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Economic stability a hot topic for valley

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Photo by Tamie Meck From left, Chris Faison with Rocky Mountain Dehydrated Foods, Big B's head cider maker Shawn Larson, commercial hemp advocate Lindsey Ballyhoo, Chris Smith with Solar Energy International, Delta County Economic Development executive d

With news of more North Fork Valley mine closures and losses of jobs and tax revenues, attracting business to the North Fork Valley is a hot topic right now. Almost 100 people packed the Paonia Library meeting room last week to hear about all the good things planned and already happening in Delta County.

For one, Delta-Montrose Electric Association recently announced it would invest in high-speed broadband infrastructure in Delta and Montrose counties. The state-of-the-art network will provide up to 1 gigabit per second service for all residences and businesses in Montrose and Delta counties and provide a long list of benefits.

Board member John Gavan, who represents the DMEA service area north of the Montrose County line, called the lack of bandwidth "one of the greatest impediments of developing Delta County." He gave examples, including one local family that started a clothing business in Paonia but was forced to leave because they couldn't send and receive large files.

Gavan was one of five area entrepreneurs to speak last week at "Now What? Changing Economics in the North Fork Valley." The Valley Voices event, co-sponsored by the Paonia Library and Blue Sage Center for the Arts, attracted almost 100 people and filled the library's meeting room.

"This is as big as building the electric system that we built back in 1938-1945," said Gavan. Medical facilities, libraries, businesses and governments, for starters, can benefit greatly. Local schools need about 40 times the amount of bandwidth they currently have to comply with government requirements, said Gavan. It also decreases the time needed to download Netflix movies.

Paonia-based Solar Energy International has trained more than 45,000 individuals from around the world to work in the solar industry in its 43 years. SEI employs about 25 people, about half of whom live in the area, said office manager Chris Smith, who filled in for the regular presenters who were at a solar conference in Dubai.

SEI attracts about 300 students to its training facility on Mathews Lane. It also partners to bring classes to local schools, and has applied with the state Veteran's Administration to allow veterans to train on the GI Bill. That could lead to an increase in students who come to town for hands-on training.

Delta County Economic Development, which has championed broadband, is considering several projects intended to create and retain jobs. Projects are based on recently completed studies, surveys and market analyses funded by a recovery grant.

"We are looking at a new economic vision," said executive director Trish Thibido. She opened with statistics, including that the area has lost more than 560 mining-related jobs, which average $84,000 annually, in recent years. The average county wage is $32,000, said Thibido. "That's a significant difference and that really is impacting our economy."

Delta County is looking to become the leader in specialty food manufacturing and local and healthy agriculture, said Thibido. Projects like a conference center and hotel and recreational facilities are being considered. In an effort to use existing resources, DCED partnered in a feasibility study for the re-creation of the 83-acre former CSU Extension Rogers Mesa facility.

The area also has an abundance of energy sources, said Thibido. Using local resources, it can potentially meet 50 percent of its energy by 2025.

Big B's head cider maker, Shawn Larson, asked the audience to take things back 100 years and think apples. This was once a top-five apple region in the country, said Larson. He wanted to share how a small family-owned business can positively impact the economy both locally and regionally.

Big B's and Delicious Orchards, an 18-acre seasonal farm market, offers a large selection of locally-made products, u-pick fruits and veggies and farm tours. Big B's began in 1973 and now has 12 year-round employees and 10-15 seasonal workers and processes almost a million pounds of Colorado apples and has turned to the Washington market to fill current demands. Their biggest barrier to growth at this time, said Larson, is a lack of apple suppliers.

In 2012 they began making hard cider, the fastest-growing area in alcohol sales, said Larson.

Lindsey Ballyhoo touched on the cannabis industry, which currently employs about 10,000 workers in Colorado. The state recorded almost $1 billion in sales in 2015. But her real passion is in growing hemp. One of its ingredients, cannabidiol, or CBD, is non-psychoactive and the human body has CBD receptors. When that system is lacking in CBD, the immune system begins to break down.

"Not only that," said Ballyhoo, "but hemp has 50,000 uses." A collaboration of locals is looking into growing it, and research continues on its benefits. "There's a lot of opportunity there," said Balleyhoo. Even Olathe corn growers are looking into it.

Chris Faison founded Rocky Mountain Dehydrated Foods. He wants change to be positive. His start-up company, which plans to begin processing frozen foods this year and will add dehydration operations in 2017, will create jobs, contribute to a healthy local food system, and support the ecological systems that support it, said Faison.

"Being Colorado-specific is an unbelievably good marketing strategy and value and testament to the farmers here in this region," said Faison.

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Business, Economy, North Fork
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