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Director selected to move Engage Center forward

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Photo by Pat Sunderland On a white board in the district office, Shawn Gardner (left), director of the Engage Center, and Michael Klouser, director of the Technical College of the Rockies, outline design ideas for renovation of the old City Market buildin

A $680,000 grant to fund start-up operations of the Engage Center has resulted in the hiring of Shawn Gardner as operations director.

The old City Market building in downtown Delta is the "hub" of the Engage Center, but its "spokes" will be located across the county. An additional grant is being sought to assist with renovation of the "hub," but in the meantime, programming at the "spokes" will be rolled out under Gardner's direction.

The Engage Innovation Center is intended to provide entrepreneurial support to help launch new businesses in Delta County with a special focus on value-added food manufacturing, energy and ag-related businesses.

The Technical College of the Rockies is leading the effort to provide resources and support to entrepreneuers looking to start or grow their businesses. It's a path familiar to Gardner, who spent 10 years working with a Christian mission in Mozambique. He witnessed the globalization of Africa, and gradually came to believe in the localization of an economy, especially when it comes to food and energy. While there were some benefits to globalization, the resulting extraction of vital resources left many parts of Africa impoverished. As Gardner studied the situation he was driven to pursue his MBA in international development. He began working with an entrepreneurial chicken farmer who raised 30,000 breeding chickens. Grain and supplies were purchased locally; on the other end of the supply chain, multiple farmers were employed to help raise the chickens. The impact the "value chain" had on people's lives was impressive, Gardner said, and he formed a nonprofit association to help entrepreneurs access community resources.

He will continue that effort in Delta County, matching resources with need to encourage economic development.

It was Gardner's "broad wealth" of knowledge, and his passion for making a difference locally, that makes him a good match for the Engage Center, said Michael Klouser, director of the Technical College of the Rockies.

Gardner recently relocated from Indiana, but is very familiar with western Colorado. His wife is Sarah Smythe, a Delta High School graduate and the daughter of longtime residents Pam and Fred Smythe.

"Everything he brings to the table is what we were looking for," Klouser said. "An added bonus is a significant amount of experience he has in construction and development.

Gardner explains that after he moved back to western Colorado, which he considers "home," he obtained employment as superintendent of a construction company. Just a couple of days on the job, Gardner put his construction experience to work as Engage partners met to discuss design ideas for renovation of the innovation center.

Possibilities include a commercial kitchen, Technical College of the Rockies class space, maker space, business incubation, and office space for Delta County Economic Development, Small Business Development Center, and Gardner himself.

The three-year grant, awarded under the Economic Development Administration as part of the 2017 Assistance to Coal Communities initiative, will also fund an agricultural coordinator. That individual, who has not yet been hired, will coordinate the kitchen incubator program and other ag-related initiatives, and lead the effort to brand and market Delta County products.

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