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$49M plan to boost local economy readied

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A proposal for boosting the local economy with a $49 million program supporting organic food production, building tourist amenities, and creating lifestyle enhancements to attract young entrepreneurs from other places has been finalized.

If accepted by the state, the plan aims to bring $1.4 million per year into the county from state government. That money would then free up other funding to pay for a five- to 10-year program of county economy-boosting projects. They would focus on organic food production, marketing and processing; tourism and recreation; and developing and marketing lifestyle amenities to attract a young demographic.

The proposal, developed by consultant Better City of Ogden, Utah, was presented on Dec. 22 to a group of community leaders representing the City of Delta, Delta County, Delta County Economic Development, Region 10, and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

The Better City economic study and proposal have been funded by a federal grant. The estimated $49 million Phase I project as presented last week would encompass an overall plan to create economic diversity in the wake of lost coal mining jobs.

Ultimately, the proposal will require acceptance and support by the governor's office, attendees were told. The presentation made last week at Delta City Hall involves three main components.

• The first would be to develop an "organic center of excellence." The Better City presentation envisages here a "Silicon Valley of Organics." The presentation noted that the organic food industry does not currently have a leading production area; Delta County's organic enterprises could fill that role nationally.

• A second component of the plan would involve the former CSU Rogers Mesa research station. It would become the location of "world-class facilities" developed at the site for food processing and manufacturing. The facilities would allow entrepreneurs to develop processes and technologies tied directly to the county's organic food production enterprises. Businesses to participate in the venture would be heavily recruited.

• A third component of the economic diversification proposal is called "The Gateway Project." This third arm is envisaged as promoting and developing a mix of lifestyle amenities tied to the local outdoor environment. They would include enhancements such as water recreations near downtown for paddle boarding and other popular water sport activities, a new hotel and conference center, commercial developments and housing. As explained, the mix of lifestyle attractions and business enterprise infrastructure would attract a young working demographic called "the creative class."

Members of the creative class, with their technology and networking skills, would produce a critical mass of entrepreneurship and create new business enterprises in the area. They would come to low-cost Delta County from places like Boulder where, it was noted, costs of starting businesses have become extremely high.

At last week's presentation, there was an hour-long review of the Better City proposal for local officials. That was followed by a second showing with State Rep. Yeulin Willett in attendance and with State Sen. Kerry Donovan listening in by speaker phone. Better City principal Matthew Godfrey conducted the computerized presentation remotely via speaker phone.

Officials at the Delta presentation said the proposal hinges on the state's acceptance of the concept, and especially of the funding component. That critical piece of the proposal was explained as a "swap" of roadways that would result in CDOT taking over Delta's ownership of, and bond payments for, the alternate truck route.

Stating that there is precedent in the state for the idea, Godfrey proposed that Delta "swap" its truck route and its associated debt obligation to CDOT in return for the city taking ownership of Highway 50 through downtown. The City of Delta would save money by eliminating its bond payments on the truck route (an amount stated at the meeting as $1.4 million per year). Those savings would then be used instead as seed money and local grant match money to help fund the $49 million Phase I projects in the Better City proposal.

At the Delta meeting there was a sense of urgency that quick action is needed to get the proposal finalized and presented to the governor. The project needs to move forward, said one attendee, "before the story of the county's economic hardship is lost in delay." Godfrey added that a presentation should be made to the governor in the next few weeks if possible.

Strategies were discussed, including the size of the presenting group as well as its membership. It was suggested that Sen. Donovan, a Democrat, be the main presenter to the governor, who is also a Democrat.

Other key points were brought out at the Delta session including:

• In response to a question, proponents of the Better City proposal acknowledged that the number of high paying jobs it would create were "inconsequential."

• It was suggested that the community develop some measuring statistics to boost its case for economic hardship; that was a key element of the successful grant proposal for broadband infrastructure funds. For example, it was noted that the standard unemployment numbers don't capture the economic impact of people who lose jobs and then leave the area. The Oxbow mine has ceased operation. Expansion plans have been set back at another mine, and layoffs due to equipment issues and current market conditions have occurred at another mine.

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