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Economic opportunities lie in ag, tourism, manufacturing

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After months of stakeholder meetings and in-depth analysis, an economic recovery plan is taking shape for Delta and Gunnison counties. The plan was funded by a U.S. economic development assistance grant administered by Region 10, with partnerships from cities, counties and the Department of Local Affairs. The purpose of the grant is to improve and enhance the economic resiliency and sustainability of Delta and Gunnison counties in the wake of coal mine layoffs.

"This certainly doesn't mean that we don't feel we should do everything possible to save our coal jobs, but it's being realistic about moving our economy forward and not being quite so dependent on that one source of revenue for our communities," Michelle Haynes, Region 10 director, explained at a city council work session last week.

Through a competitive application process, Better City was selected as project consultant. Since January, the firm has completed an economic assessment, market analysis and a report with recommended projects and action plans. Each step was vetted through a steering committee comprised of the board of directors of Delta County Economic Development. Agriculture, manufacturing and tourism were identified as having the greatest potential for bringing outside money into Delta County.

The discussion narrowed to two potential projects that are now the focus of feasibility studies -- projects that will "put Delta County on the radar for the things we're great at," said Trish Thibodo, DCED director.

The first is a "gateway" riverfront development that would be located in Delta, but would be a "statement" for all of Delta County. The centerpiece would be a nationally branded hotel with conference center and a restaurant located along the river. Eventually, riverfront development would tie in with Confluence Park and the recreation center to the west and city-owned riverfront property to the west, as well as downtown Delta.

"Located at the intersection of Highway 50 and 92, this project will help differentiate Delta, create improved quality of life and bring an additional 'cool factor' to living in Delta," Haynes and Thibodo said in the presentation.

The second feasibility study focuses on food manufacturing opportunities that take advantage of locally sourced products, including fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, wine and ciders. A "signature retail venue" could tie in to the riverfront development and its visibility "would let visitors know they have arrived at a hub for agricultural excellence."

Other projects identified by Better Cities would also tie in nicely, "but this is where it gets hard because we would love to do everything," said Haynes. "You'll see this theme around food, around sustainable agriculture, and using that to put Delta on the radar nationally."

Delta County is already known for its expertise in organic production and soil health. There are opportunities to partner with academic institutions and pursue opportunities to bring world-class agricultural research into the county, Haynes and Thibodo said said.

There's also an opportunity to enhance tourism by improving and promoting the county's recreational assets.

While all these projects are linked, and will help raise the profile of Delta County, the feasibility studies will focus on just the gateway and food manufacturing projects.

Taking place on a parallel track is the effort to extend broadband throughout the Delta-Montrose area. "We specifically told Better Cities not to address broadband," Thibodo said. "We're working on that separately, but we realize we need it to make all of this go forward."

"Our goal at DCED is to get broadband into our communities as fast as we can," she said.

"We don't feel like there's time to wait on any of it," Haynes said. "We want to make sure we're working on it all together."

The feasibility studies will be completed by the end of the year, and Haynes expects to meet with city council again after the holidays to discuss the specifics.

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