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Regional economic strategy targets housing, infrastructure goals

Report also addresses using natural lands to support economy
Johnna Bronson, owner of Lively (a boutique), works the cash register Wednesday at the store on Main Avenue in downtown Durango. Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado released Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies for La Plata, Dolores, Archuleta, Montezuma and San Juan counties, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The sixth edition of Southwest Colorado’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy identified what La Plata County stakeholders prioritize most for the county’s economic development.

Highlights include the provision of affordable and attainable housing, addressing homelessness, the need for regional infrastructure improvements and using the county’s natural lands as key economic drivers.

The report is developed by Region 9 Development District of Southwest Colorado through local engagement with economic development groups, government entities, nonprofits, education institutions, business owners and the general public.

The county’s economic priorities are determined partially from Community Development Action Plans, which are economic projects approved by La Plata County commissioners.

Projects listed in the Community Development Action Plans and the greater economic strategy are advantaged in receiving funding because they show verified community support. This year, commissioners approved 63 CDAP projects, many of which contribute to addressing the priorities listed in the report.

To view all the projects, visit www.region9edd.org/comprehensive-economic-development-strategy.

Affordable housing and addressing homelessness

La Plata County, and especially Durango, struggle to provide workforce housing because of the high costs of building and low housing stock, which is partially driven by affluent remote workers moving to the area. Across all industries, the average annual wage in La Plata County is $47,936, which is only 70% of the $68,120 estimated livable wage for a family with two children, according to the report.

The cost of living in Durango prevents many Durango workers from living in the city. In the report, a study from 2018 showed that about half of Durango workers commuted into the city from elsewhere.

La Plata County commuter data from the 2021 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. (Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado)

There are several CDAP projects intended to address the concerns, like the revitalization of the Regional Housing Alliance in Durango, and Habitat for Humanity’s proposed completion of the Fox Farm Village affordable housing project in Bayfield.

While providing affordable housing partially addresses the rise of homelessness, particularly in Durango, one high priority CDAP project seeks to tackle the issue from all directions. The strategy was developed by county representatives, law enforcement and nonprofits. The proposed initiative covers enhancing community coordination, providing a range of housing and shelter needs, ensuring health services are available and affordable, improving community safety (especially regarding substance abuse), providing more work opportunities and building an inclusive sense of community.

To read more about Durango’s strategy for addressing homelessness, visit www.durangogov.org/DocumentCenter/View/16571/D-LPC-Strategic-Plan-on-Homelessness---Final.

Infrastructure improvements

Almost half of the CDAP projects involve making improvements to infrastructure.

One project proposes infrastructure development to support a new economic development area in proximity to Durango-La Plata County Airport.

An aerial view of the La Plata County Airport. (Durango Herald file)

One Bayfield initiative seeks to make critical investments in the town’s infrastructure, including developing new branding, renewing streets and sidewalks, increasing amenities for tourism, pursuing a major employer with primary jobs, and recruiting national chain retail stores to the area.

There are large transit projects in the CDAPs, including outrider transit service between Durango and Pagosa Springs, Durango and Dove Creek, and from Durango city limits to the airport, Hermosa, Durango West, Hesperus and Edgemont.

According to the report, La Plata County’s population is expected to grow at a moderate rate through 2035. Many of the projects listed in the CDAP seek to address the need for infrastructure upkeep as the population grows.

Using natural lands as economic drivers

The report says, “The available natural resources make the county an attractive place to live and work and are a draw to outdoor enthusiasts,” and that these resources should be used as economic drivers.

One CDAP project seeks to further develop Durango Mesa Park, to encourage more public and private recreation activities.

View of Durango Mesa Park. (Durango Herald file)

There are several proposed initiatives in the CDAPs that encourage appropriate use and responsible management of natural lands for economic development. A USDA grant has already been awarded to La Plata County community partners to re-establish a regional food system that leverages the county’s rural assets by driving economic development, workforce development, environmental stewardship and social equity.

While affordable child care was highlighted as one of the economic priorities for La Plata County, there were no CDAP projects addressing it.

“We imagine that (regarding child care over these next two years) there will be not only funding but the ability to address some of the child care shortages that are in the area. We are not sure exactly what that looks like right now,” said Heather Otter, economic development project manager for Region 9.

This year’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy recognizes that economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is a top priority in many community discussions. While COVID-19 recovery isn’t directly discussed in the report, it remains relevant in many of the economic development initiatives.

kpercival@durangoherald.com

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