Durango area nonprofit Local First Foundation received a $150,000 gift from an anonymous family foundation to promote business development in Durango.
The nonprofit will do so by supporting causes having to do with affordable housing solutions, increasing the number of health insurance providers and helping businesses incentivize shopping locally.
Local First will use a portion of the funding to advocate for better workforce housing solutions at the city level.
Newly appointed CEO Lauren Berutich said the group will advocate for more deed restricted housing and contribute to housing campaigns like the one that raised $535,000 to help save Westside Mobile Home Park in March 2022.
“The first thing it's doing is it's allowing us to grow our capacity, be present at these meetings and fund some of our advocacy campaigns,” Berutich said.
Local First will also use the funding to educate residents about housing assistance programs that can better help those in the workforce afford to live in Durango.
“A lot of people aren't aware of these opportunities to apply for assistance programs,” Berutich said. “But then we're also just seeing that the majority of the housing developments that are being proposed, unfortunately, don’t allocate a high enough percentage of the development to these deed restricted or affordable spaces.”
In addition to supporting housing initiatives, Local First started meetings for local businesses to discuss issues in the business community or different strategies they can use to attract local customers. The Business Alliance Social Hour will happen every second Wednesday of the month at a different Durango business.
In the organization’s first meeting, 30 business owners attended for a discussion on “how to keep local dollars in Durango.” The theme was driven by news that REI may be coming to Durango.
Thirteen different outdoor recreation businesses were represented at the meeting. The discussion was about how businesses could create messaging that would promote shopping at local stores rather than losing customers to larger retail outlets.
Berutich said Local First did not want to promote “anti-REI” messaging but wants to ensure businesses are doing everything they can to compete if an REI is built in Durango.
“We as a community decided that we want to keep this a really positive and proactive campaign,” Berutich said.
Local First will also continue its efforts to find more affordable health care options for Southwest Colorado. In 2019, Local First teamed up with Peak Health Alliance and through the collaboration were able to bring Bright HealthCare insurance options to the region in 2021.
The move saved La Plata, Montezuma, Dolores and San Juan county residents over $5 million in premiums fees during the two years the health insurance provider was available. However, Bright HealthCare stopped offering individual and family plans at the end of 2022 which means Local First had to find another provider.
“By partnering with Peak Health Alliance, we were able to bring a new carrier into the market,” said Doug McCarthy, an independent health insurance expert and Local First health advocate. “And anytime you introduce competition into the marketplace, economic theory shows that prices go down.”
The goal is to give businesses and employers as many health care options as possible. Berutich said another provider has been found to replace Bright HealthCare, but she could not yet release the name of the company.
“We want to make it a more economically viable environment for local businesses to offer benefits and for more people to get coverage,” McCarthy said.
Furthermore, the organization will be using the funding for health care literacy programs that help employees and employers better understand what is being offered through health insurance plans.