Economic growth the focus of Garfield County commissioners candidates panel
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Economic diversity and efforts to attract and retain young professionals and business owners in Garfield County were the main topics addressed by county commissioner hopefuls during a panel discussion hosted by the Roaring Fork Young Professionals on Monday.
The forum provided an opportunity for association members to ask questions of the four candidates seeking election to two seats on the Garfield Board of County Commissioners in the Nov. 6 election.
Two contests are on the ballot, one of which has 16-year incumbent Commissioner John Martin of Glenwood Springs, a Republican, facing challenger Sonja Linman, a Democrat also from Glenwood Springs, for the District 2 seat.
The other race pits first-term incumbent Republican Mike Samson against Democratic challenger Aleks Briedis for the District 3 seat. Both Samson and Briedis are from Rifle.
Although county commissioners must reside in a particular district, they are elected by all voters in the county.
Roaring Fork Young Professionals is an organization made up of business professionals who are mostly in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Foremost on their minds was what county government is doing, or should do, to diversify the local economy. They also were curious what the candidates would do to keep young talent from leaving the area.
Martin said the county has a lot of potential for economic diversity already. But it’s not being maximized, he said.
“I think Garfield County has stepped up to be leaders in many areas, to help people to be inspired to start businesses and to help existing businesses to succeed,” Martin said.
What’s often in the way, he said, is federal policy, a lagging world economy and “a lack of imagination.”
“It’s about hard work and challenge,” he said. “You can’t just sit around and wait for the next thing to entertain you.”
Linman, a longtime local educator who helped start the alternative Yampah Mountain High School in the early 1990s, said there is a “brain drain” away from Garfield County.
Young people go through school here and maybe find a job in the area, or try to return after college, “but then we lose them,” she said.
A lot of that is related to the lack of high-tech jobs and opportunities for advancement in Garfield County, Linman said.
She criticized the county commissioners’ recent revisions to the land-use code as being more focused on relaxing development rules as a way for the county to be more “business friendly,” rather than attracting young talent.
“What we need to bring more business in is innovation, and education,” Linman said.
The high cost of living in the area is also a challenge for young people trying to make a go of it here, she said.
Linman also criticized a recent recommendation from the county’s land-use code advisory committee to remove the affordable housing requirement from the code.
“People need to be able to build a life here, and affordability is part of that,” she said.
Briedis, who has been director of the Rifle Recreation Department for 13 years, said the county should do what it can to expand recreation opportunities as a way to attract and retain younger professionals.
“When people come here, that’s one of the things they’re looking for,” Briedis said. “We have to keep developing our infrastructure to support that.”
Internet access is also a key amenity for young professionals, he said, noting that there are still places in the county where residents don’t have access to high-speed Internet.
“We also need to make sure we continue to have clean air and water, and to maintain opportunities for hunting, fishing, biking and other outdoor activities, and all the other reasons people come here,” Briedis said.
Samson defended the land-use code revisions that have already been made, saying the old code was “outdated and burdensome.”
He also touted the county’s efforts to help economic development organizations, from Carbondale to Parachute, achieve some of their goals to attract new business into the county.
Projects such as providing infrastructure for a new business park in Rifle, the new Parachute interchange, and improvements in downtown Glenwood Springs have also been partially funded by the county.
Samson said that’s been possible, in part, because of the county’s large oil and gas mitigation fund, which he said the current commissioners have maintained despite the downturn in oil and gas drilling activity in the county in recent years.
“We’re also working on hiring a community development coordinator for the county, who will be able to help existing businesses stay open and so we can diversify,” Samson said.
The county’s decision to form a separate Federal Mineral Lease District to award local grants using royalty money from natural resource extraction on public lands was also a sound one, Samson said.
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