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Local reps meet with Hickenlooper, discuss projects

Hopes to bring a company to Pagosa Springs, one that would build a 10,000 square-foot data center, create 42 high-paying jobs locally and provide broadband Internet service throughout most of the rural Four Corners area have been revived as local government officials and business leaders met late last month with Governor-elect John Hickenlooper to gain assurances of support for the project.

Meeting with Hickenlooper late last month, those officials and businessmen came away with renewed hope that the Town of Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County could still lure Southwest Colorado Broadband (SWCBB) to the area.

According to Clifford Lucero, chairman of the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (and meeting attendee), Hickenlooper also pledged support for the proposed Geothermal Greenhouse project, as well as a pending biomass energy project.

For the moment, only the biomass energy project appears to be moving forward, funded through a combination of private and public money. Earlier this summer, federal appropriations were denied for the Geothermal Greenhouse project (although the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership continues seeking state and federal funding). Seemingly the least viable of the three, the SWCBB’s proposal for a massive Internet infrastructure expansion and business relocation, appeared to have completely stalled as recently as early this fall.

In August, Denver-based Internet provider SWCBB sought the support of local area governments throughout the Four Corners area to pursue money allocated from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, part of $7.2 billion set aside in the stimulus package by the Obama administration, to develop broadband Internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved rural communities.

The U.S. Commerce Department announced in late September that SWCBB would not be awarded the $27 million in ARRA stimulus funds that it had requested. At that point, it appeared that SWCBB would not have sufficient capital to launch its business to expand and manage broadband services in the Four Corners area.

However, Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (CDC) Executive Director Steve Vassallo (among others) was unwilling to allow an economic development opportunity to pass with the Commerce Department decision.

Communicating with SWCBB CEO Michael McHale over the next few weeks following the Commerce Department decision, both Vassallo and McHale were convinced that not all avenues had been explored for funding. According to Vassallo, SWCBB investors were likewise optimistic, adding an additional $4 million to the initial $13 million in seed money, while also agreeing to a smaller return on investment for a downsized project proposal.

In the midst of discussions with McHale, Vassallo met with Don Marostica, executive director of the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. After telling Marostica about the moribund SWCBB project, Marostica arranged a meeting with Hickenlooper.

Along with Lucero, commissioner-elect Michael Whiting, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem, Mike Alley and Morgan Murri, Vassallo met with Hickenlooper and his staff for about 90 minutes, coming away with a renewed sense of optimism for the SWCBB proposal and the Geothermal Greenhouse project, while feeling that the governor-elect was also excited about the biomass energy project.

However, it was the SWCBB project, with the most potential as an economic driver, that had meeting attendees most excited.

“I feel he was very supportive of the project,” said Lucero. “We need to polish up the plan, but we did get it back on the radar.”

And, as of yesterday, Vassallo continued to express a positive view of the project’s potential while acknowledging that there’s still much work to be done.

“We’re still structuring the deal,” Vassallo said, “It’s still got potential.”

Whether or not increased investor interest and the tacit support of Hickenlooper will help boost the project, its success will certainly bring a noticeable economic benefit to Archuleta County.

jim@pagosasun.com