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Economic summit stresses rural issues

Business, government, land-use need to work together to benefit local economies, speakers say

There are two national economic trends for rural communities, and neither of them is good, La Plata County Economic Development Alliance Director Roger Zalneraitis told participants at the alliance's 10th annual Economic Summit on Oct. 26 at Sky Ute Casino.

The first, he said, is that the local economy stalls, communities struggle, and people start to leave. "That's the future for most of rural America," he said.

The second trend, especially in the Rocky Mountains, is to become a community only the rich can afford. Many Rocky Mountain towns are doing very well economically, but they are growing very slowly, he said. That pushes up real estate prices. "You start pricing people out until it becomes a trophy community for wealthy retirees. Many towns will go that way. We don't want that."

He presented a third option, to be a healthy, vibrant region where people can make a living.

"We have to be proactive to achieve that vision," he said. "We can't just rely on the Internet or the airport." The county needs housing, workforce development, a better land use permitting process, and more ways to attract and keep talented workers.

"Nobody can go it alone" to achieve option three, Zalneraitis said and urged audience members, "Help us make this future happen. We all need to be working toward that together. Speak up for the actions we'll have to take to make this vision happen."

The economic summit audience included representatives from banking, finance and real estate, business owners, and education and local government representatives.

Zalneraitis spoke briefly to two alliance goals - to have high speed broadband in every part of the county, and a new business park.

High speed broadband around the county will require local governments working with private Internet service providers, he said. And the alliance has determined a new business park isn't needed for now. There's enough existing commercial space in and near Durango for the next 10 years, he said. "We need a process to help companies find affordable spaces."

Randy Trost, a consultant for broadband expansion in rural areas, said, "The biggest reason you don't have broadband today is cost. It's not lack of desire. The CenturyLinks of the world make decisions based on profit and loss." It just costs a lot more per customer to provide service in low customer-density areas.

He noted how much user telecom habits have changed with technology. There was a time when phone company people would snigger when he told them that someday people wouldn't want a land line any more, he said. And now people are dumping cable service for other ways of watching TV programs. "I can get all content through streaming," he said, but that requires bandwidth, as does most new technology.

"Businesses looking to relocate won't come to our community if you don't have bandwidth, no matter how nice the scenery is," Trost advised. More remote areas might have to depend on wireless bandwidth with relay towers rather than running fiber optic cable, he said.

"We are doing a lot of modeling on how to make it work in low density areas," such as public-private partnerships, Trost said. "My hope for you is to look for opportunities to help crack that nut of the cost of providing broadband. We can't afford not to do it. The thing I fear most is to continue to have the haves and have nots between urban and rural areas if we don't all address the issue as a community."

Lunch speaker Joe Minicozzi discussed the economics of land use planning, including how or how not to revitalize traditional downtowns. He described what he called "the sacking of Rome," where he grew up in upstate New York. Rome, N.Y. went into economic decline in the 1970s because of its dependence on heavy manufacturing, he said. Their revitalization effort involved demolishing all the very historic buildings downtown and replacing them with a replica Revolutionary War fort, and creating a pedestrian mall with parking decks.

"We gave 230 checks to businesses to relocate downtown. Eighteen did," he said. Then he showed a picture of Rome, Italy, with a vibrant vegetable market in the street near where he lived for a time.

"Who do you want to be?" he asked. "Who are you learning from?" He urged people to learn from both the positive and negative.

He used his current home of Asheville, North Carolina, as an example of other bad choices, but also the possible tax revenue return on public interest investment in commercial property, including his renovated office building. They couldn't get a bank loan for the improvements. With public interest funded improvements, the building went from a $300,000 taxable value up to $11 million.

Minicozzi presented statistics that in terms of tax revenue per acre, including in Durango, downtown mixed-use properties (such as residential space above a business) bring a much better return than a mall or big box retailer with a giant parking lot. New in-fill buildings downtown have even higher tax benefit, he said. And it's the locally owned businesses that hire local professional services such as attorneys and accountants, he added.

"Cultivate more wealth in the places that are bringing you wealth," he said. He cited a policy in many places to charge lower taxes on larger properties, such as those big box parking lots. "It's easier policy, but it doesn't count the cost of infrastructure to serve the larger property," he said. "Tax policy affects behavior. Don't shoot yourself in the foot. ... Figure out where the cost of infrastructure isn't being met by its tax bill."

The economic summit opened with a presentation by Easton LaChapelle, an engineering wunderkind who grew up and went to school in Mancos. He described how he made his first robotic arm and hand at home for the school science fair. He has given a TED talk, met President Obama, and partnered to start two companies - Unlimited Tomorrow to produce the robotic limbs and get them to people who need them, including with open-source computer information that people can use on their own with a 3-D printer; and one to improve the control and movement of remote-controlled equipment.

"You can do this in Durango!" he said.