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Economic leader says diversification is key to Durango, La Plata County workforce

Retirees are a growing sector of the population, but where does that leave the labor force?
The lack of affordable housing in Durango and La Plata County affects the workforce. (Durango Herald file)

The lack of affordable housing in Durango and surrounding areas presents immediate problems for existing and prospective working class people who would enjoy living in the area but simply cannot afford a home.

The topic has been under discussion by government officials such as Durango Mayor Kim Baxter, real estate experts such as Bob Allen of Allen & Associates, and housing nonprofits such as HomesFund.

When a lack of affordable housing is coupled with an aging population, sustaining a workforce could become even more difficult, based on data shared by Laura Lewis Marchino, executive director of Region 9 Economic Development District.

She advised Durango City Council that it must make the city a more attractive destination for young people of color and people of diverse racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds if it wants to have a healthy sized workforce throughout the next decade.

Young Americans, particularly those younger than 18, are more diverse today than the generations that came before them, Marchino said last week. Because young people of Hispanic and American Indian descent are making up a larger slice of the population pie, Marchino said, their presence in the workforce that towns, cities and counties are vying to attract will grow larger.

Older populations tend to be less diverse than youthful ones, said Laura Lewis Marchino, executive director of Region 9 Economic Development District. (Courtesy of Region 9 Economic Development District)

“The older we are, the less diverse we are,” Marchino said. “In thinking about that in your (councilors’) jobs, I know for Region 9 we are not diverse. But in 10 years, we better figure out a way to be attractive to folks that maybe have different cultures and do things a little differently, so that we can have workers.”

Marchino was confident the workforce shortage will persist for the long term.

“The workforce shortage is nationwide and will be long term as we are seeing less births, so fewer workers,” Marchino said in an email to The Durango Herald.

La Plata County draws college students, but it is competing with other states and regions in Colorado for those students.

Fewer births results in fewer workers, said Laura Lewis Marchino during the Feb. 15 Durango City Council meeting. (Courtesy of Region 9 Economic Development District)

Some strategies for helping a more diverse workforce prosper that other economic development districts across the nation are deploying can be found at CEDS Central, a resource for economic development districts funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Marchino said the Region 9 Economic Development District is still figuring out its role in workforce diversification, but she said CEDS Central offers examples of strategies that other communities are closely considering.

Such examples include expanding access to financial services and education for people of color; reducing household expenses for people earning less than a living wage; addressing equity and equality for people of color by expanding access to stable housing; advancing tax reform to address systemic inequity; ensuring everyone has access to jobs and services close to their home, including affordable transportation with shorter commutes and fewer transfers; and expansion of digital access.

Other demographics to consider

La Plata County retirees ages 65 and older make up a significant portion of the area’s population, with 10,862 people in that age range – or nearly 20% of the county’s population – as of 2020, according to the Colorado Demography Office.

That older population, currently the fourth largest age group in La Plata County, is expected to grow to a size of 15,417 by 2030, making it the second-largest projected age group. The Demography Office forecasts the largest age group by 2030 to be people in the 45 to 64 age range with a population of 16,936.

The Demography Office’s predictions show the senior age group in the county will likely grow at a faster rate than other age groups.

The population of people younger than 18 consisted of 10,666 people in 2020 and is not expected to break 11,000 within the next eight years. Those 25 to 44 years old may not grow by more than 1,500 by 2030, according to state demography stats.

Currently, half or less than half of all personal income money being generated across the Region 9 district comes from jobs, Marchino said. Retirees’ transfer payments for things such as Social Security in combination with dividends, interest and rents account for 51% of all personal income, according to Region 9 income trends.

Personal income trends in La Plata County and other counties in the Region 9 Economic Development district. Transfer payments (such as for Social Security) and dividend, interest and rent payments account for more personal income across Region 9 than income from employment does. (Courtesy of Region 9 Economic Development)

She said Durango and the county need to consider residency adjustments because more people are commuting to La Plata County to work than there are residential workers. Those commuting workers take their paychecks home with them, outside the county, where that money is saved and spent.

The rate of people migrating to Colorado took a dip in 2020. It is expected to recover somewhat, although that recovery is expected to be followed by another decline in the next decade, Marchino said. That decline is a result of Colorado being less affordable to live than other states.

“We’re starting to be a little too expensive and obviously housing may play a role,” she said.

While Durango and La Plata County should be considering how to attract more diverse young people, the region also needs to think about how to make the area affordable for families, she said.

The county isn’t retaining its resident families at a high enough rate, and that’s one reason there is an absence of workers, Marchino said.

Retaining college students is another strategy that could prove useful.

“When we talk about affordability issues, our region (Region 9) is not as affordable to families,” Marchino said. “It is affordable to retirees because they choose to be here.”

How does all of this tie back to housing? Marchino said demand and interest to move to Durango and La Plata County is high, but affordability, or the lack thereof, is getting in the way of those prospective residents.

Focusing affordable housing opportunities mainly on family homeowners is the best route to success, because families have children and children grow up to join the workforce, she said.


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