Community leaders discuss local issues at Common Ground forum | PostIndependent.com

Community leaders discuss local issues at Common Ground forum

The local economy, immigration and transportation drove much of the discussion at the Post Independent's first Common Ground forum, held last week at the Glenwood Springs Branch Library.

This was the first of four such forums hosted by the Post Independent planned for the year.

The local economy was foremost on Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovksy's mind.

"We all know, it's still raw, the recession we all went through," he said.

Housing costs have returned to prerecession levels, but median household income has dropped as well as the number of jobs in some key sectors, he said.

While Garfield County's median household income sat at about $64,000 (above the state average before the recession) it's more recently dropped about $8,000 per household, bringing Garfield County significantly below the state's median household income.

Combining Garfield County's 22,000 households, that's a loss of about $176 million between 2010 and 2015, said Jankovsky.

And the county has only about 92 percent of the jobs it had in 2008, he said. Two of the biggest job categories hit were in oil and gas (now at only 57 percent of 2008 levels) and construction (now at 68 percent of 2008 job numbers.)

"Those are two categories of the economy of jobs where a blue-collar worker who works hard, who works overtime, can make six figures. We have not recovered on that side," said Jankovsky.

Much of the population also travels into Pitkin County to work in the tourism industry, but the tourism jobs are often seasonal and don't pay a lot, he said.

Regaining that lost, per-housewold wealth will require the long-haul work of economic development, said the commissioner.

"The oil and gas industry, whether you like it or not, will come back in Garfield County. There are 11,000 active wells; you have the second largest reserve of natural gas."

The industry will be in Garfield County for the next 100 years, said Jankovsky, so the task at hand is how to make that kind of economy more stable.

Several of the forum's guests emphasized the interconnectedness of Garfield County's economic issues. Glenwood Springs City Manager Debra Figueroa said she's been on the hunt for an economic development director, but, ironically, the cost of living has been driving all the candidates away.

"We will find an economic development director. And we will start to tackle housing, but these issues are intricately tied together," she said.

The solutions won't happen overnight, and they won't happen without community partners working together, said Figueroa.

Basic infrastructure nationwide is a problem, said Annick Pruett, Rifle city councilwoman. "We have a new water plant that's getting ready to go online. We do not have new transmission lines; those are (50 to 70) years old."

"All of us have infrastructure that needs to be replaced," said Pruett.

It's expensive, but "you cannot have economic development if you don't have water running to your house or to your business. … So I think as a region, this is something we all need to address."

Michelle Hoy, executive vice president of the Mind Springs Mental Health Center, emphasized the impact of workforce shortages on the economy and their overlap with issues in health care, education and many other industries.

Immigration

"Right now, everywhere I go the 800-pound gorilla in the room is immigration and sanctuary cities," said Sheriff Lou Vallario.

"Our economy in this valley and in the U.S. will not work by getting rid of 11 million immigrants," said Mark Gould of Gould Construction, giving the perspective of an employer.

The economy would collapse if the country did this, but the bigger problem now is talk about sending immigrants home, even though no one is realistically considering it, said Gould.

"Basically, the illegal community that is not here with a visa is scared, and that's not fair," he said. "To be living in darkness and afraid to go to school because what if ICE is going to be there … we have to get our hands around this because it's not working."

Jankovsky said that about 28 percent of Garfield County's population is Hispanic, and that number is going to dramatically increase in the near future.

Carrie Hauser, president and CEO of Colorado Mountain College, said those numbers are markedly higher when you look at the Hispanic population in the area's schools, which is an indication of the future workforce.

The younger you look, some of the area's school districts are 70 to 90 percent Hispanic youth, said Hauser.

"They are an important part of our economy, and we're not sending 11 million people across the border," said Jankovsky. "So the rhetoric, to me, is almost unconscionable. Why are we frightening people like this? So much of it is coming from the Anglo community. And yes, it started with the presidential race, but it really is the Anglo community that's continuing this."

Transportation

On the transportation front, Gould proposed selling the Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport and using the money to pay for the long-debated South Bridge project, providing a much needed southern connection between Midland Avenue and Colorado 82.

The "highest and best use" of that property is no longer as an airport, said Gould, also noting the three nearby airports in Rifle, Eagle and Aspen, all of which are equipped for instrument landings while Glenwood's airport is not.

The city could also use that property to provide more affordable housing, said Gould.

South Bridge is estimated to be a $42 million project, and while the county will work with the city on it, it's going to take additional money from the federal government or the Colorado Department of Transportation to make it happen, said Jankovsky.

City Manager Debra Figueroa said selling or redeveloping the airport could reduce the project cost by about $5 million.

From a public safety standpoint, Vallario said, South Bridge is really necessary to give people in the Four Mile area an escape route in case of a natural disaster such as a wildfire.

More common ground

Post Independent Publisher and Editor Randy Essex, who organized the session, said he would draw from the panelists' comments to structure three more Common Ground panels in 2017.

"The idea is to have community conversations quarterly with a panel of people who really understand the issue at hand so people listening in person or reading about the meetings can get ideas for how to help solve our communities' challenges," he said, adding that the Post Independent would study livestreaming the upcoming sessions.

Essex said he hadn't decided what the upcoming topics would be, but was leaning toward immigration, transportation and upvalley-downvalley common interests and relations.

"Almost all of these issues are interconnected," he said. "Our housing crunch means a lot of people have to drive more to get to work. That creates a whole set of family and quality of life issues. It puts pressure on our infrastructure and our institutions, like schools."

He added, "I was really impressed by the insight from these leaders — they gave us a lot to think about."