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Town seeks new direction for economic development

In the continuing discussion of economic development, and with ongoing questions regarding the relevancy and utility of the Archuleta Economic Development Association (AEDA), the Pagosa Springs Town Council met last Thursday in a work session designed to address the direction of the local economy.

Council member Mark Weiler led the discussion, using Parelli as an example for developing a vision, mission and goals for his starting point.

“I would like to propose that economic development becomes the linchpin of this board over the next several years,” Weiler said.

To those ends, Weiler proposed funding an economic development organization — whether the Archuleta Economic Development Association (AEDE) or some other iteration — to the tune of $200,000 a year. According to Weiler, the funding would result from splitting the bill four ways, between the town, county, the local business community and taking from AEDA reserves (which currently amount to about $150,000).

Asked how the town would fund its portion of $200,000 proposed for economic development, Weiler suggested that the money would come from refinancing town capital assets — a renegotiation of the loan on the Ross Aragon Community Center and money borrowed against Town Hall, an asset the town owns outright.

According to Weiler, the $200,000 would pay a full-time economic development director as well as the publication of a guide (similar to the Visitor’s Guide) that would encourage business owners to relocate to the area.

However, it was the proposed funding scheme of refinancing that bothered some members of council. “I have a real problem with refinancing assets that are paid for or almost paid for,” said council member Shari Pierce.

However, Weiler was adamant that the town needed to approach economic development in a new way, with a commitment to providing adequate resources towards that endeavor. “We need to do something different,” Weiler said, “if we expect a different result.”

To that point, Weiler referred to Bart Mitchell, former executive director of the AEDA who resigned last month. Weiler said, “We had a wonderful human being in Bart, but we sent him into a nuclear war with a slingshot. I would like us to consider a redeployment of our personnel assets against different objectives.”

Pointing to Sheila Berger, Special Projects Manager for the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and former Special Projects Manager for Archuleta County, Weiler held up Berger as an example of local government talent that the town would do well to emulate.

Saying he admired the work Berger had done for the county (she was largely instrumental in drafting Ballot issue 1A which resulted in an estimated $5-6 million in revenues for county roads, parks and technology), Weiler’s point was driven home as he illustrated Berger’s accomplishments since she’d moved to PAWSD. “The return on investment on Sheila for her first year at PAWS was 4,500 percent,” he said.

Earlier this year, PAWSD was awarded $9.3 million in federal grants, largely due to Berger’s efforts.

Mentioning current county Special Projects Manager Karin Kohake and Southwest Land Alliance Executive Director Michael Whiting as further examples of local talent instrumental in bringing money to the area, Weiler emphasized that the town needed to look at how it could refine similar resources for chasing down state and federal dollars.

“I would like to develop a department of grants from the current personnel pool,” he said.

Currently, the town relies on staff to pursue grants — even if grant research or writing is beyond their ken.

Hearing Weiler’s outline for developing economic development goals at the local level, council members appeared supportive if not, at times, somewhat skeptical.

“As they say, the devil is in the details,” said council member Stan Holt. “I have no problem refinancing the community center, but I think we need to get some really firm commitments before we go any further.”

In response, Weiler said that the county had unofficially stated support for the idea. In fact, during a joint town/county work session in mid-October, Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte stated that the county would commit funds and administrative assistance towards sustaining the AEDA.

Also responding to the concern of funding, AEDA vice-president Marion Francis said, “I can’t speak for the board but I don’t think we have a problem with that.”

Saying, “I do think we need to have some form of an economic development organization,” Pierce asked Francis if the AEDA would get behind an organization supplanting the current AEDA.

“I think they have the ability and the will to transition to a different model,” Francis replied.

In fact, Weiler implied several times during the meeting that, whatever economic development scheme the town decides on, it would entail change of direction.

“I think we’ve created an environment where we view things differently,” Weiler said. “Is what got us here going to get us into the future? I submit that it will not.”

Still, some council members stated they felt the town needed to address issues within its legislative domain if it intended to seriously tackle proposed economic development.

“I think we have some fundamental things we need to fix before we proceed with economic development,” said Pierce, using complications with the building and planning process as an example. “I’ve talked with some business men that I respect and they’ve said we need to let free enterprise take care of itself.”

“I have some problems with how we deal with free enterprise,” said council member Darrel Cotton. “Even if we invite business here, when they come here and stumble on our Riverwalk and drive on bad roads, they’re not coming back ... we need to fix ourselves first.”

Yet, despite some questions and misgivings, council stated a willingness to return to Weiler’s discussion as plans became clearer.

Given council’s apparent support for moving forward in a different direction for economic development, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem asked council if it would consider a policy to those ends and, if so, how it would approach such policy.

“Are you going to be proactive or reactive? There’s a whole different set of tactics that goes with being proactive,” Mitchem said. “I would recommend that you are proactive.”

Indeed, while Weiler’s proposal for economic development remains somewhat lacking in detail at this point, the scheme appears to suggest an entirely different direction towards economic development for the town, a direction that seemed to encourage one member of the audience.

“This is the first time I’ve been here that I’ve been inspired,” said local business owner Morgan Murri, speaking from the audience. “I would support what you’re doing one thousand percent.”

The town awaits commitments from the county, the AEDA and local business owners for raising the $200,000 to back Weiler’s plan for economic development. Likewise, what form economic development takes in the area — whether the choice is to retain the AEDA or to form another economic development organization — continues to be a topic of discussion between the town, county and local businesses. Finally, it is uncertain whether council will allow the town to go into hock at the behest of funding economic development.

However the town decides to proceed with economic development, the Nov. 5 work session illustrated the town’s willingness to consider a different approach to a dire situation.

jim@pagosasun.com