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Democrats look at rural initiative

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Photo by Tamie Meck Delta County High School senior Cidney Fisk is applauded for her talk on youth and politics during a roundtable discussion at the Delta County Democrats' Sept. 19 fundraiser barbecue in Paonia. Engaging today's "millennials," was on

The Delta County Democratic Party announced recently that it is considering forming a chapter of the Colorado Rural Initiative (CRI). The chapter would be one of the first for the newly-formed initiative, said chairman Dick Barkey, of Fort Lupton, who was one of eight speakers at the DCDP's annual barbecue, held Sept. 19 at Paonia.

The CRI was formed last December to give a voice to citizens living in the less-populated rural areas of Colorado. Goals include promoting economic development, improving access to health care and quality public education, protecting the environment, improving communication technology, promoting rural transportation infrastructure, supporting agricultural economic policies that allow family farms and ranches to prosper and sustainable agricultural practices, and healthy food production and distribution practices.

The initiative has established six working committees: organizing, legislative action, agricultural production and food distribution, rural economic development, rural county Democratic party renewal, and natural resources, energy and environment.

One of the issues discussed was how to involve youth in the democratic process. Two millenials -- the generation born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s -- participated in the discussion.

Some of the stereotypes about today's youth are true, said Alex Johnson, executive director of the Western Slope Conservation Center, who chose the topic of millennials. Johnson wore skinny jeans and took notes on his iPhone. He also checked social media prior to the event for any updates, and found nothing.

The political power of the roughly 80 million millennials in the country can't be underestimated, said Johnson. Millennials "entered the workforce during the Great Recession." Most of their lives the U.S. has been at war, and the economy and the job market have changed dramatically. Millennials don't really have the economic stability to pursue more traditional career paths.

As a voting block millennials are skeptical and critical of establishment, said Johnson. Politics can allow for individual, families, groups to find that stability and a livelihood that doesn't make them rich, necessarily, "but that allows them the quality of life, good food, good drink, and good company. I think those are high priorities."

What millennials want, said Johnson, is

". . . to focus on escaping from debt, no promises of richness and wealth that can't be kept, and ways to produce more stability and equity with honesty and humor."

Cidney Fisk, a senior at Delta High School, recently resurrected the school's Colorado Young Democrats chapter. Fisk participates in speech and debate, and has participated in national public speaking contests. She said that political involvement is one of the most important things to advocate for among today's youth.

With a diverse demographic of students, Fisk said she has made some conclusions about what youth find important in rural America, and education is high on the list. Fisk noted that at DHS, many AP classes lack appropriate text books, technology is sub-par to the point of being useless, and clubs like Speech and Debate and Knowledge Bowl "are under-funded and overlooked."

With so much focus on athletics, those focusing on education are at a big disadvantage, said Fisk. While opportunities for higher education exist, they often seem out of reach considering tens of thousands of dollars of debt and unpredictable interest rates.

Fisk told her fellow Democrats that if her peers knew more about candidates like Bernie Sanders and others who believe in education subsidies, they would be more driven to become a part of democracy and educated citizens.

Degradation of the environment is also a growing concern. With renewable energy still in its early stages, "we have to wonder, what will become of our earth. I think that my generation will either be the people who change the world and secure its future, or the ones who continue its degradation."

Cassandra Shenk, founder of Teens on Farms, spoke of the value of young people, and how they "are an untapped resource for our economy and for our community" in a time when many farmers are reaching retirement age.

Shenk said she grew up in rural Montana and was instilled with strong values and work ethics, which has helped her realize the value in engaging young people in agriculture. "We need to provide this opportunity to young people."

Speakers touched on other areas pertinent to the initiative.

Kathy Steckel, executive director of the North Fork Ambulance, spoke of the need to recruit and retain members and pursue grants and other funding mechanisms in order to maintain current service levels.

Loss of ambulance services would hit the more rural areas of the service area hardest, and Somerset lies on the outer bounds of that area. Terry Commander, one of the 90 residents of Somerset, says she sees very little in the way of support for the community. The number of cars that drive through the tiny community is amazing, said Commander, but few actually stop. A good place to start is to recognize that "Somerset is there."

Commander said a master plan has been filed to bring the Ragged Mountain Fire Protection District back to life and construct a substation. The community is proactively seeking plans for infrastructure upgrades for sewer, water and streets, "which is long overdue in Somerset." But it's going to cost a lot of money and won't happen overnight, said Commander.

A lot of people seem to think that Somerset will go away when the mines, which have already filed reclamation plans, said Commander. "Somerset's not going away because of that."

Dr. Brenda Holland with the Families Plus program said that Delta County has "a very critical lack of access" to health care providers. Delta County Memorial Hospital now provides most of the health care needs throughout the county.

Families Plus was awarded a $600,000 federal grant in April for funding its model for treating children with complex needs, said Holland. While the private network of mental health providers is "very weak," the county leads the way nationally in treating children.

County health rankings put Delta County at No. 40 of 59 counties for health care, said Holland. About 27 percent of residents are currently insured through Medicaid. "If you have Medicaid insurance you must go out of county" for dental care.

John Gavan, Delta-Montrose Electric Association board member representing northern Delta County, is deeply involved in bringing high-speed broadband Internet access to Delta and Montrose counties. "We're in the midst of a massive transition . . . from the phone to digital communication," said Gavan.

In addition to the recent awarding of a $5.3 million grant to Region 10 to provide "middle-mile" broadband infrastructure, the region is also on the verge of supplying more energy needs from renewable sources, said Gavan. "It's a very exciting time."

Barkey said he believes the CRI can speak to these and other issues affecting rural communities by reaching across party lines, and solve problems through legislative and other actions.

"Delta County needs support with economic development," said Democratic State Representative Millie Hamner, who represents House District 61, including much of Delta County. She has 35 years of experience in public education and served two years as chair of the Education Committee. Hamner also served as vice chair of the Senate Budget Committee and will be appointed chair in November.

Hamner referred to Senate Bill 282, also known as the "Jump-Start Program for Economically Distressed Counties." The bill provides for "pretty substantial tax incentives to new businesses." But lack of access to things like broadband and quality health care could stand in the way. "All of these things have to come together," said Hamner.

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