Can area sustain more growth?
Mesa State presents findings on impacts; audience laments frustrations with state
February 7, 2008
Craig — When representatives from Mesa State College, El Pomar Foundation and Club 20 presented findings from their regional economic growth study Wednesday, the audience’s frustrations with the state spilled out.
The study, titled “Socioeconomic Impacts from Growth,” found that the rapid increase in commercial and industrial activity since 2004 has strained local infrastructure and, as a result, the possibility of future growth.
Research included statistical data and focus groups with local business and government leaders in the five Northwest Colorado counties of Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Mesa and Garfield.
The audience consisted of representatives from the local business community, the city of Craig, Moffat County, the School District, The Memorial Hospital and Colorado Northwestern Community College.
There is one issue that contributes to everything else, the Mesa State panel said.
“Housing is a huge issue everywhere, and it affects everything else we talk about,” said John Redifer, Mesa State Natural Resources and Land Use Policy Institute director, who led the presentation.
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There is not much more available housing in the region, which drives up property values and costs. Without housing, businesses cannot bring in new workers – including new doctors – which creates a wage competition that drives up salaries for the existing workforce.
When wages increase across the board, it forces the economy to adjust by raising prices across the board, which is called inflation.
High wages also can discourage businesses from coming to the area, or convince existing businesses to leave the area.
The lack of housing also increases the number of transient workers, most notably in the energy and construction industries, said Georgann Jouflas, who worked as part of the Mesa State team and helped deliver the presentation.
Transient workers, who are typically underinsured, Jouflas said, strain local health care resources and an area’s transportation infrastructure. It’s difficult for local governments to keep up with the increased need because these workers don’t add to the tax base like a permanent resident.
When the panel asked how the audience thought regional governments and other parties could work together to solve these problems, audience members said they had tried, and at this point they didn’t know anymore.
Problems reaching an understanding with Gov. Bill Ritter and his state agencies on local energy development may cause Moffat County to stall and die, Commissioner Saed Tayyara said.
“We don’t know whether we’ll have economic growth or be defunct,” he said. “We’re under the gun all the time by the governor.”
It’s difficult to plan for growth when the community’s economy can drastically change every four years, said Christina Currie, Craig Chamber of Commerce executive director.
Tayyara mentioned he heard recent news that two energy companies might pull out of Colorado all together because of state interference and start operations in Wyoming. He declined to name the companies after the meeting.
Problems with the state don’t end with the dispute about energy exploration, the audience said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has known for years that Highway 13 from Rifle to the Wyoming border is a dangerous highway that needs extensive repairs, City Councilor Ray Beck said.
Despite that, the state has not allocated any money for a project to make that road any safer. The recent project to renovate a few miles is not enough, he added.
“They’re going to do just enough to appease us and think we’re going to go away,” Beck said. “That’s not the case.”
However, when Club 20 Executive Director Reeves Brown asked the audience if they would support new taxes to supplement the state’s transportation budget, no one said they would.
“If the people here, who understand these highway issues firsthand, won’t support that, how are you going to convince the people in populous Jackson County, who have no idea?” Brown said after the presentation.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the good citizens of Colorado are going to realize the need for funding highways until they see it with their own eyes; until the roads turn to gravel, the bridges collapse and the highways crumble.”
But, even if local governments learn to cooperate – which is not easy even at the city and county level – it will be difficult to get any cooperation from the Front Range, said Dave Fleming, Moffat County National Bank manager.
“Even if you pull all these things together, you will run into a brick wall on the Eastern Slope,” he said.
Colorado Department of Local Affairs energy impact grants – made up primarily by severance tax revenue – are Northwest Colorado’s only reprieve to finance growth concerns, Tayyara said.
If state officials continue diving into those funds to use them for other programs in other parts of the state, Moffat County may have to pursue legal action to keep the money in energy impacted counties, Tayyara added.
Where to go from here
The Mesa State panel asked the audience to attend a conference June 13 in Grand Junction, which will include representatives from all five counties. The group hopes to start a process that will eventually end with Northwest Colorado addressing its many long-term and short-term issues.
Audience reaction to an invitation to another meeting seemed lukewarm.
“They didn’t show us any numbers or statistics to give us any guidance,” Currie said.
Any conclusions to the study, or any actions taken afterward, will be provided by its audience across the five counties, Redifer said.
“Whatever recommendations come out of this will come from these folks here,” he said. “We have a lot of problems now that are a result of not investing in maintenance and regular infrastructure. We’re trying to have a better method of, through some sort of cooperative leverage, using whatever funding is out there more efficiently.”
Anyone interested in viewing the study can find it at http://www.mesastate.edu/index by following the link for “Socioeconomic Impacts of Growth.”