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Routt County, 4 others in Northwest Colorado now part of economic development district

Designation identifies economic goals for the region, makes it more competitive for grant funding

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County’s relatively healthy economy boosts the regional economy of Northwest Colorado, which, amid economic distress, was recently designated an economic development district.

Routt County is included in an economic development district formed by the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, which also includes Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield and Mesa counties. This designation from the U.S. Economic Development Administration is anticipated to make Northwest Colorado more competitive for federal grants to maintain and upgrade infrastructure, boost the workforce and ensure healthy communities.

As part of its economic development district application, AGNC, alongside community leaders in each of its five counties, created a region-wide strategic plan using grant funds from the Economic Development Administration. This plan outlines the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats within each county in AGNC and sets region-wide goals.

The plan notes that while Colorado has recovered from the 2008 recession to have one of the best economies in the U.S., Northwest Colorado as a whole has not. Slow job growth, stagnating population growth, job loss in coal, oil and gas industries and job growth in low-wage retail jobs are indicators of economic distress in Northwest Colorado, according to the plan.

Routt County is the only county in the region experiencing relative economic health, according to the plan. Some of the criteria considered when forming an economic development district included unemployment rates greater than the national average, per capita income that is 80% less than the national average and any special needs in the regional economy.

“Just looking at the data, Routt County appears to be a shining exception of economic prosperity in the region,” the report states. “The county has numerous strengths that make it an attractive place for people to visit, start and expand business, and relocate to.”

However, the report names challenges the county faces, including the cost of housing, childcare and healthcare. With housing “virtually unaffordable for the average employee,” much of the workforce lives outside of the area, putting pressure on the region’s transportation system, according to the document.

The plan identifies opportunities to address the cost of housing and services in the county, improve broadband to attract location-neutral jobs and balance residential and commercial development. 

By the numbers

24-month average unemployment rate as of October 2017

Routt County: 2.46%
Northwest Colorado: 4.03%
United States: 4.65%

2016 per-capita personal income

Routt County: $71,167
Northwest Colorado: $45,998
United States: $49,246

Source: Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado

But it’s not a game of winners and losers, according to John Bristol, director of economic development for Steamboat Springs and Routt County at the Steamboat Springs Chamber, who said “it’s really hard to draw a line around an economy in a single county or community.”

He used the Yampa Valley as an example, saying Moffat and Routt counties are “attached at the hip.”

“They are so important to one another and the functioning of the economy up and down the valley from Toponas to Dinosaur,” he said. “We’ve got movement of goods and services and the workforce up and down U.S. 40, and that is so important. We have to be working together as a region and then think even larger across all five counties. … It’s got to be everybody working together and talking together and moving in the same direction.”

This plan sets four overarching goals, according to a document on AGNC’s website:

  • A robust and resilient economy,
  • Vibrant and healthy communities,
  • A ready and willing workforce and
  • Extraordinary infrastructure.

Within each of these larger goals are smaller goals, such as affordable, reliable broadband that can be expanded and improved access to public lands for multiple uses.

In creating this region-wide strategic plan and receiving designation as an economic development district, Northwest Colorado can make a stronger case as it applies for federal grants. The AGNC counties are also the only counties on the Western Slope that are not in the boundaries of an economic development district.

“We’re in competition with communities across the U.S., so any added advantage that we can get when we’re going after federal dollars — we should be doing that,” Bristol said.

Bristol explained the plan shows there have been conversations among economic development leaders and local governments in the region to plan for the future.

“There’s planning in place, and folks are working together and collaborating to come up with plans to look at the big picture,” Bristol said. “In Colorado and the West, we’ve seen boom and bust cycles with oil and gas, and we certainly see some transitions happening in the coal industry with mines and electric generation. This is focusing on diversifying the economy, so across the region, we have more stability and healthier, stronger economy.”

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.


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