S. Routt explores economic options

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Interest in economic development is building in Oak Creek.

There are new businesses such as a coffee shop, a thrift store, a coffee roasting company and a tile and granite shop. There are new residents, who have chosen to live in Oak Creek for the lifestyle and tele-commute to work.

The communities of Oak Creek, Phippsburg, Stagecoach, Yampa and Toponas came together in August to participate in a study sponsored by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

During the study, a team examined economic conditions and potential for development in South Routt County. The team toured the area, talked with residents, held public discussions and then presented recommendations for how the area could best develop economically.

Although the team has left, the region has sustained the momentum by continuing to hold meetings to pick which recommendations to pursue and to define six groups to work on those recommendations.

The work is exciting for the area, said David Bonfiglio, the owner of Bonfiglio Drug in Oak Creek, who has been involved with the study since it began.

The study stimulated South Routt communities to come together to discuss economic development, to help speed up the process and to put it into the hands of residents. If the community isn't proactive, growth could happen in a way that doesn't fit with what the community wants, Bonfiglio said.

Through well-planned development, the community has a better chance of solidifying current businesses and attracting other businesses that it wants, he said.

"From there, we become a more stable, economic base for our citizens," he said. "Instead of having to leave our area to buy things, more and more of them can be here."

That, Bonfiglio said, creates more tax dollars that translate into better schools, roads, infrastructure, recreational facilities and more, which all contribute to improving life in South Routt.

South Routt's history

In 1940, Oak Creek was busier than it is today. The town supported about 1,500 people, with up to 3,000 miners in town temporarily.

But when the mines closed, those numbers dipped. The population for Routt County went from about 10,000 in 1940 to 5,900 in 1960, mostly because of the migration of miners, said Noreen Moore, director of a countywide business resource development program. Moore developed a packet of background information about the area, including data on population, labor, businesses, school enrollment and property taxes.

Although Steamboat Springs' numbers consistently have grown since the construction of the ski resort, average populations for most South Routt communities have stayed the same, with Oak Creek's hovering around its 2000 population of 849 people.

Nearby Phippsburg saw more activity in the heyday of the railroad, while the agricultural town of Yampa has held a more or less constant population of a few hundred people.

The Stagecoach area has seen recent growth. Since the community was designed in the early 1970s, 136 single-family homes and 163 multi-family homes have been built. Of the single-family homes, more than half were built since 1996. Continued growth is expected for the area.

The Community's Goals

Developing a shared vision is one of the key goals that was discussed at the most recent community meetings for the South Routt Community Assessment.

At a September meeting, six committees were formed to begin working on recommendations residents identified as most important.

Those recommendations are to develop a shared vision and sense of community for South Routt, to build a good foundation for economic development, to develop consistency in land-use regulations and development policies, to support viable agricultural operations, to find funding for staff support for the South Routt Economic Development Council and to create partnerships with the school district, community and businesses.

Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak is leading the vision committee, which established two immediate goals.

First, the committee plans to send a survey to all South Routt residents to ask specific questions. The survey could be mailed by the end of January, and if results are received by February, the committee could start to craft a community vision by next spring.

Stahoviak said the community has said it was important to maintain the agricultural heritage, scenic look and rural feel of the area and that she expected similar thoughts from the survey.

The group's second goal is to invite all community leaders, from government officials to club leaders, to a dinner in which people from different areas can get to know each other and make contacts.

The other committees also have specific goals that they presented at the most recent meeting. The economic development committee is working to create a space that businesses can use for support services, such as making copies or searching the Internet.

The committee working on land-use codes decided to create educational forums across the community where people could come to ask questions, and to eventually make a simple guide to permits needed for starting businesses.

The agriculture committee is considering research opportunities as well as establishing a board of ranchers and farmers to review what the committee does.

The committee looking at staff support has a crucial role, as once grants to fund a paid staff person are found, that person can help each group accomplish its goals, said Bea Westwater, a Stagecoach resident and business owner who's leading that committee.

"An awful lot of the other committees are dependant on us getting staff because so much of what needs to get done depends upon having a somebody for somebody to call and right now, we don't have that somebody," Westwater said.

The group is working to get nonprofit status for the South Routt Economic Development Council so it has better access to federal and local grants. It also is trying to make the council more attractive to members by helping it become a chamber of commerce.

Between 150 and 200 people have participated in the process.

"The number of people who have been attending the meetings, it's phenomenal," Westwater said. "It's true community involvement."

What it takes

That level of community involvement is exactly what it is going to take for the program to be successful, said Pattie Snidow, the business development representative for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade and a team assessor for the project.

The state office has had 12 assessments so far, she said, all of which aim to foster economic development at the community level.

The process, she said, is long.

"The end result is jobs, but those are years down the road often," Snidow said. "The real work is putting the pieces together in the community that make it an attractive business climate."

Because some goals can take years, she said it's important for communities to pursue short-term goals that are easily attainable as well as more long-term goals.

Achieving any goals, however, depends on buy-in and participation from the entire community.

"If everybody does their part, it goes really smoothly," she said. "It's when people sit back and say somebody else will take care of it, that's were the community fails."

A success story

Cortez, a community in southwestern Colorado, participated in an assessment in October of 2002. Although it's difficult to describe "success stories" because success typically comes from long-term efforts, Snidow said she pointed to Cortez as one example of a community that has done well.

During the past year, Cortez has tackled what Snidow called "extremely difficult zoning issues," which worked to obstruct business development in the area.

Now, several places have been designated and zoned for businesses, a step Snidow said will help bring businesses and so jobs to the area.

The community also has looked carefully at McPhee Reservoir, the second largest body of water in the state. The reservoir is now used for irrigation, but Snidow said the community is working to develop it into a recreational facility and more for boaters.

The community has received one grant and is working to get two more. A company is talking with Cortez about putting a marina for concessions in at the reservoir.

Without the assessment, it could have been difficult for residents in Cortez to agree on what areas were most important to pursue.

"We kind of try to put everything in perspective," Snidow said about the assesment team's role, "so the community can say yes, these are important, but here are our priorities."

That doesn't mean that some people won't object to the process she said. There are always residents who don't want communities to change. But, Snidow said, if a town isn't moving forward, it's moving back, and so is still changing.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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