Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties pursuing regional economic development council

Routt County is working with both Rio Blanco and Moffat counties and municipalities across northwestern Colorado to create an umbrella organization to better coordinate and pursue economic development in the region.

This is not an entirely new entity as it has grown out of a group that included just Routt and Moffat counties with a name centered on the Yampa River. Now named the Northwest Colorado Development Council — a change prompted by the addition of Rio Blanco County and the towns of Meeker and Rangely — the group has already started applying for grants.

Each of the current grants being worked on is mostly about setting up the council, with one already submitted to the Department of Local Affairs that would fund two full-time staff members.

“The idea is looking at what is affecting us regionally,” said Commissioner Tim Redmond, who represents Routt County on the council. “We’re looking at the loss of our coal mines and our generating plants. What do we have as a region that is attractive that we can all start to build together on?”

Redmond said they are still pulling the group together, but in essence the goal right now is “capacity building.”

By capacity building, Redmond said he wants the council to be an economic development tool for counties and municipalities that is not available to them currently, allowing them to pursue opportunities they may not have previously had the resources for.

The three counties have many similarities, like substantial fossil fuel-based industries, but they are also different in several ways. Routt County has a substantial tourist economy where the other counties do not. The nearly 13,000 people in Steamboat Springs make it the largest municipality by far, where Meeker, the largest town in Rio Blanco County, has just 2,500 residents. None of this worries Redmond.

“The one thing we don’t really want to be is in competition with each other, fighting with each other for these opportunities,” Redmond said.

Redmond said he often feels like elected officials on the Western Slope do not get their voices heard in Denver, but this council could hopefully give Northwest Colorado “a larger political voice and a little more political clout.”

Interim County Manager Mark Collins said the Department of Local Affairs, which has awarded almost $30 million in grants in the three counties since 2018, often looks favorably on regional proposals.

Collins said an application for a grant to fund employees for the council to DOLA has been submitted, and he expects a response in the beginning of June. Another grant is due to DOLA later this week that would provide more administrative funding. If awarded, the grants would fund these positions for two years.

The county would be the fiscal agent for these positions, serving as a conduit for the grant funding, Collins said. This has officials leaning toward hiring a contractor or consultant for these positions, rather than an employee on the payroll.

“Honestly, I think it would be best if we keep ourselves as an equal partner with everybody else,” Commissioner Beth Melton said. “Logically speaking, they really should probably be based out of Moffat County, in terms of splitting their time between the three counties.”

Melton suggested that each county could make some space available for those working for the council to use, allowing them to better visit different parts of the county.

“I just foresee that if they spend all of their time in Routt County, there is going to be challenges with that. They end up closer to the staff and the people in that community,” Melton said. “I think there needs to be an expectation that they are in all three communities pretty equally.”

Redmond said he hopes to have people in these positions by late June. Collins said this could be difficult as economic development people are in high demand as the country’s economy crawls out of the pandemic.

For Redmond, he believes that local governments are late to focus on economic development, and there was a time when he didn’t feel it was the government’s role. He sees it differently now, calling the council a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the county and the region.

“We’re all in the same boat, and instead of everybody oaring in different directions, we can come together and agree on what works for us and set a goal and work towards it,” Redmond said. “I think that is a huge sea change in attitude and perspective.”

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