GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Perhaps three dozen business owners, entrepreneurs and other commercially minded folks from the Western Slope crowded into the Roosevelt Room at the Hotel Colorado on Thursday, to hear as much as they could about the state's plans for economic development in the coming months and years.
But rather than just listen, some of the group gave advice and more to the five representatives of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) who sat at a table at the front of the room.
Which, said SBDC Director Kelly Manning, was just as it should have been.
"This is a listening tour for us," she said, introducing the five advisory board members - Pete LeBarre, Dixie Malone, Ron Baalman, Courtney Berg and Jon Maraschin, all with varying business experience in a wide array of fields.
Over the course of an hour and a half, audience members peppered the panel with questions about such issues as overbearing regulation by state bureaucrats, banks that won't lend money for new businesses, and more.
But more than two thirds of the meeting, which lasted from 2-3:30 p.m., and a little more, was taken up by discussion of the potential for economic development opened up by Amendment 64, the voter-approved law passed last November that legalized the growth and use of industrial hemp.
Led by Silt resident Carl McWilliams and Glenwood Springs entrepreneur Barbara Filippone, a small group of industrial hemp advocates held forth for about an hour.
Hemp is botanically similar to marijuana but does not contain the psychotropic compounds that get one "high". It grows well in most temperate climates, is prolific and resistant to drought, pests and chemical pesticides, according to numerous studies.
The production of hemp on Western Slope farms and ranches, McWilliams claimed, can produce "very livable, sustainable jobs in Western Colorado, with industrial hemp as the economic development engine."
But, he told the board and the others in the audience, "We need bold measures now," to capitalize on Amendment 64 and on the growing popularity of hemp products.
He argued that up to $25 million in state funds, which were supposed to come to Western Colorado for business investment, has for some reason not been getting over the Continental Divide.
The funds were to have been routed through certain investment companies, called Certified Capital Companies or CAPCO, McWilliams said, but the companies have failed to do their jobs.
Western Colorado, he said, has been "shut out of economic development funding by state government bureaucracies" that failed their oversight duties by allowing the funds to sit unused.
He said this funding is what is needed by such local entrepreneurs as Filippone, a Glenwood Springs businesswoman who for a dozen years has been building an international business in alternative textiles, including hemp.
Manning and panel member Maraschin, a former commercial banker, objected to McWilliams' version of events.
They said some of the CAPCO money has made it to the Western Slope, citing a $150,000 SBDC grant that helped business consultant Randi Lowenthal create the Roaring Fork Business Resource Center based in Glenwood Springs.
But Manning also agreed to study a looseleaf binder filled with documents that McWilliams gave her, and to follow up with future conversations about the issues raised.