After Judy Walden left her home in the Elk River Valley in the 1980s, she didn't return.
Friends told her that was a good thing because Steamboat Springs had changed.
"They said, 'Judy, don't come back, it will break your heart,'" said Walden, a guest speaker Thursday at the 2005 Economic Summit.
Walden, who has helped de--------velop tourism programs throughout the world, finally returned to Northwest Colorado last year to help jumpstart a cultural heritage tourism project.
She saw the changes, but she also saw that the essence of the area -- rooted in agriculture, the community and natural environment -- was still alive.
"I still feel that 'Steam--boatness' that I lived in the '70s and '80s, and that really is what this project is about," she said.
The overall goal of the CHT program is to attract a growing segment of tourists who seek the essence of a place through activities such as scenic drives, historical tours and bird watching.
For the past nine months, representatives from Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties have been working to identify the stories and assets that draw an authentic picture of their communities and the region as a whole.
Although CHT has taken a strong hold along the East Coast, that hasn't happened yet in Colorado, where marketing has focused on high-energy adventure, Walden said.
"We really haven't been communicating with people in our advertising about who we are culturally and what we have for history," she said.
That may change now that the Colorado Tourism Office is working to develop a CHT program for the state and will have grants available for regions, such as Northwest Colorado, pursuing that effort.
So why would Steamboat, where tourism is firmly established, be interested in working with towns such as Yampa, Maybell, Dinosaur and Meeker in a CHT program?
The answer, Walden said, is that many of those towns still have the cultural and historical character that is harder to find amid the vast growth of Steamboat.
"The essence is still here, but a lot of heart space ... is 20 miles or 100 miles out of town," she said. "These are your partners."
However, some audience members Thursday questioned how some communities that don't have hotels and other infrastructure can benefit from CHT revenues.
Walden and others involved in the CHT program emphasized the program is not about mass, resort-type tourism.
"All we're talking about is small scale," said Winnie DelliQuadri, who is helping coordinate the CHT effort.
In many cases, CHT is about taking advantage of events or attractions towns already have.
For example, with little publicity, Sombrero Ranch's annual horse roundup in Maybell recently attracted more than 200 people, she said.
DelliQuadri also emphasized that, in some places, CHT will be about supplementing historic hotels, lodges and other services towns already have in place.
"I was really surprised that some of these communities do have infrastructure, some of us just don't know about it," she said.
CHT can help all communities preserve cultural and historical assets. However, the process may be different in Steamboat Springs, which is struggling to manage wealth and the rising costs of living, while other communities work to sustain a traditional way of life based in agriculture and mining, Walden said.
Partnerships among communities and organizations can help each place reach its goals, she said.
The Community Agriculture Alliance, for example, is working with the CHT group to promote products made in Northwest Colorado.
Marsha Daughenbaugh, executive director of the Alliance, said the CHT program also may join forces with ranchers and offer tours that could help support ranches.
"Maybe, just maybe, we can help young kids stay on some of these ranches," she said.
The CHT process in Northwest Colorado is still in the initial stages. Eventually, the group plans to apply for state and federal grants for marketing and promotion.
For more information about the project and meetings, visit www.yampavalley.info/heritage.asp.
-- To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204 or e-mail email@example.com