ Mucklow said. "And then we'll look at how we need to change them or delete them to benefit local agriculture."

Mucklow is meeting with the new director of the Agricultural Alliance, Ellen Stein, to make decisions on other ideas that came out of the summit.

The Ag Alliance may be using the county's proposed advanced infrastructure to create a database of local landowners and ranchers. The idea is to keep the two groups of interdependent residents in touch with each other.

The Ag Alliance is going to consider taking up new projects, similar to Yampa Valley Beef and Routt County Woolens, to boost local ranching and agricultural efforts.

Looking ahead, concerns regarding growth, rural sprawl and future development will be addressed at an Oct. 12 meeting hosted by Environment 2000, during which locals can discuss the statewide growth initiative that will be on the ballot this November.

Six weeks ago, the last time summit conveners and the EDC met to follow up on proposed action steps, City Councilman Ken Brenner reminded the group that the easy part of the process is done.

"How well we follow through is the biggest challenge," he said.

Hundreds of summit participants were told on June 1 and 2 to hold all the conveners and coordinators to their plans and ideas.

To reach Bonnie Nadzam call 871-4205 or e-mail bnadzam@amigo.net

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