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CDC: Pagosans review community assessment

About 80 residents of Pagosa Country — a cross-section of citizens representing businesses, government, nonprofits or other organizations — met Monday afternoon in the Ross Aragon Community Center to hear about and participate in a community assessment conducted by Steve Vassallo, newly appointed as the executive director of the Pagosa Springs Economic Development Corporation.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Pagosa Springs to take the helm of the CDC, Vassallo began interviewing local residents about their views on the community in order to formulate his assessment for the purpose of developing a five year strategic plan for the CDC.

“I met with 105 people, formally and informally,” Vassallo told the audience on Monday.

While the list of people was comprehensive in as far as representing various aspects of the community, one group was noticeably under-represented: residents under the age of 40. In fact, if the list of participants in the assessment that Vassallo presented to attendees on Monday was accurate (101 names were included), only five of the people on the list were in the 18-40 age group — less than 5 percent of respondents for a group that represents over 35 percent of the population in Archuleta County (by 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimates).

In a county top-heavy with retirement age (65 and over) residents — over 20 percent of the county’s population in the Census Bureau estimate, with most as second home owners — over 30 percent of the respondents in the assessment were age 60 or older.

Vassallo conceded that the lack of younger respondents presented a quandary in interpreting the overall results.

“That’s one of the problems with this community,” he said, “there just aren’t that many people under 40 in leadership positions and by bringing high-paying jobs here, we can change that.”

Issues of demographics notwithstanding, Vassallo began Monday’s presentation by explaining how he’d developed the 28 recommendations he would present to the participants, recommendations that the audience voted on later in the meeting for the CDC to prioritize.

Vassallo stated that the recommendations were formulated based on the input he’d received in the interviews, his own experience with community and economic development, and global trends.

Several times in his presentation, Vassallo emphasized the importance of putting local issues in a global perspective. Early into Monday’s meeting, Vassallo cited a recent Newsweek article ranking the best countries in the world in which to live (the U.S. ranked No. 11).

Vassallo is also the president of the Scandinavian American Economic Alliance which, according to the website www.scandinavianamericaneda.org, is “Regional and Global Business Development between the South Central Region of the United States of America and the Scandinavian Counties of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.”

With upgraded broadband infrastructure expected to be in place by next spring, Pagosa Springs could be uniquely positioned to expand its economic base to global markets.

Prior to soliciting audience members for input on how the CDC should prioritize recommendations, Vassallo provided an overview of respondent comments regarding the positives and negatives of the area. Topping the list were comments regarding retail sales leakage (“Seventy percent of our sales tax revenues are being lost to out-of-town businesses. I have never been to a Sam’s Club in Farmington that I haven’t seen at least two people from Archuleta County.”), a lack of jobs (“There is an ongoing struggle for families to survive here because there are not enough jobs to support families.”), the need to nurture a more vital downtown core (“The downtown is not bright enough to attract evening buyers.”), the shortage of daycare (“We have 500 children age five and younger. There are only 200 licensed places within these daycares, thus leaving 300 of our children behind.”) and the slump in development and real estate (“Normally two to three hundred lots are sold annually by my company. Now it’s in the ten to twenty range.”).

Asking the audience if they were prepared to hear the “Top Ten Community Weaknesses,” as well as the top ten strengths, attendees were unanimous in agreeing to hear the negatives — both of which Vassallo presented (see sidebar). Those strengths and weaknesses, Vassallo said, were instrumental in the formulation of the 28 recommendations he would ask the audience to address during the second half of the meeting.

The recommendations, listed in no particular order, were mostly presented by Vassallo with brief introductions and explanations (usually just under two minutes).

The exception was the recommendation regarding November’s ballot initiative 1B for a 1.5 mill levy to increase funding the Archuleta County Education Center’s technology upgrade (which the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners approved on Tuesday for ballot inclusion). That introduction, begun by Vassallo and then reiterated by the Education Center’s Don Goodwin, went well longer than any of the other recommendation’s explanation.

With each recommendation introduced, audience members were asked to rate how the CDC should prioritize the time frame for addressing issues, with 10-9 being within the first six months, 8-7 in months 7-12 and so on, such that a rank of 2-1 represented a time frame of 49-60 months and a zero rank was “Do Not Implement” (the lowest scoring recommendation, promoting Pagosa Springs as a tourist destination for high school reunions, was given a 4.2 rating by the audience).

After considering the recommendations, results were tallied and, not surprisingly, the Ed Center ballot initiative recommendation received the highest score, 9.4, .6 points higher than the next highest-scoring recommendation — scheduling regular, monthly work sessions with “economic development entities” (i.e. Town and County Tourism committees, the Chamber of Commerce, et al.).

Third most exigent with the audience was improving the downtown core of Pagosa Springs (with an 8.6 score), followed by developing a “state-of-the-art” website for the CDC and “a greater focus and emphasis on all existing businesses (both tied with an 8.2 score).

Hiring a community grant writer and “development and regular communication with a ‘VIP’ list of key stakeholders” also finished with a score of 8.0 or above.

Given the apparent median age of the audience at Monday’s meeting, it was probably no surprise that “expansion of our daycare facilities” was ranked 11th as a priority (tied with “establishing a closer link with Fort Lewis College”) and ranked less a priority than 13 other recommendations and just ahead of the “advancing our arts community” recommendation.

Indeed, aside from the daycare issue (and lack thereof), no other recommendations were made that would affect a younger demographic — nothing was said regarding expanded youth activity opportunities or organizations, development of recreational amenities to attract young families, or expansion of affordable workforce housing for young singles or couples.

Conversely, along with the “development and regular communication with a ‘VIP’” recommendation, “the aggressive recruitment of retirees” and “reaching out to the second home owner” suggested a list of recommendations skewed towards a particular demographic and an inherent importance in the CDC’s designation of community development priorities.

It remains to be seen what the CDC will do with the results of Monday’s meeting. According to Vassallo, “On Tuesday (at the next CDC meeting), we’re going to prioritize the priorities,” adding, “we’re going to look at the things that people want.”

When asked what people want, Vassallo responded, “People want growth, they want quality growth.”

In fact, early in the meeting Vassallo claimed that the potential for growth in Archuleta County was well under way, telling the audience, “In my first few weeks here, people out of the woodwork have come to me,” Vassallo said, “about bringing businesses here.”

Nonetheless, the question remains how the CDC will address growth while seemingly ignoring the needs of young residents and families — exactly the demographic that composes a workforce population or potential entrepreneurs.

Furthermore, while stating several times during Monday’s meeting that quality education was an essential predicate for economic development, improved education at the K-12 level was glaringly absent.

Given the results from Monday’s meeting, the CDC’s next task is to sift through the implications and develop an immediate short range plan at its next meeting. The CDC meets Tuesday, Sept. 7, at 4 p.m. in the CDC offices, located at 2800 Cornerstone Dr., upstairs in Suite B-1 (the office building across from Sears in Aspen Village). The public is welcome to attend all CDC meetings.

jim@pagosasun.com