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La Plata Economic Development Alliance executive director to step down

Mike French says ‘good leaders know when to replace themselves’
La Plata Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Mike French (Durango Herald file)

The La Plata Economic Development Alliance will have a new face heading the organization this summer.

On Wednesday, Executive Director Mike French announced he is stepping down from the position. His successor will be Deputy Director Sarah Tober.

The La Plata Economic Development Alliance is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a sustainable economy and developing a strong local workforce. It employs 10 workers.

Tober will take over on June 1.

She has been one of the organization’s main points of contact in recent years. She has also led other nonprofits such as DarkSky Colorado and the Local First Foundation.

French’s tenure began in March 2020, a month before COVID-19 shut down many businesses.

“Good leaders know when and how to replace themselves. And you always look to build a successor and empower them,” French said. “I feel like Sarah’s really where she needs to be to infuse new energy and she has deep institutional knowledge in our programming.”

In recent years, the Alliance has been working toward workforce housing solutions in La Plata County.

Under French’s direction, the Alliance’s staff has worked with the Regional Housing Alliance to design a three-year housing investment strategy for the area, as well as a revolving loan fund, a catalyst fund for predevelopment funding and Rental Assistance programs.

The Catalyst Fund is a predevelopment initiative created by the Alliance and its consultant team, Project Moxie, to identify potential housing projects throughout the county.

Early-stage development costs are critical to determining project feasibility and are often underfunded or not funded at all. The Catalyst Fund is intended to prevent those costs from creating roadblocks that prevent housing projects from getting underway.

The state of Colorado also awarded the Alliance a three-year Opportunity Now workforce development grant last year so that the Alliance and Fort Lewis College could collaborate to establish several microcertificates.

French said the Alliance is unique because of its efforts to find workforce housing solutions.

“Traditional economic development organizations really focus on recruitment, retention and economic growth,” French said.

But because of La Plata County’s cost of living and a lack of available labor force, it presents the Alliance with unconventional challenges.

“We’re not going to recruit a decent-size firm into our community, because there’s no place for their workforce to live, nor do they have an available workforce right now,” French said.

He would like to see the organization continue with its progressive approach and believes Tober is the right person to keep the organization on that path.

French made it clear the sudden change was not because he is leaving the area or taking another job. Instead, it’s about continuity and understanding when it’s time for a new leader.

Also, he says the organization is in good shape for Tober to take over.

“We have two years of funding tee’d up for all of our programming. Fiscally, we’re in as good a shape as we’ve ever been,” he said.

Rather than having the Alliance’s board of directors take on a national search, it was easier for French to develop a succession plan for his resignation. Tober has vast experience working for nonprofits and with the Alliance, he said.

“Mike has been extraordinarily impactful in the last 4½ years he has led the organization,” said Steve Elias, chairman of the board and dean of FLC Katz School of Business, in a news release. “He and his team have brought millions of dollars into our community, improved our balance sheet by 500%, and more than tripled our reserves. We are in incredible shape in our programs and finances to undergo this succession plan with Sarah. The board is extremely impressed with her approach and experience.”

Tober said discussions about taking over French’s role as executive director had been going on for almost a year before the announcement.

Moving forward, Tober would like to continue to build on the organization’s efforts on workforce housing solutions.

“We are looking for a sustainable revenue stream for the RHA,” she said. “That’s never been done before.”

Tober said the organization must leverage some local funds and find state resources to help ensure the RHA has a sustainable financial backing and staff. Also, the organization will look to establish a housing needs assessment for La Plata County.

The assessment will give the county and the Alliance a better idea of where the area’s workforce lives, commutes from and what is needed for housing infrastructure.

Tober has also played an instrumental role in compiling data on La Plata County’s early child care needs. In collaboration with the RHA, the city of Durango and the county, the Alliance is applying for a Rural Economic Development Initiative grant to help commission an early child hood education investment strategy.

This will be similar to the Alliance’s workforce housing investment strategy, Tober said.

French’s last day with the organization will be July 1.


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