The Aspen Institute is currently seeking feedback from Rifle city leaders on whether they think using the Rifle Garfield County Airport as an attractive lure for spurring new industry and commerce is viable.
Aspen Institute Director of Community Engagement Evan Zislis told Rifle City Council and staff during a Wednesday workshop the airport could be used to attract new business opportunities like aviation tours, pilot- and military-training courses, skydive operations and more. He said the area could potentially become the “flight and freefall capital of Colorado.
“If the Colorado River Valley could become known for those industries, could we attract manufacturing associated with some of that stuff?” he said.
This idea to drum up new industry stems from a recent move carried out by city managers and local stakeholders from New Castle to Parachute to create what’s called the Colorado River Valley Economic Development Partnership. It’s a concerted effort to bring new businesses to Western Garfield County.
Brainstorming efforts have now led to what Zislis is calling a 40-year vision, which aims to use current infrastructure like the airport to create new options over time to sustain and advance the local economy.
“We started getting everyone’s input,” he explained. “What are the next 100 years of the local economy going to look like? What is it going to be based in? What is it going to be rooted in?”
The Rifle airport itself is the preferred alternative for airports in Aspen and Eagle County during weather closures. Its runway, 7,000-by-100 feet, can accommodate aircraft as large as 727s and 737s. According to aeronautical website airnav.com, the Rifle airport averages 39 aircraft operations per day.
Airport Director and Rifle City Council Member Brian Condie said Garfield County commissioners have, so far, not said whether they support the Aspen Institute proposal to leverage the airport.
Condie said, however, with changing demographics and people continuing to move from cities to more rural places like Rifle, it’s better to take an organized approach to using the airport to bolster the local economy.
“There’s a lot of potential here,” he said.
But Aspen Institute’s proposal sparked some concern from Rifle Mayor Ed Green. He worried bringing in new aviation-related businesses could affect overall airport operations, and that it doesn’t simply cater to places like Aspen.
“One thing that I think is essential is this: These new activities be complementary and don’t overpower (Condie’s) main resource,” he said. “I think a couple other things that I see is, we don’t want this to be disguised as support for the upper valley.
“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it because we want to house our own people.”
Rifle has already been trying to leverage its artificial and natural infrastructure to bolster business. It’s currently building more bike trails at the Grand Hogback. It’s trying to turn Paradise Island into a recreational destination. There are even efforts to create a major rock-climbing celebration in town since Rifle Mountain Park is one of the most highly sought after destinations in the world for rock climbers.
Zislis’ ultimate goal is to garner as much feedback as he can from local leaders while also conducting focus groups addressing this 40-year vision. Based on what he finds out, Aspen Institute’s next step is to go out for grant funding with the aim of spending the funds on a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study.
“This is all about building consensus,” he said.
Post Independent western Garfield County reporter and Assistant Editor Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org