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Blueprint aims to buoy rural Colorado economies

Governor’s plan lacks details, funds, according to some

Bridging the economic divide between the Front Range and rural Colorado could require millions in state investment for priorities such as transportation, renewable energy and high-speed internet.

Gov. Jared Polis’ recently released Rural Economic Blueprint called out infrastructure, energy and health care, among other economic development investments, that the state plans to support in rural Colorado.

The governor’s acknowledgment of the economic divide and commitment to extra resources for rural Colorado is valuable, said Laura Lewis Marchino, executive director of Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.

“We are excited to have additional programming, grants, resources,” she said.

The plan highlights important goals and ideas, but it lacks details about implementation, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.

“There is no, ‘How we are going to get there by doing X, Y and Z.’ That’s my concern,” she said.

Transportation funding

The plan describes Colorado roadways as “the lifeblood” of local economies and acknowledges that Colorado has some of the worst rural roads and highways.

To address the problems, the state plans to spend $110 million each year for the next three years on resurfacing rural roads and highways, the blueprint says.

However, Colorado likely needs voters to approve a statewide tax increase to pay for needed transportation projects, Gillow-Wiles said.

Colorado has some of the worst rural highways and roads in the country, according to the governor’s recently released Rural Economic Blueprint. Some roads, such U.S. Highway 160 between Bayfield and Durango, need to be widened.

Voters have turned down three ballot questions in the last two years that would have increased funding for transportation by much larger margins and funded projects such as highway widening.

Durango Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jack Llewellyn said he would like to see a countywide tax that could be used to fix roads, rather than relying on statewide ballot questions, largely decided by statewide voters.

“The vast number of voters up there (on the Front Range) decide what the rest of the state is going to have,” he said.

Llewellyn said he is interested in a use tax on vehicles to raise revenues for roads. While the revenue wouldn’t be enough for all the area’s needs, it would be a start, he said.

Similar proposals to raise taxes in Front Range communities for their projects have also been floated, Gillow-Wiles said.

However, if the Front Range raises taxes just for its transportation problems, it could doom a statewide measure that would support rural areas, she said.

“It’s not possible for the rural areas to fund transportation ourselves,” she said.

Bringing in high-speed internet

The state aims to ensure broadband reaches 100% of rural households by 2024, up from 86% of households currently. It has set aside $5 million annually for the next five years to support the expansion of infrastructure, the plan said.

Gillow-Wiles said the current designation is a “drop in the bucket compared to what is actually needed.”

High-speed internet infrastructure across Southwest Colorado would require $75 million, she said.

Putting in high-speed internet infrastructure across rural Colorado would likely require far more funding than the state has set aside.

Investing in rural broadband is key to economic development because it can support business growth and remote workers who bring in dollars from outside the community that will then circulate as those employees purchase goods, she said in a previous interview.

Cutting health care costs

The state’s goal to lower the cost of health care, could bolster the Southwest Colorado economy by taking financial pressure off residents and businesses, said Monique DiGiorgio, the executive director of Local First, a nonprofit that represents independent businesses and nonprofits.

“Health care prices have become equivalent to paying a mortgage, making it challenging for people to pay for other important day-to-day necessities like healthy, organic and locally grown food. Health care costs also make it more challenging for employers to retain quality staff and offer comprehensive benefit packages,” she said.

The state has expressed support for the Southwest Health Alliance, a group working to lower health care costs for businesses and employers in this corner of the state, she said.

Transition to renewable energy

The state’s blueprint commits to providing grants to communities like Durango that have set goals to transition to 100% renewable electricity. The state expects renewable energy to create new jobs and benefit communities across the state.

Renewable energy projects could put more money in rural Colorado communities.

The state set aside $2 million for planning and $10 million for implementation of renewable energy projects in communities statewide.

If La Plata and Archuleta counties could produce just 10% of their own power, it could keep about $7 million recirculating in the economy, DiGiorgio said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

Rural Economic Blueprint (PDF)

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