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Downtown Institute hosts economic conference

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Photo by Tamie Meck From left, Cedaredge Town Administrator Katie Sickles, intern Greg Brink, and Chamber of Commerce executive director Lisa Martinez peruse a magazine for photos representing Delta County's brand image during last week's Downtown Insti

When an area like Delta County needs to create a new economy, where does it begin?

As Delta County and the communities within it look for opportunities to replace economic losses due to declines at the local, regional and national level in the coal mining industry, numerous organizations and governmental entities are offering businesses and communities help with funding opportunities, workshops, training and other resources.

Last week, Downtown Colorado, Inc. (DCI), held Downtown Institute: Paonia, a two-day conference focused on identifying resources, attracting visitors, and supporting small businesses in Delta County. Representatives from Region 10, Delta County Economic Development, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and the Department of Agriculture all spoke on how they can be a part of the process.

Representatives from the communities of Hotchkiss, Cedaredge, Ridgway, Parachute, Meeker and Englewood also participated in the conference.

DCI is a state-wide association of groups working to make downtowns vibrant. They involve local governments, chambers of commerce, organizations, business improvement and creative districts in the process. In 2010, DCI worked with the City of Delta on an assessment as it prepared to create its alternate truck route. They also worked with the Paradise Theatre through the Save our Screens initiative in its conversion from 35mm film to digital, which allowed the theater to remain open and independent.

"Out of diversity there is often opportunity," said Paonia Mayor Charles Stewart Thursday during the Paonia Community Dialogue portion of the conference. While mines are closing and related funding is going away, "Something very positive is that people are hardworking and energetic. That is our future."

"Paonia is really on the map in a lot of ways," said DCI executive director Katherine Correll. "When I look at Delta County, I see nothing but resources."

In July, state Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne announced in Delta the first round of "Colorado Blueprint 2.0" initiatives through the Colorado Office of Economic Development and Trade. As the county goes through the blueprint process, said DCED Executive director Trish Thibodo, identifying the common threads that run throughout each of the Delta County's communities -- agricultural heritage, quality of life -- will help the county move forward.

With recent mine closures and related job losses, an estimated $67 million in salaries is gone, "And it's devastating to our county," said Thibido. DCED is looking at ways to capture "the low-hanging fruit of what we can do to start to diversify our economy." DCED is currently undergoing feasibility studies on eight potential projects. In Paonia, they are preparing to submit a grant application in partnership with Region 10, Western State Colorado University and the Delta-Montrose Technical College to develop an innovation center at the former Paonia Elementary School, with a goal of creating a culinary arts center.

Region 10 Small Business Development Center director Nancy Murphy said the center can provide capital to businesses in the start-up or expansion phase that have been denied loans from financial institutions. They are also working to entice institutions to lend money and can help provide gap financing that will allow banks to be comfortable in lending money to business entrepreneurs.

Murphy urged small business owners to visit www.region10.net and sign up for business assistance.

Deidre Silbert coordinates the Ridgway Creative District and Colorado Main Street Program. This year the town began work on a $12.5 million CO 62 Ramp Up Project, a partnership between the Colorado Department of Transportation to improve the downtown core, pave streets, construct sidewalks, improve business parking and access, and upgrade storm water drainage. Planning for the project began 10 years ago. Ridgway is very fortunate in that the town supports revitalization efforts, said Silbert, whose position was created by the town in 2013.

Ridgway hosted a DCI conference in 2015. "For us, the community conversation was really an important piece, to have the opportunity to discuss some of the things we thought were priorities and actually come to community consensus," said Silbert.

Silbert sees similarities between Paonia and Ridgway, including the fact they are both located near resort towns and have their own creative districts. Bringing in people from other communities helps drive the conversation and introduce new ideas, said Silbert.

One thing that emerged from last week's conference is that local government is not as engaged as the public would like it to be. "I think engaging local officials and the community holding local officials accountable" is important, said Silbert. While organizations and individuals can work on entrepreneurial endeavors, "You've got to work on the leadership piece too." Silbert said she is "incredibly supported" by the Ridgway town council and mayor John Clark, who attended the Paonia conference. Ridgway is now looking beyond the project and to addressing issues like affordable housing.

Silbert told participants that change "takes patience and a lot of communication," and requires a town government that listens. The bond to pay for the Ridgway ramp-up project was approved by 76 percent of voters, in part because the town was willing to listen.

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