Steamboat Chamber proposal aims to rethink economic development, widen impact

The proposal to create a separate entity from the Chamber asks Steamboat Springs and Routt County to make larger contributions.

The Steamboat Springs Chamber is asking for more money this year to establish a new economic development organization that would try to broaden that work so it has impacts across Routt County, not just in its urban center.

The proposal would create an affiliate organization to the Chamber called the Routt County Economic Development Corp. This would be a step outside of the Chamber and be set up as a 501(c)3 organization, making it eligible for more state and federal grants.

“This is not our regular proposal that we bring to you,” said Chamber CEO Kara Stoller to the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Monday. “We have heard from (Steamboat Springs) City Council and the county commissioners that there is a desire to have a stronger impact in this area.”

For the past seven years, both the city of Steamboat Springs and the county have given money to the Chamber for economic development, and Stoller said she is proud of what they have done with the funding. Still, it can be hard to make relationships in the county’s other municipalities when the Chamber is so directly tied to Steamboat.

This has led to a growing desire, especially among county commissioners, to ensure that the dollars are making a difference across the county.

“We work really hard to get out to all the municipalities and support them in the best way we can and create partnerships,” Stoller said. “But still, at the end of the day, it’s John (Bristol) coming and introducing himself as the economic development director of the Steamboat Springs Chamber — it can be hard.”

The new corporation would focus its efforts on creating a more unified front for economic development. It would look to entice more local investors — other municipalities, taxing districts like schools and fire districts and potentially even local utilities — to buy in, diversifying the corporation’s funding.

“Utilities are an area that typically invest in economic development because of their revenue base,” said Bristol, adding that taxing districts would be interested because investment would theoretically increase their tax base.

In the past, economic development funding has largely been split three ways between the county, city and Chamber, with each entity giving similar contributions in the past two years. This year, each group put up $69,000.

But the new proposal asks both the county and the city to invest $150,000, while the Chamber’s contribution is lower, at $42,500. Stoller said they would make up for this lesser contribution by getting other investors to buy in, as well.

“It has been a challenge for our small organization to make sure you get to the level that we have,” Stoller said. “But with that, you also see another line of investors. That would also be the responsibility of John and our team to bring them in.”

The corporation would have three full-time employees, including an executive director, a communications manager and a business retention, expansion and industry manager.

Bristol said the goal for this first year would be to expand on several of the economic development programs the Chamber has been building for the past few years.

Among these programs, retaining and expanding local businesses is a top priority, and Bristol said they can support this by better understanding what will allow them to increase sales or hire more employees.

With that, Bristol said the corporation would try to bolster specific local industry clusters that are identified as growing, such as value-added agriculture, outdoor recreation businesses like gear makers, creative industries and location-neutral businesses.

“Those four industry clusters are various opportunities where we can diversify our primary job base, as well as diversify the number of businesses that are operating in our community,” Bristol said. “That is where we see there’s opportunity for potential expansion and greater diversification.”

When it comes to business attraction, which Bristol said is often what people think is economic development’s core goal, it really depends on where the business is located in the county. For Steamboat, Bristol said they are more focused on expansion, because it is difficult for a new company to enter a community that is already dealing with so many challenges around its workforce.

“If we were proactively recruiting in businesses to say, Steamboat, that probably wouldn’t be the best idea because we have other issues,” Bristol said, alluding to local housing and child care shortages. “In other areas of the valley, it would make much more sense to proactively do business recruiting.”

Commissioners did not vote but signaled to the Chamber they were generally favorable toward the proposal, even if some of the details — like the final size of the county’s contribution — still need to be worked out.

Commissioner Tim Corrigan suggested the Chamber likely wouldn’t be able to stand up this organization by Jan. 1, which means money the county put forward could potentially be given with the understanding that it wouldn’t all be used next year.

Corrigan also wanted to understand how the board for this corporation would be put together and how much input the county would have.

“I am very supportive of this concept for sure,” said Commissioner Beth Melton, who said talks about this date back to when she became a commissioner in 2019. “I don’t know if this is too much for us to invest on an ongoing basis. I don’t think it’s too much to invest to get things off the ground.”

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